Wow, Vegan Ramen? You Betcha!

OG Ramen (image from

Any pretensions I had that a good vegetarian ramen could never be made was dashed recently. The revelation happened when my sister-in-law had me sample her OG Ramen from Ramen Hood, a completely vegan stall in Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market. Visually, it looks like a ‘typical’ ramen, broth like milky tonkotsu, slices of chashu floating on top, a square of nori poking up along bowl’s edge, a pinch of chile threads sprinkled on top. It lacked for nothing in presentation. Yet, as I was ready to taste the broth, I had serious doubts that it would be remotely interesting. So imagine how stunned I was, not that it was anything like meat-based ramen broth but that it was in and of itself so savory, complex and substantial.

How in the world did the chefs pull this off? This from their website:

Our broth is made by simmering kelp and shiitake mushrooms to extract their maximum umami. Then we roast sunflower seeds with white miso and combine that mixture with the kelp/mushroom stock. Then it is all pressure cooked to release the natural oils and starches from the seeds. What’s left is a rich, creamy, broth that rivals it’s non-vegan counterparts flavor and texture.

Never underestimate the genius of creative chefs. The ramen tastes genuine. Recent converts to vegetarianism might be moved to tears, genuflect at the feet of its creators. I still prefer tonkotsu or miso ramen, more because slices of king oyster mushrooms would never replace slices of tender chashu, and vegan ‘eggs,’ though they’re ingeniously made at Ramen Hood (including yolk that oozes), can’t substitute for perfectly made ajitsuke tamago. But, as a change of pace or to take a break from animal products, I wouldn’t hesitate to devour a bowl of OG ramen. A wondrous achievement.

Ramen Hood
(Grand Central Market, Stall C2)
317 S. Broadway Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Spicy Umami Miso Ramen at Jinya Ramen Bar

For me, few things are an antidote to cold weather than hot ramen. Over a week ago, the Seattle area experienced temperatures in the low 40s, a good excuse to hop into Jinya Ramen Bar for a hot lunch while my wife and I were running errands in the Crossroads area of Bellevue.

Though my favorite bowl there is the Jinya Tonkotsu Black, what caught my eye was Spicy Umami Miso Ramen. The description reveals Chinese influence of ground pork and chile oil (rayu/layu). It’s also the only ramen on the menu to include bok choy. Kudos to the kitchen for eliminating the pebbliness that often typifies ground pork. The mince is very fine. Instead, the pork plays second fiddle to the noodles that are thick and curly, good foils for the spicy pork broth. Jinya isn’t kidding about umami, which the broth has in spades. The noodles were perfect. The only complaint I had was the saltiness, not surprising for a sturdy, thick miso broth. Otherwise, this is a terrific choice for those who love robust ramen. (☆☆☆½)


Jinya Ramen Bar
15600 NE 8th St
Bellevue, WA 98008

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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Curry Ramen at Samurai Bowl (Christchurch, NZ)

My daughter and her family dine at Samurai Bowl often. It used to be once a week. I suspect that it’s not the parents’ decision necessarily but my five-year old grandson’s, who seems never to tire of their miso ramen. Today, just my daughter and I had lunch here, while the kids were in school. When served our meals, waitress asked daughter, “Where’s your son?” I myself have eaten here several times, enjoying their solid bowls of ramen more than their other items.

Looking over the menu, I decided to have curry ramen, despite the lackluster experience I had with their karaage curry-don almost a year ago. This choice turned out to be a good one. I’ve only had a very few curry ramens before, but none this good. The broth, slightly thick, mild and mildly sweet, is an excellent example of the flavor of Japanese-style curry. Unlike Samurai Bowl’s curry-don, there was no grittiness or pronounced coriander seed flavor. Maintaining their firmness throughout the meal were the medium-sized, curly egg noodles. And what wonderfully succulent, flavorful and fatty slices of roasted pork belly that melted in my mouth. The menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) were a tad salty and the extra-cost ajitsuke tamago (half-boiled egg) was plonked into the hot broth, straight from the fridge, the yolk half-congealed and still cold.

I can say that I’d now order curry ramen (☆☆☆½) over their signature samurai ramen in the future—without the egg.

Samural Bowl
Shop 5/574 Colombo Street
Christchurch, NZ 8011
03-379 6752

Dinner at Setsuna Japanese Restaurant

The intriguing black ramen that I enjoyed a year ago at Setsuna Japanese Restaurant & Bar got me to wonder whether there was a hidden gem of a ramenya in the Northgate area. Opportunity knocked when we went with friends for dinner there.

Setsuna’s ramen menu offers four kinds: white, sakura, black and red, roughly descriptive of their colors. White ramen is shio-flavored (salt). Normally, shio ramen is associated with assari (clear, light) broths. Setsuna’s is one exception that leans more toward the heavier bone broths (kotteri), though sea salt is the only seasoning used. (Santouka also has a shio ramen that is a variation of tonkotsu.) It was milky enough in appearance and feel that it could be mistaken for miso. The broth was rich and, in accordance with Japanese preference, fatty. Bean sprouts and slivers of yu choy were the extent of the vegetables. Condiments included so-so menma (seasoned bamboo shoots), chile threads and a cold ajitsuke tamago (extra cost) with a nearly totally congealed yolk. At least, the cubes of roast pork were flavorful and tender. What about the ramen noodles themselves? Sad to say, they were a tad pasty, which got worse as they sat in the hot broth. This bowl was not top-notch by any means, just good enough (☆☆½).

White Ramen

White Ramen

So, the answer to my year-long question is that Setsuna does not produce consistently good ramen to make it a destination for rameniacs.

My wife ordered the gyoza-tempura combination dinner (☆☆½). Here again, there were some miscues. The gyoza skins were fried to a distractingly super crunchiness like crackers, though the pork filling was very tasty. The tempura batter was a little too greasy and tasted of old oil. Quantities of tempura and gyoza dipping sauces were so skimpy that more had to be requested.

Combination Dinner with Gyoza and Tempura

Combination Dinner with Gyoza and Tempura

Our friends had the hamachi dinner from the specials menu. The comment was that the yellowtail steak was dry, mirroring the evaluation that my wife made of her salmon on our last visit.

The opening of Kukai Ramen in Thornton Place for me may be a glimmer of hope in the culinary wasteland that is Northgate.

Setsuna Japanese Restaurant & Bar
11204 Roosevelt Way NE
Seattle, WA 98125

Tonkotsu Kara Miso Ramen at Santouka

Major construction on the northwest corner of Main Street and Bellevue Way prevented a friend and me from having lunch at La Cocina del Puerco because of the lack of parking spaces. So as I drove up to Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, I noticed no one standing outside waiting to be seated. Friend was agreeable to stopping there for a bowl of ramen.

We got immediately seated at a tiny two-person table at the entrance along a partition. Feeling cramped like that is not a pleasant dining experience, made worse by so narrow a space to the next table that a customer has to move sideways carefully to get through. Once we sat down, we forgot the unpleasantness and decided what we wanted. Both of us had tonkotsu kara miso ramen, a variation of regular tonkotsu miso with a spicier broth and garnished with threads of dried red chiles (silgochu).

Service was so fast that I began to wonder how the noodles got done so quickly. I admit though that boiling fresh noodles takes only minutes, but it just seemed fast. Regardless, the noodles had nice bite, firm and springy, was a little weightier than thin noodles and curly rather than straight. Halfway into the bowl, they became noticeably softer but still nicely textured. Condiments included kikurage (wood ear fungus), menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) and scallions.

The chashu was chewier than it should have been, duplicating the experience I had on my last visit, certainly not the buttery, meltingly tender legends I read about of other Santouka outlets.

The broth was exceedingly salty. The menu describes the broth as having salt added, but you have to wonder if that’s necessary when miso already has enough sodium. The combination of miso and chile paste (the agent I’m assuming is responsible for spiciness) does mask any subtleties the pork and seafood tonkotsu broth is trying to reveal. Even if this is a well-made ramen (☆☆☆), I should stick with the tonkotsu shio.

Hokkaiko Ramen Santouka
103 Bellevue Way NE, Suite 3
Bellevue, WA 98004

Tonkotsu Ramen at Yoe’s Noodles (Bellevue, WA)

The Taiwanese presence in the Bellevue Chinese restaurant scene is unmistakeable. And why not? The Eastside city has a large demographic of Americans of Taiwanese descent. It was no surprise that Din Tai Fung established its first Northwest location in Bellevue’s Lincoln Square complex. Many Chinese restaurants in the city, some explicitly serving Taiwanese cuisine and others not, are owned by Taiwanese. Yoe’s Noodles is a different animal. One might be curious about why a Taiwanese-owned restaurant serves a Japanese menu with descriptions in both English and Chinese. Not so strange when one finds out that Japanese food is popular in Taiwan, no doubt a byproduct of the 50-year Japanese occupation between 1895 and 1945. Besides ramen, also on the menu are udon, soba, donburi and bento box.

I contemplated getting the Nagasaki chanpon (champon), which originated in that city at the turn of the twentieth century and was concocted as a way to satisfy Chinese students’ preferences.

But, in the end, I decided to try the ramen at the top of the menu, Yoe’s Ramen with Signature Tonkatsu, the broth’s name no less begging for the kitchen’s prowess to be judged. It was disconcerting though that the menu used the incorrect word—tonkatsu instead of tonkotsu. My first taste of the broth was not bad. It did have the requisite milky quality, but lacked complexity. The noodles, thin and curly, relied on eggs rather than kansui for springiness. There were too many bean sprouts for my taste, pork slices that were a bit dry and a half egg whose white part was made overly salty by soy sauce and yolk hard-cooked. In short, even allowing for the restaurant’s promotion of fusion cuisine and its reasonable price ($8.95), Yoe’s tonkotsu ramen fundamentally does not compare favorably (☆☆) with that of Bellevue’s three new Japanese ramenya (Jinya, Santouka and Kukai).

Yoe’s Noodles
1411-C 156th Ave NE
Bellevue, WA 98007
(425) 643-8528