Many Americans tend to associate instant ramen with college dorm life, poverty and hangovers. And who hasn't had a meal of Cup-O-Noodles born out of desperation and lack of resources?
But in Japan, ramen is comfort food. It's what many consider their national dish. And after the recent Earthquake and Tsunami, ramen served as a sign of normalcy and nourishment. Ramen houses are everywhere in Japan, and it's one of the most affordable and filling meals you can get there.
These days, especially in the Bay Area, ramen is becoming somewhat of a "trend." Recently, I've also noticed more places serving up different variations of the dish, all of which are fairly common in Japan.
Here are a few ramen houses outside San Francisco that serve three distinctly different varieties of these tasty soup noodles.
Santa Ramen -- 1944 S. El Camino Real, San Mateo, 650-344-5918
This place serves up the classic bowl of Japanese ramen with the typical three broths to choose from: miso (soybean paste), shoyu (soy sauce), and pork. It used to be THE place for Japanese natives to get an authentic bowl of ramen, but since moving to their newer location in a strip mall, the quality has declined.
Their broth and pork slices used to both taste like they took hours to make. However, on my most recent visit, the pork was actually cold. The noodles still had their classic chewy texture, but lacked depth and flavor. I was glad I had decided to add a little corn and kimchi for extra texture and kick. It’s still a decent bowl of noodles, but the joint’s lost some of its luster.
Maru Ichi -- 368 Castro St, Mountain View, 650-564-9931
I chose this place for two reasons: 1) they make their own noodles in house, 2) they're known for a specific kind of ramen called "kuro" ramen, or "black" ramen. The black color comes from the browned garlic and was a kind of ramen developed in Japan in the 1960s, as the menu describes. The black garlic oil sits on top of the pork broth like an oil spill. It looks more like a film of dirt and soot floating on top of the bowl, but thankfully it doesn't taste that way. The rich garlic flavor is distinct but didn't completely overwhelm. You do, however, have to be a fan of garlic to enjoy the rich, hearty broth.
Their housemade noodles are thinner than most, but you can taste their freshness. It's something you don’t usually get at other ramen houses. It’s worth trying just to compare the difference in texture and flavor.
Overall, Maru Ichi's kuro ramen definitely isn't your typical bowl of ramen, and it was a nice change from the usual.
Dojo Ramen -- 805 South B St, San Mateo, 650-401-6568
This place is actually in the spot where the old Santa Ramen used to be, and is owned by the same folks. But the differences are vast.
They specialize in something called "sutamina" ramen, which literally means "stamina" ramen. I'd call it "extreme" ramen because of the loads of garlic, spice and heat (which you can request to be even spicier), amount of fixings, and sheer fattiness of the broth. It’s like ramen on steroids. Everything is bolder and richer.
And don't come here if you don’t like spicy food.
The meat that comes with the Garlic Pork broth variation is impressive. There were two big thick slices of pork belly that could serve as an appetizer at a four-star restaurant. I was kicking myself for not ordering extra. It was simply wonderful; fatty and meaty, just like the broth.
And the noodles were the most impressive of any of the other places I visited. Their texture was perfectly chewy without being too firm or too soggy, and had great flavor.
So even without the "sutamina" label, Dojo's was my favorite bowl of ramen simply based on the strength of its noodles and broth, which is really the sign of a superior bowl of ramen no matter where you are.