Without any question, I am among the least qualified people to pass judgment on Japanese ramen. I’ve never set foot in a ramen house in New York City, let alone one in Tokyo, and until last week, I never even watched a single frame of Tampopo, that randy Japanese romp about a noodlemaker’s search for the perfect ramen. And here’s the kicker: I didn’t eat ramen in college, either, when ignorance and budget practically demanded that you slurp down that instant junk. Kraft mac ’n’ cheese was my choice of cheap pasta.
So here I am sitting in Ren’s Ramen, a no-frills noodle house in Bethesda with walls the color of peach sherbet, knocking back my first bowl of the Japanese soup. I’ve ordered the Sapporo-style miso ramen, a pork-based broth into which house-made miso paste has been stirred to produce a heady liquid that ferries a wealth of other ingredients. Like slices of succulent roast pork, lengths of crunchy bean sprouts, ringlets of chopped scallions, little clumps of ground beef, a flat of seaweed, and thin strips of shinachiku, otherwise known as preserved bamboo shoots.
You’d think a rookie like me would be satisfied with such a bounty in a bowl, but no. I decide, for $2 more, to add a seasoned egg, which, in the Japanese tradition, is soft-boiled and marinated in soy (and often mirin, and sake) before being dumped into the ramen. The egg acts as a big fat time-release capsule, gently unburdening its rich, partially cooked yoke into my soup. To say that I’m happy with my lunch would be a gross understatement. I feel like a frat kid who just discovered beer.
My enthusiasm, however, is tempered by this nagging sense that I’m doing something wrong. Maybe I’m eating the soup incorrectly. Maybe I’ve seasoned it the wrong way. Maybe I’ve ordered the wrong add-ons. My worries loom large enough that when an older Japanese customer sits next to me, I repeatedly lean back on my stool to steal side-long glances at his approach to ramen. I don’t notice anything out of the ordinary about his habits, save for one thing: The dude is slurping those noodles at a murderously fast pace.
Ren’s Ramen is owned by Yoko and Eiji Nakamura, a husband-and-wife team who are first-time restaurateurs. Before he started making ramen, Eiji was a sushi chef in New York City, where he and Yoko met. When the couple moved to D.C., Eiji spent a couple of years working at the now-defunct Café MoZU inside the Mandarin Oriental hotel before deciding last year to take a trip to Hokkaido, at the behest of the noodle company Nishiyama, to learn the art of ramen.
For those who are geographically challenged by anything outside the Beltway, Hokkaido prefecture is located in the north of Japan, where the winters are cold and the soups molten-hot. The ramen there is traditionally weighed down with miso paste, lard, corn kernels, and even butter, which cooks will add right before serving, so that the thick pats melt into the hot broth, adding one more layer of fat to both you and the liquid. This Sapporo-style ramen is, as you could guess, Hokkaido’s answer to chicken soup.
If Sapporo-style ramen is foreign to me, it’s almost as foreign to Yoko and Eiji Nakamura. Yoko grew up in Osaka and Eiji in Shiga, both located in the more southern latitudes of Japan, where the moderate temperatures call for a ramen lighter than those found in Hokkaido. But when the couple considered what style of ramen to serve in the D.C. area, they figured their adopted hometown was closer in spirit—and climate—to Hokkaido than Osaka. I don’t know if that’s exactly true, but I can say this: As the mercury drops here, I find Eiji Nakamura’s soups the perfect antidote to a chill in the air.
This is true no matter what bowl you order from Ren’s concise menu, which offers three different kinds of Sapporo ramen and even a vegetable variation for those who find their warmth in a container of hot seaweed broth (which is not a knock, but a simple fact about this soup made hearty with floating islands of crunchy cabbage). With that said, though, let me not pussyfoot around here: If I really want to ignite my internal hearth on a cold night, I order Ren’s soy-flavored Sapporo ramen and request extra slices of roast pork and a few pieces of stewed fatty pork, these geological slabs that alternate between layers of flesh and fat. The pieces are like pig candy, melting on your tongue as gooey and satisfying as warmed caramels.
Kaz Okochi, the chef and name behind Kaz Sushi Bistro, has similarly forceful feelings about the first bowls of ramen he slurped at his favorite noodle house in Nagoya. The flavors of those boyhood soups have practically been absorbed into Okochi’s DNA, to the point that when he recently returned to Nagoya for a high school reunion, he knew exactly why his beloved ramen was no longer so embraceable: The shop’s owner had switched to a new noodle after his original ramen-maker went bankrupt. The single change altered everything about the soup.
Okochi’s story about the fallen noodle house explains a lot about Japanese ramen: Each shop is so idiosyncratic, and so secretive about its approach to the soup, that no two are the same. So when your favorite spot falls on hard times, it’s difficult to find a replacement. “Every single restaurant does their own recipe,” Okochi says. “It gets really, really specific.”
It also gets really absurd worrying about whether you’re slurping authentic Japanese ramen. Or if you’re slurping it the right way. Ramen noodles themselves aren’t even Japanese but, according to chef and teacher Hideo Dekura’s book Essentially Japanese, “were brought from China by returning soldiers” following World War II. That the Japanese have made ramen their own should not be taken as a sign to seek an elusive conformity in a bowl but as an invitation to see the many possibilities of the soup. Authenticity is for scholars and geeks, not food lovers who revel in subtle differences.
Of course, I’m still in no position to pass judgment on Ren’s ramen versus those back in Japan. I can say a few things with authority, however: Eiji Nakamura’s customized noodle from Nishiyama is righteously curly and chewy and satisfying. His noodle should never be eaten tsukemen style, in which a separate plate of chilled and clammy ramen must be dipped into the hot broth. And, as that older gentleman showed me on my first visit, the ramen should be eaten quickly (and loudly, if possible) before the noodle loses its chew and turns to mush.
Other than that, I’ve learned not to stand on Japanese ceremony and just enjoy what Ren’s does best: serve up a great bowl of ramen.
Ren’s Ramen, 6931 Arlington Rd., Bethesda, (301) 693-0806