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.
Yamadaya's bowls are about as pork-intensive as you can get around here, built with heavy tonkotsu broth, the kotteri versions supplemented by even more pork fat, as well as slabs of extant pork thanks to the thick slabs of chashu. If that's not enough, your ramen is also dosed with black oil like a tiny petroleum slick. Sure, it's excessive, but it's excessive in a devout kind of way, not unlike the happy single-mindedness of Fergus Henderson's school of whole-animal cooking. Yamadaya is also an example of a shop that probably expanded past its comfort zone, as some of its branches (there are now six locations) have been known to serve bowls of less-than-memorable ramen. That said, the original shop, lodged in an unlovely oasis of concrete just off the 405 in Torrance, still serves the excellent ramen that it did when it opened in the summer of 2010. 3118 W. 182nd St., Torrance; 310-380-5555.
An excellent ramen shop in a strip mall next to a nail salon, a liquor store and a coin laundry, what truly distinguishes this place from not a few of the other shops on this list is that the fortunate bit of concrete is in Silver Lake and not Gardena. The name reinforces this, which is probably a good thing. Inside, you'll find a few more tables than you might 20 miles south, and maybe a few more hipsters per capita. The bowls are exceptional, with thick slabs of chashu in a glossy, rich tonkotsu broth, spicy chili paste that packs a very nice kick, and beautifully chewy noodles. 2927 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake; 323-660-8100.
Although you'd hardly be faulted for bypassing Jidaiya's excellent bowls of ramen and tsukemen for the last month or so in favor of its ramen burgers, that novelty will pass and you'll again be slurping your noodles as they're meant to be. Jidaiya makes wonderful bowls of various styles, but its tonokotsu is perhaps the best, rich and glossy and ridiculously pork-intensive, with noodles that are nicely chewy. The bowls themselves are pretty wonderful, too, thick ceramic dishes that keep the soup piping hot for the few minutes it will take you to empty them. If you're still hungry, you can order taiyaki for dessert. Or get a ramen burger to go. 18537 S. Western Ave., Torrance; 310-532-0999.
Across the street from Sushi Gen is one of the newer class of L.A. ramen shops, which opened in September 2012 after first opening a number of shops in Tokyo and San Francisco. It's a lovely small shop, with seven seats at the ramen bar and a few tables near the door, and a flat-screen TV often playing sports on the wall. The ramen comes in a few genres: the namesake Tokushima, named for a region of Southern Japan; tonkotsu, shoyu, spicy tonkotsu and even a vegetable ramen. There are a few side dishes but no tsukemen -- not a bad thing, as the bowls of ramen are first-rate. Toppings are the traditional cooked egg (perfectly cooked, it should be noted), menma (bamboo shoots), scallions, chashu and butabara, or stir-fried pork belly. More pig. More fun. 456 E. Second St., Little Tokyo; 213-687-8485.
Umenoya is a bare-bones shop, just four tables and a ramen bar tucked into a mini-mall off of Crenshaw in Torrance, and the service is quiet and matter-of-fact: no yelling hello or goodbye in this place. But the ramen is outstanding, so maybe they're putting all their efforts into the (enormous) bowls. They have many options, but the most notable is perhaps the Jiro ramen, rich tonkotsu broth loaded with terrific noodles, very al dente and thicker than most, alongside chashu and plenty of cabbage, diced white onion and generous amounts of garlic. There are other variations, including a newly added spicy miso ramen, with leeks, egg and both chashu and shredded pork. 24222 Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance; 310-530-3177.
2. Ramen Iroha
It is an article of faith that Japanese markets and food courts are home to excellent food, sometimes bafflingly so. Maybe it's because so much needs to be within a quick walk of the train stations at home in Japan, but it's usually a good bet that if you go grocery shopping, you'll find an excellent sushi or noodle shop. This is certainly the case at Marukai market in Gardena, where one of this town's best bowls of ramen can be ordered from a tiny stand close to the checkout lines and grocery carts. Ramen Iroha is best known for its inky bowls of black ramen, a dense soup built on soy and black beans and God knows what else, which has won a number of awards at the Tokyo Ramen Show. Nothing like slurping a ridiculously excellent bowl of ramen with your feet propped up on shopping bags full of groceries. (Matcha Pocky for dessert.) 1740 Artesia Blvd., Gardena.
1. Tsujita L.A.
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It sometimes seems hard to believe that Tsujita -- and its permanent lines at lunchtime, when bowls of ramen are served -- has been around only since summer 2011, but two years can be a long time for an obsession to reach, especially if you line up with any regularity. The L.A. outpost of a Tokyo ramen specialist, Tsujita makes glorious, Hakata-style noodles and serves them exquisitely cooked, pleasantly chewy, in a long-simmered tonkotsu broth that's nicely milky yet not overwrought. There is chashu and an egg if you want it, with jars of pickled ginger and tart mustard greens, as the style warrants. The portions are not too big, the egg is still a golden custard in the center, and the entire bowl is perfectly orchestrated. When Tsujita's Annex opened up across the street earlier in the year, it seemed for a moment as if the lines would become manageable. They have not, and for very good reason: For a better bowl, you'll need to get on a plane. 2057 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles; 310-231-7373.
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