One of the great eating mysteries in Seattle is the conspicuous absence of ramen. Not the dehydrated, instant variety that is legend in college dormitories, but real ramen, the kind slurped with gusto by every Japanese man, woman and child.
In Japan, ramen shops are everywhere. It is an inexpensive, casual dish eaten as fast food, yet its preparation has been elevated to an art form. In the United States, ramen is a reliable dining option in Honolulu, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, cities with large numbers of Japanese-Americans. Even in Vancouver, B.C., ramen is easy to find. But until very recently Seattle was a virtual ramen vacuum, a puzzle because Seattle, like other West Coast cities, was settled by a significant number of Japanese immigrants.
Japanese food is hardly exotic in America anymore. In Seattle, it'ês downright routine. Think of how many times you have read the word, 'êteriyaki'ê on a sign. Sushi is everywhere, even in supermarkets like Whole Foods and QFC. But ramen — arguably the most popular food in Japan — lingers in obscurity, while Vietnamese pho prospers on almost every block of the city.
Ramen ought to thrive here in the cold and damp, where chewy noodles served in hot, rich, fat-infused broth should come as a comfort. Recent signs indicate these noodles might, finally, be making a breakthrough. Last summer, tiny Aloha Ramen opened in Greenwood and instantly became a hit, with crowds of customers waiting outside its door for the hybridized, Hawaiian-style ramen, also called saimin. And in February, Samurai Noodle, which started with a location in Chinatown, opened a second shop in the University District, becoming the largest, stand-alone ramen restaurant in the city.
The waiting list was up to four pages long at times, with waits growing close to an hour. For now, Samurai is the area'ês truest version of a traditional, Japanese ramen shop. It serves eight varieties of ramen — none costing more than $8 — that can be customized for an extra charge with various toppings like roe, fish cake, corn or fried garlic. Samurai'ês pork broth is simmered for three days, turning almost milky in color.
Samurai Noodle'ês Chinatown location is a relative shack with only a handful of tightly packed tables. There, customers order at the counter. The U-district shop has a dozen tables and a long counter, room enough for about 50 diners at a time; orders are taken at the tables. There is talk of expanding the operation to Bellevue. It seems the time has finally come for ramen. What took it so long?
'êI think there was this stigma of instant cup noodles,'ê said Hannako Lambert, the cook in Samurai'ês U-District shop, whose first name is Japanese with a German spelling, a reflection of her dual heritage.
The blame partly rests with the late Ando Momofuku, inventor of instant ramen and founder of Nissin Food Products. Instant ramen reached the rest of the world in a way traditional ramen probably never will. Because of its low cost, ease of preparation, and versatility, packages of ramen became disposable, pedestrian food. College students ate it. It became a staple of Mexican kitchens, easily adorned with Mexican condiments. Outside of Japan, there was no other kind of ramen but the instant kind.
The Western appreciation of ramen was quiet, isolated and slow to come around. It required a certain density of Japanese people, not Japanese-Americans necessarily, but actual Japanese people from Japan, be they businessmen, students or tourists. California has them; Hawaii has them; New York has them and in turn has a healthy supply of ramen shops.
You could always find ramen in Little Tokyo in L.A., or in San Francisco'ês Japantown, or near Waikiki beach in Honolulu, but in the Northwest until not so long ago, eating ramen more or less required a drive north to Vancouver.
A restaurant called Kitto (spawned from a restaurant of the same name in Vancouver) briefly served ramen on Capitol Hill in the mid-1990s before closing. A few Japanese restaurants off Jackson Street served mediocre versions of it as part of a larger menu, as did a small number of Hawaiian restaurants.
The last several years, however, have seen a noticeable turn in the fortunes of ramen lovers in Seattle. Chinatown'ês Fu Lin — ramen'ês origins are in fact Chinese — serves a sort of Taiwanese interpretation of Japanese ramen. The pan-Asian Boom Noodle, in Capitol Hill and Bellevue, serves Japanese ramen, although it relies on Thai and Vietnamese style dishes, ever popular in Seattle, to bolster its menu.
Aloha Ramen was a unique addition. A small shop run by a husband and wife from Hawaii, Lorenzo and Reiko Rangel, Aloha served ramen exclusively. But I prefer the version at Samurai, whose broth is richer and noodles more dense. (The restaurant has its noodles made by a Japanese company from a recipe the restaurant provides.)
Samurai is aware of the knowledge deficit when it comes to traditional ramen and provides a primer near the entrance to its U-District store about the history of ramen in Japan. A large sign board reports there are 40,000 ramen shops in Japan (far more than the number of McDonald'ês in the entire world). It recounts all the regional varieties of ramen — there are about 20 — from Wakayama to champon to black ramen.
The popularity of ramen in America perhaps got its biggest push from celebrity chef David Chang, who turned his small, struggling noodle shop called Momofuku into the juggernaut of New York restaurants that it is today. At the nadir of his career, the Korean-American, French-trained chef decided to move to Japan and become an apprentice to a ramen master. (For more on the concept, watch the 1985 movie, 'êTampopo,'ê or the 2008 movie, 'êThe Ramen Girl,'ê starring the late Brittany Murphy.)
That experience led to the opening, in 2003, of Momofuku in a small storefront in the East Village. Its marquee dish was a pork ramen served with braised pork belly from a heritage breed of pig called Berkshire. It was deemed a work of art and more importantly it came as a refreshing surprise, launching Chang to stardom.
Here in Seattle, incidentally, West Seattle'ês Spring Hill restaurant, run by decorated chef Mark Fuller who is of Asian ancestry, serves its version of pork ramen for brunch, much in the style of Momofuku. High-end ramen has a way of getting attention. But in truth, all authentic ramen is high end, requiring experience and devotion from both its maker and eater.
'êThere'ês a lot of culture behind it,'ê said Lambert, who has family in Japan and visits there regularly. 'êIf you understand it, the food will be more interesting.'ê
If you go: Samurai Noodle, 606 Fifth Ave. S. (206-624-9321) or 4138 University Way N.E. (206-547-1774). Open at 10 a.m. daily. The Chinatown location closes at 8:15 pm Sunday-Wednesday, and 9:15 pm Thursday-Saturday. The U-District location closes at 10:30 pm Sunday-Thursday, and 11 pm Friday and Saturday.