If you are not among the ramen-obsessed, it's probably difficult to fathom how people can get so worked up about a bowl of soup. Sure, there are ramen's various elements and regional categories, intricate as some medieval scholastic doctrine; the delineation of broth and tare, of noodle and topping; and the endless beautiful myths of origin. But maybe just stop a minute to consider the experience.
A crowded shop the size of a large closet, bowls lined up along the bar like an altar, orders not intoned but shouted as you pull up a seat between hungry strangers. Steam rises from the enormous vats where noodles are dunked in military precision, your bowl filled and outfitted with the necessary components in exacting order, then presented to you, a silent gift. You eat from the bowl as fast as you're able, ignoring the scalding temperature, slurping the noodles before they have a chance to cool or mellow. The level in your bowl sinks in direct proportion to your rising happiness until you're done, chopsticks down, head bowed, seat pulled back for the next in line. I once timed the drunk guys at a midnight ramen joint in Shinagawa at, on average, seven minutes from the time they came through the door, ramen ticket in hand, to when they left, still drunk but cheerfully sated.
You may prefer your ramen earlier in the day, with or without friends and booze and bullet trains, but the happiness factor is pretty much the same. And thankfully, there are many, many ramen shops a lot closer to home for us than Tokyo.
With so many ramen joints now open around L.A., it's sometimes hard to remember how revelatory the bowls at Shin-Sen-Gumi were back in, say, 2009. But check out the lines that mean an hourlong wait on a given Sunday night at the Rosemead location and you'll remember why soon enough -- you'll also remember that the nearest good alternative is in Little Tokyo. Shin-Sen-Gumi is the Hakata-style ramen version of Chipotle, as you can customize pretty much everything that goes into your bowl: the strength of broth and oil, the chewiness of the noodles, the toppings, which these days can include garlic chips, fried onions, kimchi and curry paste. 8450 E. Valley Blvd., Rosemead; 626-572-8646.
For years, the Little Tokyo Daikokuya was the place one went for ramen in this town, and many of us had our first bowls of L.A. ramen at this pleasantly grungy downtown ramen shop. These days the lines are just as long and the interior is just as grungy, both of which are oddly comforting. You'll still find yourself wedged into the jumbled front entrance, probably boxed between a defunct neon sign and a tourist, listening to the servers shout impossibly loud greetings in Japanese, then soon enough jammed into a booth over a bowl of old-school ramen. The broth will be murky and rich, the noodles chewy, the condiment bowls of raw garlic and ginger pretty much where they were years ago. Order some of the excellent gyoza just to prolong the experience and hope that you'll be doing the same thing five or 10 years from now. 327 E. First St., downtown; 213-626-1680.
8. Asa Ramen
Like many of the small ramen shops in Torrance and Gardena that haven't mushroomed into chains, Asa has weathered the new wave of ramen popularity, changing ramen chefs and turning out bowls that have changed with them. The current chef, who is from Okinawa, has shoyu, salt and tonkotsu ramen, but he's also livening up things with big bowls of thick curry ramen, the option of a "fire bowl" of spicy ramen, and the promise, later in November of uni ramen. A very small shop without a sign in English in one of the many repeating strip malls along Western, it's hard to find Asa if you don't know what you're looking for (and even if you do), but once you duck inside and pull up a stool at the bar (high wooden counter, low cloth panels dividing you from the open kitchen), you'll be imprinted enough for the next time. 18202 S. Western Ave., Gardena; 310-769-1010.