Ramen started in China, became a staple in Japan and, in the past decade, blew up in Southern California. It’s a pork-based soup, with noodles, so its popularity isn’t exactly a surprise. The shock, really, is that it took so long.
Packaged, dried ramen with powder packets has been a staple of the rushed and the impoverished in the United States for decades. But in 2004, a manufacturer of fresh ramen noodles moved to SoCal, and thus it became “artisan.”
Sun Noodle had been in Hawaii for years, and its first mainland U.S. plant was in L.A. County's South Bay. The owner, Hidehito Uki, pitched his bespoke noodles to local ramen shops, and slowly found success. Almost all the ramen restaurants in L.A. now order from Sun Noodles. But that doesn't mean they all serve the same kind of noodle. The options are customizable, and some restaurants order more than one variety from Sun Noodle.
2004 also was the year Jonathan Gold wrote about Daikokuya in Little Tokyo, which created lines out the door of its small Little Tokyo shop. Though the restaurant has another location on Sawtelle now, it is considered by many to be somewhat old-hat by now. However, if you're a ramen newbie, or just want dependable ramen, it's still a solid choice.
But if you're looking for a bit of a culinary adventure, no better place in the country than L.A. to learn about different varieties of ramen. Here are some ramen restaurants in which to start your education.
Shin Sen Gumi
This very approachable restaurant, where topping choices are checked off on a scrap of paper, serves Hakata-style ramen. That means thin noodles, and plenty of them — you can order second helpings, and traditionalists won't let those sit in the broth too long, opting instead to dip them briefly. Slightly tart flavors also are important: Get pickled ginger for the full Hakata experience.
Do you like garlic? No, do you love it? This Pasadena outpost of a Japanese chain does not care if you're on a date. You're getting garlicked. That's Kurume-style for you. Plus, the pork bones are simmered the longest in Karume: the porkier, the better, at this little restaurant.
Tsujita L.A. Artisan Noodle
People go crazy for the noodle offerings at Tsujita, both ramen and its sibling, tsukemen. The latter is deconstructed ramen, with the noodles served plain in their own broth, accompanied by another bowl of concentrated broth and some of the traditional ramen toppings. It's less a regional variation than a recently trendy option, perhaps more popular in the warmer months. (Guess that explains why Angelenos love it.) Often the noodles served in tsukeman are thicker than regular ramen noodles, since here they're undeniably the star of the show.
Anzutei serves a variety of ramen that in Japan (specifically in Nagoya, the city where this one is most popular) would be called Taiwan ramen. But the Little Tokyo restaurant just calls it “spicy shoyu” — and spicy it is, made with plenty of Sichuan peppercorn. It's topped with ground pork.
Seafood ramen isn't as common here as it is in Japan, but Jinya's version is an excellent — though pricy — argument for it. Here the standard pork broth is combined with a broth of lobster and shrimp shells, and shrimp wontons and lobster are added to the soup. So are Brussels sprouts, because ramen is a mouth party.
E.A.K. Ramen in West Hollywood is a bit of a play on words: The restaurant serves iekei-style ramen. The broth is a little different from the standard, as it's made from both chicken and pork bones, making it a crossover of sorts. But the most obvious difference is the noodles. In iekei ramen, big, straight noodles are used, instead of the standard thin and curly variety.
This isn't really a regional variety, unless California counts as a ramen region. Which, you know, maybe it does! Vegan ramen has become pretty popular in L.A. of late, and perhaps the best version is at Ramen Hood in Grand Central Market. The broth is made from a base of miso, mushrooms, nuts and seeds. The “soft-boiled egg” is made from seasoned soy milk set with agar (seaweed), with a yolk of nutritional yeast, beta carotene, black salt and some other chemical elements for structure.