A Hawaiian food blogger once asked me about Seattle’s ramen culture. Knowing how robust it was in Honolulu where the blogger lives, I was apprehensive about answering him. Here was the Seattle area, having as much claim as any big West Coast city to strong economic and cultural ties to Japan, a history of Japanese immigration and community, a good-sized population of Japanese nationals, a respectable ensemble of Japanese restaurants—but, no thriving ramen scene. He asked me at the same time what my favorite ramen restaurant in Seattle was. Well…uh…let me see…hmmm. The email exchange had that flavor. That was three years ago.
Mine wasn’t the only lament. Between the Bay Area and Vancouver, B.C., there really hadn’t been much to get excited about.
Then, serendipity struck. Three high-profile ramen restaurants opened almost immediately since that email conversation. Two of them had Japan connections, the other came up from Southern California.
The Big Three
I’ll call them the Big Three. Santouka, Kukai and Jinya opened for business within a year and a half of each other. Suddenly, there was choice—and quality. These ramenya set up shop on the Eastside, a short drive across the Lake Washington bridges. Why Seattle itself wasn’t the first choice might have to do with demographics, the residence on the Eastside of many Japanese nationals on temporary work visas. Or it could simply be factors like the real estate market, parking, the Eastside’s moneyed clientele and high-tech jobs. I lean toward the demographic reason because the restaurants all opened in Bellevue within a few miles of each other. The Seattle market might still be their plum, which Kukai has begun to exploit with a branch now in Northgate and one imminent in Capitol Hill.
Restaurants had already been serving ramen before the Big Three arrived. When ramen is part of a larger Japanese menu, alarm bells go off in my mind. Ramenya in Japan are focused enterprises that specialize in ramen, and ramen only. Why? Because the making of the broth, the most essential part of the ramen experience, takes time, single-minded dedication and a certain fanaticism for quality. The ingredients and recipes are closely guarded secrets. The best are umami showcases and characterized by an almost indefinable complexity, whether the broth is light (assari) or heavy (kotteri) or somewhere in between. On the kotteri end, my favorite style is tonkotsu, which has a deep and satisfying richness from cooking pork and pork bones over many hours, sometimes a full day, enhanced by flavors of aromatics, seasonings and other (secret) ingredients. I’d be willing to go out on a limb and state that ramen buried in a long list of other menu items is bound to disappoint.
There are full-menu restaurants that do go through the trouble though. In north Seattle, Setsuna has an entire menu section for ramen. Its black garlic oil ramen is unique and praiseworthy, but the same can’t be said for the shio-flavored white ramen. Defying all odds, Fu Lin, no less a Chinese restaurant with an extensive Chinese menu, remarkably serves an exceptional ramen, both broths and noodles of very high quality.
And what about the dedicated ramenya, Aloha Ramen and Samurai Noodles? I found two of Aloha’s noodle soups little more than ordinary (tonkatsu tan tan mein and kalua ramen), but the black sesame ramen quite good. Samurai suffers from inconsistency problems and the kitchen’s occasional careless attention to detail. Its tonkotsu broth is tasty but the noodles have been hit or miss and some pork slices had an off-taste.
Any pretense of crowning the title of The Best Ramen at minimum demands that you’ve eaten at all the acknowledged contenders. I have yet to get to Tsukushinbo. The problem is logistics and timing—the highly regarded ramen is served only at lunchtime on Fridays until it runs out, which happens fast to feed the masses of diners lining up outside. And if the chef of the superb soba at Miyabi 45th is any predictor, her ramen served only on Wednesdays for lunch (as the pop-up Onibaba Ramen) holds great promise.
I’m sure there are other places I haven’t mentioned.
How do the newcomers fare against the locals? They joined the Seattle ramen scene amid great fanfare and anticipation, financed by successful, deep-pocketed companies. Could Goliath slay David?
Let’s start with broth, the most important element of the ramen experience. Before taking a first bite of any ramen, I always go through a little ritual of first sipping a spoonful of the broth. This sets the stage for whatever follows. A weak broth is impossible to overcome. A great one only awaits the noodles for final judgment. It’s obvious that all three new restaurants expend a great deal of effort to make theirs. For comparison purposes, I’ve only had tonkotsu at all three. All were very fine indeed, but there are differences. Kukai’s standard tonkotsu is the saltiest of the three by far. Diners in Japan, I gather, aren’t too concerned about a liberal hand with salt (or MSG for that matter), but it does bother Americans, which may be the reason why Kukai now offers a low-sodium option. Kukai’s low-salt garlic tonkotsu shoyu broth is outstanding. Santouka’s tonkotsu broths are lighter though still milky, with admirable restraint on sodium, the one exception being its overly salty tonkotsu kara miso. Otherwise, theirs is more refined, yet creamy as good tonkotsu should be. On the other hand, Jinya’s is thick, oily and extremely porky. Hands down, it’s my favorite tonkotsu (especially the tonkotsu black), complete with the sticky film that gelatin leaves on the lips and mouth. A robust soup, to be sure, but not coarse or overdone. The difference between Santouka’s and Jinya’s tonkotsu may be that the latter likely cooks the pork and bones at a rolling boil (the traditional method), while Santouka simmers theirs. Still, all three make delicious versions and my preference for Jinya’s doesn’t preclude my enjoying the others in the least.
Tonkotsu is the only broth offered by Santouka, variations being the choice of seasoning (shio, shoyu or miso). Jinya ventures further out with broths made with chicken, combination of pork and chicken, and vegetarian, none of which I’d had yet. For sheer variety, Kukai offers the broadest range of broths, starting with basic shio and shoyu, tonkotsu, miso, chicken and vegetarian. Its pork-based miso ramen, substantial and thick, uses miso imported directly from Hokkaido and its tsukemen has three dipping sauce options, including the one my wife ordered, a concentrated smoky, citrusy tonkotsu. On the lighter side, its yuzu shio ramen has a clean, wonderfully light (assari), citrusy broth.
Without great noodles, there can be no great ramen. It rates almost as highly as broth as a measure of the perfect bowl. Interestingly, there isn’t much to differentiate among the Big Three. All their pastas have the springy firmness from kansui. Ramen noodle making is an art all unto itself that requires special techniques and approaches unlike other pasta. For that reason, it’s rare for ramenya, even in Japan, to make their own noodles. Ditto the Big Three. Outsourcing. A common supplier? Maybe so. It could be none other than legendary Sun Noodle, which actually had its beginnings in Hawaii and whose factories in three states now source many top Japanese restaurants throughout the U.S. Lest you think it’s pretty much the same noodles for everyone, Sun manufactures to spec or, with the help of a consultant, customizes to a restaurant’s broth.
As a broad generalization, the thicker the broth, the thicker the noodle. And vice versa. As examples, the wonderful tsukemen at Kukai features fettucine-wide noodles to go along with a concentrated dipping broth. Kukai’s yuzu shio ramen uses thin, straight-cut noodles to wick up the accompanying broth. And slightly thicker curly noodles stand up better to its miso ramen and garlic tonkotsu shoyu ramen, all the better to grab onto the little particles in the broth.
Secondary to broth and noodles are an assortment of toppings, which may or may not be included in the soup price. The most common is the seasoned egg (ajitsuke tamago), ideally soft-boiled to the stage where the white is set but the yolk anywhere from creamy and runny (my preference) to a little congealed. Typically, after being simmered to the soft-cooked stage, the peeled eggs are steeped in a soy sauce and mirin marinade for added flavor. This gives them a slightly darkened, tannish color. The Big Three all do this. And while the egg will not make or break the ramen I’m eating, it does reflect on the kitchen’s attention to detail. Several times, I’ve come across cold, half-congealed yolks that suggests improper preparation. Jinya’s eggs have been inconsistent, sometimes overly salty, other times right on. Santouka optionally serves its egg cut in half and on the side, which automatically requires a non-runny yolk so as not to present an aesthetic mess. The eggs at Kukai are practically perfect, served whole and hot, the yolk oozing out into the hot broth when chopsticks liberate it from its jacket.
Another essential topping for pork-based broth, such as tonkotsu, are the pork slices (chashu). These are usually made from pork belly, which ideally translates to fork-tender, fatty pieces that fall apart with the gentlest prodding and melt in the mouth. It isn’t that firm pork is inherently bad, just that the silken stuff puts you in a trance-like, white-eyeball state. Santouka’s pork is on the firm, chewy side, which might be a different cut like loin. Maybe it’s a way to get customers to spring for extra-cost chashu, which really is their pork belly. Then, to up the ante, Santouka also tantalizes with rarer pork cheeks (tonkotsu toroniku) at a premium price. I’ve not had the pleasure or inclination. Kukai’s pork is likewise on the chewy side and, frankly, dried out. For mind-altering pork, Jinya has cornered that market here. Each piece is succulent, unctuous, ridiculously tender. The meat breaks apart simply by lifting it out of the broth.
So, whose ramen would I rate as the best, if not in all of Seattle, then among the Big Three? For overall quality and choice, I’d have to vote for Kukai. Every one of its ramen I’ve tasted has been at the very least pretty good. The garlic tonkotsu shoyu ramen is second on my list of favorite ramen. As a bonus, its izakaya menu is quite good. If I want my porky tonkotsu fix though, I’d have to spring for Jinya’s tonkotsu black, #1 on my list. While Santouka delivers very fine ramen, their higher prices, a certain elitist attitude and arbitrary policies are enough to nudge me toward the other two. Regardless, the Seattle area now enjoys some seriously good ramen. The Big Three as a whole represent a new class of ramenya that has raised the bar. Seattle, it’s about time. And all is good. Are more noodle shops on the horizon? I’ll put my money on it. Our Canadian neighbor to the north is still ahead of us on that score, but we’ve had an auspicious beginning.
Related Seattle ramen posts
- Tonkotsu White at Jinya Ramen Bar
- Hokkaido Ramen Santouka: Is the Experience Worth It?
- Tonkotsu Kara Miso Ramen at Santouka
- Kukai Ramen & Izakaya
- Kukai Ramen Revisited
- Ramen at Fu Lin
- Black Garlic Oil Ramen at Setsuna
- Dinner at Setsuna Japanese Restaurant
- Dinner at Aloha Ramen
- Lunch at Samurai Noodle
- Tonkotsu Ramen at Yoe’s Noodles
- Dinner at Coco Ramen and Curry Bar
|Kukai Ramen & Izakaya
14845 Main St
Bellevue, WA 98007
|Jinya Ramen Bar
15600 NE 8th St
Bellevue, WA 98008
|Hokkaiko Ramen Santouka
103 Bellevue Way NE, Suite 3
Bellevue, WA 98004
|Kukai Ramen & Izakaya
319 NE Thornton Pl
Seattle, WA 98125