I grew up in Japan when I was a kid, and I have vivid memories of bowls of ramen (and soba) being delivered by crazy men riding bicycles through crazy Tokyo traffic. Ramen had been around since the late-1800s in Japan, but it was during the post-WWII years, and particularly in the 1960s, when ramen became the ubiquitous Japanese comfort food it is today.
I loved ramen as a child, and when my family moved to the States in the mid-’60s, I was sad to find that ramen wasn’t sold in the few Japanese restaurants that were available here. But in 1970, Nissin, the company that invented instant ramen in 1958, began selling instant ramen in the U.S. The next year, the company rolled out Cup Noodles.
Several generations of college students have grown up with instant ramen and Cup Noodles since the ’70s. Who can argue when each savory serving can cost just pennies? Lots of people even use instant ramen as a base for fancier dishes by adding meats and vegetables. But I think that’s cheating. For “real” ramen, nothing beats going to a good ramen-ya (shop) for a steaming bowl.
Ramen’s origins are Chinese. The noodle bowls were originally sold at Chinese food carts and restaurants in port cities as working-class food. But since then, ramen has become a Japanese cultural institution. Different cities and regions have developed unique ramen styles and enhancements. Sapporo is famous for miso ramen; Tokyo for shoyu; and Kyushu for tonkotsu ramen — everyone’s current favorite. It’s a rich pork and chicken broth that simmers the bones so long that the ramen has a layer of fatty collagen on top.
But here, real ramen is still a novelty. Some Japanese restaurants might serve ramen, but it takes a lot of time and dedication to make it right. So, most Japanese restaurants will stick to the reliable standards like teriyaki and sushi. I know a few Japanese restaurants that serve pretty good ramen, but honestly, the best ramen is served at places that specialize in just ramen, where the soup stock can be simmered all day to get it just right.
If you’re lucky, you live in a city where ramen has always been part of the culinary scene, or the ramen fad has already caught on fire. Denver isn’t exactly a ramen hotbed yet.
Los Angeles has a bunch of great ramen places, many new. Some are overrated and filled with hipsters who don’t know better (Uncle in Denver is one such hipster hangout). In L.A.’s Little Tokyo, Daikokuya, with its yellow awning, always has lines outside. But look closer, and you’ll see very few Asians in line. Not that Asians are the arbiters of quality or even authenticity, but the crowds in that place don’t know better.
On a recent trip to L.A., I tried a couple of ramen places including a new favorite called Men-Oh, which opened in 2012 in a strip mall a couple of blocks from Daikokuya. I had their specialty, Tokushima Black Garlic Ramen with Gyoza, and it was heavenly. I also had a very good tonkotsu ramen at Yamadaya in Torrance.
On a previous trip to Los Angeles, I went to Tsujita, a trendy place in the trendy Sawtelle Japanese district. The place is famous for tsukemen, in which noodles are served separate from a bowl of concentrated dipping soup, and for its tonkotsu ramen. I’m not a big fan of tsukemen — I like my noodles swimming in hot soup — and I don’t care for Tsujita’s tonkotsu. It’s too fatty, and I felt like I’d been French-kissing a can of Crisco shortening after I had the ramen.
Denver has several new and legitimate ramen-ya now. A couple of good ones only serve ramen one day a week because it’s so labor-intensive. My current local ramen-ya faves are Tokio in downtown Denver; Osaka Ramen and Tengu, both sort of fusion/contemporary in the RiNo district; and for now, the best, Katsu Ramen in Aurora, a Denver suburb.
I’m headed to San Francisco on a business trip in several weeks, and I can’t wait. You know what I’ll be eating: ramen!
Gil Asakawa is a P.C. Editorial Board member and former Board Chair. He is AARP’s AAPI Marketing Communications Consultant, and he blogs at www.nikkeiview.com. A new revised edition of his book, “Being Japanese American,” will be published this month by Stone Bridge Press.