Ramen is hot, hot, hot in the East Bay.
Ramen at Itani.
Photography fom top to bottom: Courtesy of Itani Ramen; Courtesy of Ippudo
Affordable, trendy, and comforting, ramen—aka Japanese soul food—is easily this winter’s hottest dish. With a broth that’s boiled to emulsify the bones’ natural fats (unlike clear and delicate French stocks), the soup is deliciously murky and holds heat well. And the wheat noodles are fresh and more al dente than those used in Rome.
There are classic styles of ramen—including salt, shoyu, miso, and tonkatsu (a style of pork broth)—but endless variations of toppings and flavorings give each ramen house a distinct personality. And chicken, fish, and vegetarian versions abound.
For this roundup of our favorite ramen spots, we highlight the most popular pork versions. (If you’re new to ramen and a meat lover, we recommend you start the same way.) Keep this East Bay guide handy; it could be a long and chilly winter.
With Yingji Huang’s urban-hip demeanor and Andy Liu’s friendly personality, the owners of Shinmai capture both the cachet of ramen culture and the stirring soup’s soulful character. The restaurant’s mythic mural, signless facade, and global beat bespeak a hot nightspot, while the bustling kitchen underscores the inviting neighborhood flavor the owners strive for.
Liu—who recently spent two years in Japan mastering ramen—plays it by the book. Pigs’ heads, femur bones, and garlic are simmered all day to produce the richest tonkatsu broth we found. Slender, fresh noodles—boiled just 30 seconds for a springy chew—are drained of every drop of water, then drowned in the long-simmered broth.
Smoky, torch-scorched pork chashu, a split soy-and-honey-dyed boiled egg, wok-seared king oyster mushrooms, strips of crispy-sweet bamboo, and a splash of fragrant garlic oil produce a ramen that comes together as naturally as chicken soup.
Extras: Liu’s himitsu sauce (a spicy puree with dried shrimp) adds tremendous depth to the tonkatsu; Shinmai’s lime-and-sumac-seasoned ocean trout sashimi is a must-order appetizer; the refreshing veggie ramen with spinach noodles comes with porcini oil; and there’s a superior sake selection.
1825-3 San Pablo Ave., (510) 271-1888, shinmaioakland.com. Dinner Wed.–Mon.
Itani Ramen, Oakland
Kyle Itani—who is half Japanese and visits the country almost every year—sees ramen as part fun (a canvas for creativity) and part nourishment (for body and soul). “In Japan, we start out with yakitori and some beers, then do karaoke and get really drunk, then finish with ramen,” says Itani.
He started serving ramen as a way to scrape together payroll, turning Hopscotch—his upscale diner in Uptown Oakland—into an after-hours pop-up. The spot became so lively that he opened Itani Ramen, where half a dozen takes on ramen—including fried scallop, duck, and a chilled creation of crab and avocado—anchor the menu.
Itani says the pork ramen is everyone’s favorite. The stock simmers for 18 hours with cabbage, dried shiitake mushrooms, and kombu. (“Cabbage and pork is a magical combo,” he says.) Finished with a spoonful of red miso and mirin, the umami broth is as refreshing as it is unctuous. The meaty chashu is sliced from blocks rather than rolled (as is traditional), and the soup is showered with green scallions and spinach.
Extras: House-made chile-garlic oil and shichimi—a spicy floral powder with orange zest and sesame seed—grace each table (season the ramen lightly, then punch it up halfway through); start with an appetizer of spicy fried pigs’ ears, saving a few shreds to add to your ramen.
1736 Telegraph Ave., (510) 788-4489, itaniramen.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
When I arrived an hour early to the grand opening in July, this international sensation with more than 50 locations already had a line snaking down Center Street, and spokesperson Tomohiko Hara—on hand from Japan—was passing out cans of iced green tea to the patient mob.
The cheerful Berkeley ramen house, with a glass-enclosed exhibition kitchen, is geared to the university crowd and is only the fourth U.S. location.
From the streamlined menu, we enjoyed the akamaru, a pork broth ramen laced with koyu (a sweet, rich, black oil of onion and garlic), over the classic tonkatsu. But all the broths at Ippudo express a soulful balance of meaty and mellow. The chashu is uniformly tender and the least fatty tasting, while the fresh noodles—like a steak—must be ordered to your preferred doneness and are served in lightning-hot, sleek, and colorful bowls.
We still encountered a line on our second visit in October, but a bowl of Karaka spicy ramen, rich with garlic oil and stir-fried minced pork, was easily worth the wait.
Extras: Start with shishito peppers and pork buns, and finish with matcha tiramisu; the fried burdock root salad is a textural treat; Japanese beers are on draft.
2015 Shattuck Ave., (510) 666-8807, ippudo-us.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
Ramen Hiroshi, Walnut Creek
Perhaps the best, and prettiest, tonkatsu in the Bay Area can be found in Walnut Creek at Ramen Hiroshi—a tiny, casual ramen house that’s one-third exhibition kitchen.
Owners Hiroshi and Angela Yanase met in Japan and are a constant presence in the restaurant. They opened Ramen Hiroshi in 2015, just as Japanese noodles started trending in the East Bay.
The gelatinous femur bones for the broth are blanched and drained, then boiled for at least 15 hours. The tonkatsu is served in decorative ceramic bowls, with shredded pickled red ginger, strands of black kikurage mushrooms, strips of bamboo, and rings of white lotus root arranged alongside a soft-boiled egg with a deep-orange yolk and Berkshire pork chashu that has been grilled, rolled, braised, marinated, and finished with a blowtorch. It’s astonishingly good.
Extras: Izakaya-style appetizers (offered only at dinner) include spicy chicken wings and takoyaki—a party on a plate starring octopus balls.
1633 Bonanza St., (925) 942-0664, ramenhiroshi.com. Lunch and dinner daily.