Do Kukai, Jinya and Santouka Have the Best Ramen in Seattle?


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.

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Kukai Ramen Revisited


Whither the new ramen restaurants? Maybe we’re victims of the digital age where rumors and hype of restaurant openings hit the fan so far in advance that when they finally do open, it’s almost a non-event. Since last fall, Seattle rameniacs have been waiting for the opening of two high-profile restaurants—Shibumi and Jinya. We’re still waiting while staring at the “open soon” promises on the internet. Now, we hear that Santouka, a famous chain from Hokkaido, will be opening its first restaurant in Washington state in April, right here in Bellevue. (It has a big presence in Southern California, more locally in Vancouver, B.C.) I stated before that the greater Seattle area currently has a lackluster ramen scene, certainly not befitting a city of its size on the West Coast that has cultural and economic ties to Japan as well as a good-sized Japanese American community and enough Japanese nationals on work visas to stimulate demand.

When it comes to pass that the newbies do finally open their doors, Seattle will have taken a giant stride toward ramen legitimacy.

Meanwhile, in need of a ramen fix, three of us headed over to Kukai Ramen in Bellevue, a strong contender for the area’s best ramenya. When my wife and I ate there last July, we thought highly of the tonkotsu ramen (☆☆☆½) and tsukemen (☆☆☆). Today, arriving past the noon hour, along with our daughter we waited for a mere 10 minutes before getting seated.

My wife decided on the yuzu shio ramen, which piqued her interest on our last visit. Yuzu is a citrus fruit widely cultivated in Asia, especially Japan and Korea. It seemed unusual that any sort of citrus acidulation would be imagined as a natural complement to a meat-based broth. So it was a surprise that, rather than tasting tartness, the broth only had the fruit’s essence. One explanation is that yuzu zest was used instead, a common cooking technique for adding citrus flavor without the acidity. Condiments included a generous amount of yu choy, finely shredded green onions, spinach, mizuna and a pinch of dried red chile threads (silgochu in Korean). Kukai’s excellent menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) is house-made. The noodles were perfectly cooked. A large slice of roasted pork was tender though unremarkable. The only drawback was a layer of uncooked albumen near the yolk of the seasoned soft-boiled egg (ajitsuke tamago). This was a very fine ramen (☆☆☆½), unusual, savory, with intriguing citrus notes.

Yuzu shio ramen

Yuzu shio ramen

My daughter first picked the tonkotsu ramen from the regular menu. After the waitress left with our order, I noticed on the specials placard that miso ramen was available today. The waitress graciously made the change and recommended the standard broth instead of low-sodium that my daughter wanted with the original tonkotsu order. If it was not to her liking, there would be no problem in switching to the low-sodium version, a gesture that we all thought was very customer-oriented. As it turned out, the regular broth was fine. Miso ramen is a Hokkaido specialty—Kukai even went so far as to use miso from there. The noodles were slightly thicker than those used in the yuzu shio ramen and curly, rather than straight. Complementing this sturdy broth was a serving of sweet corn. Bean sprouts, slice of pork, menma and green onions completed the ingredients in this good ramen (☆☆☆).

Miso ramen

Miso ramen

My spicy ramen—whose hotness level patrons can choose among mild, medium (my choice) or hot—arrived in a milky pork-broth similar to tonkotsu but with the addition of a chile blend and garlic. As in the miso ramen, the noodles were thicker. Yu choy, green onions, bean sprouts, menma and a perfectly cooked egg ($1 extra) were nice additions. The pork slice had a slight off-taste that previously refrigerated or frozen pork can pick up. My rating: a solid ramen (☆☆☆).

Spicy ramen

Spicy ramen

Also doing business as an izakaya, Kukai has a limited selection of small bites, including edamame, gyoza, takoyaki, house salad and onigiri. We wanted to sample their two most popular: chicken wings and chicken karaage (deep-fried marinated chicken). The karaage came to our table first. Boneless chicken thigh pieces, battered with potato starch (katakuriko), were fried to perfection, served with a lemon wedge. Sprinkled with a squeeze of lemon juice, they were crispy, succulent and not in the least greasy, as fine a version as you’re likely to have anywhere (☆☆☆☆).

Chicken wings

Chicken karaage

The wings were similarly faultlessly fried, also coated in potato starch, making them lightly crispy, a pinch of green onions adding color. A scattering of fried garlic bits on top greatly enhanced their appeal. What made these wings even more interesting was a pool of sweetened yuzu juice underneath, a tad sugary for my taste but nevertheless adding to a unique, unconventional and tasty appetizer (☆☆☆½).

Chicken karaage

Chicken wings

With ramen to fill our stomachs, there were enough appetizers left to take home. Regardless of how the ramen newcomers fare, Kukai will likely remain among the best ramen restaurants in the Seattle area.

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Kukai Ramen & Izakaya
14845 Main St
Bellevue, WA 98007
425.243.7527

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Kukai Ramen & Izakaya


The biggest Asian restaurant opening to hit the Eastside since Din Tai Fung has been that of Kukai Ramen & Izakaya. Kukai is a highly successful ramen chain in Japan. The Bellevue branch is the first in the States. No sooner had Kukai opened its doors than the lines started forming. For weeks, you could never get immediately seated, exacerbated by its limited weekday hours when their doors close for 2½ hours in the afternoon. And forget about weekends. You need to have the patience of Job to get a seat. About a month and a half ago, we attempted to go but were confronted by a line outside. We skipped it and went elsewhere.

Today, we were in the area and decided to give Kukai another go. This time, we got seated immediately.

The first thing that we noticed upon entry was the noise level. I’ve ranted before about restaurant cacophony; Kukai is right up there with the worst. We got seated at a two-person table, barely inches away from diners on either side of us. Our waiter informed us that the most popular ramen in Japan is the tonkotsu and the most popular izakaya item, the takoyaki.

For me, the choice was obvious—the tonkotsu. My wife wanted cold noodles to temper the hot weather we’ve been having lately. Her choice was the tsukemen, cold noodles and accompaniments that are dipped in a broth served on the side. Her choice of the broth was tonkotsu, the others being shoyu (soy sauce) and chicken. You would think that the tonkotsu of both our dishes would be the same, but you’d be wrong. I’ll comment on this later.

The tonkotsu ramen (☆☆☆½) broth was delicious, salty, not as porky nor milky as the most genuine versions, but tasty nonetheless. The ramen noodles were perfectly cooked, al dente, and kept their toothsome texture almost to the end. Virtually a hallmark of a great ramen accompaniment is a seasoned half-cooked egg (ajitsuke tamago) with a firm white and creamy yolk, the way the Japanese prefer it. Served whole, Kukai’s was almost perfect with a yolk that was a half congealed. Also included were bean sprouts, pork chashu, shredded green onions and rings of dried red chile. At $11, tonkotsu ramen is not an inexpensive noodle soup.

Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen

Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen (Note: egg cut in half with chopsticks by me)

Diners have the option of choosing a “traditional” or low-sodium broth. Even though I like to watch my sodium intake, the issue of ramen’s saltiness (both fresh and packaged) really comes down to the broth where almost all of it is concentrated. The obvious strategy is not to finish the broth once everything else is eaten, though the temptation might be great to polish it off.

The noodles of the tsukemen (☆☆☆) were flat, cut like a thin fettucine, an interesting variation that worked quite well. They were accompanied by menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) and yu choy, all topped with finely shredded dried seaweed. They also came with slices of pork chashu, like my tonkotsu ramen. The meat was from a larger cut than usual, tasty but the texture somewhat dry. A surprising twist in the dipping broth was a citrusy zing that turned out to be really appealing with this style of ramen.

Tonkotsu tsukemen

Tonkotsu tsukemen

Additional toppings are available for $1.50 each, which in some instances is excessive. Seriously, additional bean sprouts or scallions for $1.50? An egg is not included in many ramens.

Both these ramens were quite good, among the best in the entire region. Based on Kukai’s success here, there’s little doubt that the chain will open more restaurants elsewhere. For next time, an intriguing option to try is the Yuzu Shio Ramen. For small plate snacking or a lighter meal, there is the izakaya menu.

8-23-13: On a return visit, I ordered the shoyu ramen (☆☆☆½). Again, the noodles were perfectly cooked. The broth, again salty, was nonetheless delicious with a slight sweetness. I will have to try the low-sodium broth next time. Gyoza (☆☆☆), clad in a thin skin, was nicely browned and flavorful.

Shoyu ramen

Shoyu ramen

Kukai Ramen & Izakaya
14845 Main St
Bellevue, WA 98007
425.243.7527
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