At first glance, the listing for “pig ramen” seems as alien as SpaghettiOs on a sushi menu. Among the lamb and pork meatballs and Carolina smoked barbecue available at The Pig, Logan Circle’s newest hog-centric Americana eatery, I’m surprised to find a bowl of Asian noodle soup.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be. In a time when many restaurants are serving gourmet twists on mac and cheese, hush puppies, and other home-cooked classics, the national comfort food of Japan is becoming a hip addition to those same menus. And just as the foie gras-topped PB&J at America Eats Tavern is a long way from the one you packed in your lunchbox, the versions of ramen for sale in Washington restaurants are a far cry from the kind that come dried in plastic packages for a dollar.
There are a few unexpected converts to this centuries-old favorite: The Hamilton serves its own smoky taste on the lunch and late night menu. Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café has a duck ramen and pork and chicken ramen. Majestic Bar & Grille in Bethesda has a rotating ramen bowl special.
Meanwhile, there are also a number of new, specifically ramen-oriented joints that have just opened or are coming soon. Sakuramen opened in Adams Morgan last week, and Daikaya in Chinatown plans to open late this year. And Toki Underground, which debuted more than a year ago, can still command two hour waits. While Asian noodles have long been the domain of suburbs with large immigrant populations, these establishments are all in D.C. proper, where they’re aiming to lasso a population of sophisticated urban foodies.
Sushiko owner Daisuke Utagawa, one of the partners in Daikaya, doesn’t think a ramen shop could have survived in D.C. when he first came here in the ’80s. Nobody was going to go on a date in which they’d wind up with pork broth all over their suit—especially not when the dish was something most Americans associated with dorm-room cuisine. In fact, when he began planning for Daikaya three years ago, he still feared that people wouldn’t take to ramen: “It was a serious concern.”
Slurping was not sexy, Utagawa worried. “Every non-Asian that I knew when I was living in Japan had a fear of noodle soup. They liked the flavor, but they couldn’t eat it,” Utagawa says. “They were appalled by slurping. Well, everybody’s slurping. It’s disgusting is what they thought.”
Utagawa suggests that pho, introduced by the region’s sizable Vietnamese population, was the gateway drug. It got Americans comfortable with using chopsticks to hoist noodles—and cemented the idea that noodle soup could be sophisticated, not just something flu sufferers nuke in the microwave.
A comparison between pho and ramen, however, can only go so far. Unlike pho, there’s a balance and complexity to ramen that you just don’t mess with. Adding lime or Sriracha would be unthinkable—like drowning a perfectly-seasoned steak in a bath of A-1 sauce. “If you add any ingredient that doesn’t allow people to appreciate the depth of a ramen’s broth, then you’ve destroyed that ramen,” says Sakuramen co-owner Jonathan Cho.
The newfound popularity of ramen in D.C., in fact, represents the confluence of several big trends in the food world: the rise of the celebrity chef and the worship of anything made from scratch as well as the embrace of comfort foods.
The celebrity chef, in ramen’s case, is David Chang. The D.C.-area native grew Momofuku Noodle Bar from a simple ramen-slinging shop on New York’s Lower East Side into an international brand with ten restaurants (and another on the way this year), a magazine, and countless awards and accolades. In 2010, TIME put Chang on its list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
“That was a very, very gutsy thing to do,” Utagawa says of Chang opening Momofuku in 2004. “There have always been ramen shops in New York, but only Japanese people went there...Momofuku did it in a personal, hands-on way. And it took the fear out of people and made it kind of cool to eat these things.”
Toki chef Erik Bruner-Yang adds that if there’s anyone responsible for so many people being able to open ramen shops and make a living off of them, it’s Chang. “He definitely broke the myth that you don’t have to be Japanese and you don’t have to be from Japan and work ramen your whole life to make a good bowl of ramen,” says Bruner-Yang, who has a Taiwanese heritage.
Bruner-Yang explicitly denies Toki has had any influence on the local ramen trend. But his restaurant—and its legendary wait times—has undoubtedly contributed to ramen’s cool factor. The dining room has graffiti-scrawled walls and a hip-hop and rock soundtrack. An obscure ethnic hole-in-the-wall, it ain’t.
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In the renewed Age of the Artisan, ramen also lends itself to being fetishized by those who crave hand-crafted meals.
A typical ramen broth brews for six hours minimum. Tare, a kind of sauce that is added to the broth to give it is character and flavor, can be aged up to 20 days or a month. Noodles can also be aged up to ten days. And let’s not forget the many toppings, which themselves take hours to braise or prepare. Daikaya plans to follow the lead of Wheaton’s Ren’s Ramen and import its custom-made noodles directly from Japan, where noodle-making masters have perfected the product using underground well water.
Inevitably, the new class of ramen retailers boasts an array of signature bowls. Just as every region and every family has its own variation of the dish, so too does every ambitious chef.
Some people credit the great recession for the rise of comfort foods. Against that backdrop, though, it might seem a bit odd to spend an average of $10 to $15 on something whose grocery-store, instant equivalent costs as much as a pack of gum. On the other hand, consider the ingredients at some ramen-serving Washington establishments: pork cheek at Toki Underground, bulgogi at Sakuramen, and slow-roasted glazed duck leg and thigh at Kramerbooks. Those are some serious proteins. And chances are that the portions are big enough that you won’t even reach the bottom of your bowl.
At The Pig, the tangy, spicy broth topped with charred strips of pork belly, prosciutto, duck egg, basil, chilies, mint, and lime is far from traditional. But the way South Carolina-born chef Garret Fleming describes ramen is not so different from the way he might describe his southern food.
“Ramen was always kind of a stick-out for me just because it is the embodiment of warmth and comfort,” Fleming says. “It’s one of the most beautiful dishes there is.”
And slurping? It’s now totally sexy.
CORRECTION: The original version of this post incorrectly listed the forthcoming Izakaya Seki as a ramen-oriented restaurant. The eatery, which will open later this year, has not finalized its menu.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery (Ren's Ramen, above; Toki Underground, below)
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