At least since 2011, when the food magazine Lucky Peach devoted its inaugural issue to all things ramen, the Japanese noodle soup has been enormously popular with food buffs in the United States. In cities such as Los Angeles and New York City, ramen shops are opening at a dizzying pace.
While Charleston can claim just one ramen-only restaurant, the area is by no means suffering a ramen drought. Nearly a dozen restaurants here offer some kind of riff on rich broth, squiggly alkaline noodles, greens and a hard-boiled egg. And interest in the soup is so intense that chefs Michael Toscano of the forthcoming Le Farfalle, Blake Joyal of The Westendorff, Josh Walker of Xiao Bao Biscuit and Jason Stanhope of FIG all signed on to serve ramen interpretations at a Short Grain Food Truck pop-up that occupied The Daily on Saturday nights last month.
As the current corps of ramen lovers is fond of pointing out, the plastic-wrapped blocks of dried noodles that are the epitome of eating on the cheap are far removed from real ramen. But it’s much easier to say what ramen isn’t than to drum up a good definition of what it is.
Ramen only has a century-long history in Japan, so the genre is still evolving. And even if cooks across Japan could agree on exactly which qualities a great bowl of ramen should possess, the paths to a balanced presentation of salt, fats, heft and aromatics are myriad: There are countless noodle shapes, broth bases, toppings and seasonings from which to choose. In the world of ramen, a light sea kelp-based soup bobbing with mussels is just as legitimate as a ruddy soy-flavored broth stocked with bacon.
American chefs have further elaborated on the dish’s basic components, sometimes in ways that Japanese ramen makers wouldn’t consider. My friend Jay Friedman, who’s written extensively on East Asian noodles, invented the term “wramen” to describe bowls populated with fried oysters, apples and duck confit. He considers them the spoonable version of the bulky cream cheese rice rolls labeled as sushi on American menus. “Some of the wramen I’ve eaten has been daring and delicious,” he allows. “Some has been a complete wreck.”
Because of the variability, there’s no standard way to evaluate ramen (or wramen). On a recent tour of every local restaurant regularly serving ramen, I looked for steaming hot broth and chewy noodles. Mostly, though, I was interested in how the noodle bowl expressed the restaurant’s culinary leanings, and whether I’d want to eat it again. On those scores, almost every ramen succeeded.
For a traditional ramen, I’d give the highest marks to Menkoi Ramen House. And Warehouse serves my favorite tinkered-with version. But what was most impressive was the ramen diversity I discovered.
Before Two Boroughs Larder recently adjusted its opening hours, Tuesday nights were devoted to celebrating ramen. Chef Josh Keeler had labored over his recipes for pork dashi (the soup’s foundational stock) and noodles, which were made in-house until the kitchen couldn’t keep up. Now Rio Bertolini produces the noodles, using Keeler’s recipe, and ramen is available at every meal. Those noodles were slack when I sampled them, and the egg was overcooked, so its yolk couldn’t infiltrate the greased broth, but the bowl gained a vinegary pluck from kimchi and pickled mushrooms.
The affordable ramen at Ms. Rose’s is somewhat mysterious. It’s served with the setup of basil, lime and bean sprouts that typically accompanies pho: The fresh flavors seem hard-pressed to stand up to a soy-soaked broth that tastes like Asian gravy. But the housemade rye noodles are appropriately sturdy, and the ramen gets a smidge of Yiddishkeit from the optional brisket or chicken feet, which add a swirl of collagen to the soup. Served exclusively on Tuesdays (the same night on which cocktails are discounted $1), the ramen is thoroughly satisfying.
Riso Noodle House is one of a number of Chinese restaurants around town that’s bent to trends and put ramen on its menu. The noodle bowl is essentially a collection of Chinese-American kitchen staples, including a strong chicken broth that’s likely the usual backdrop for wontons, shredded iceberg lettuce and sliced char siu. Here, the noodles are the scrunched-up kind familiar to college students and the peas-and-carrots clearly come from a freezer bag. If you like fish cakes floating in your ramen, though, Riso is your ramen destination.
Menkoi, the offshoot of a Columbia restaurant, is the local leader in ramen variety. Its menu includes miso ramen, spicy ramen, shoyu ramen, shio ramen (salt-based soup), vegetable ramen and chicken ramen. The classic tonkotsu (pork-based soup) is terrifically creamy and coherent-tasting in a way that’s comforting, not dull. Unusually, the noodles are made with eggs rather than alkaline water, but the broth clings to them beautifully.
Just as ramen doesn’t represent the apex of Riso’s noodle soup game, there are probably better reasons to hoist a deep-bowled spoon and chopsticks at CO. Namely, pho and bun bo hue. But ramen is the only porky choice, a point made by the broth, scented with cilantro and cinnamon, shredded pork and little bits of belly. It’s really not a bad dish (which is for the best, since the serving size is massive), and CO’s drinks list gives customers a chance to experience the excellent pairing of ramen and sparkling wine.
Ham and greens are probably sufficient to give any dish Southern cred, but the handsome noodle bowl at Warehouse takes the regional allegiance one step further by showcasing smoky, spicy flavors that definitely weren’t cribbed from Japan. Bouncy rye noodles from Rio Bertolini, ham hock broth and a supple soft-boiled egg provide the perfect framework for a soup embellished with fat smoked shrimp and miniature shishito peppers. Shishito peppers! It’s an ultra-enjoyable dish.
Corn sounds like a Southern innovation, but the vegetable is frequently added to ramen in Japan, where it’s sometimes simmered, buttered and paired with miso broth. Here, corn and pork is a natural pairing: Chef Tony Chu smokes and torches corn segments before adding them to a broth in which shoulder and hock have simmered for 38 hours. Other vegetables include nori sheets and bok choy touched with miso aioli. Not surprisingly, the dish has more depth than other local ramens.
No Charleston area ramen better reflects its surroundings than the dinner-only noodle bowl at Early Bird Diner, which comes with an egg any way you like it. My server recommended adding a poached egg to the mix of spaghetti-like noodles, onions, peas, carrots and scraps of collard greens. The soup is extremely salty and served very hot, which is all anyone should want from diner ramen. In Tokyo, ramen shops might offer rice or gyoza as side dishes, so it’s not farfetched to imagine taking this ramen with a slice of white toast.
Jeffery Stoneberger is extremely serious about ramen, which he started serving last fall at bars and breweries on a pop-up basis. The conditions aren’t ideal for cooking — the ramen I sampled was barely lukewarm — which is why Stoneberger is now trying to crowdfund a permanent location. In the meantime, he gets all of the points for inventiveness and scrupulous sourcing. Among the best things in the bowl were pickled shiitake mushrooms and an orange-yolked egg, along with a tangle of chewy noodles.
The European influences guiding Fish’s fried fish-topped bowl are apparent (as is chef Nico Romo’s affection for sous vide eggs.) From the restrained broth to the perfectly cooked noodles, this brunch-only ramen seems like many other dishes on the restaurant’s French-leaning menu, albeit with all of the essential components afloat. While the flounder tasted a shade past its prime, the mushrooms were lovely.