Ramen noodles get upgrade as dining-out specialty
For many Americans, ramen noodles aren't exactly beloved — even if those crinkly packs of Top Ramen instant noodles were there when times were tight and we needed them. Friend to off-campus college kids and cheapskates alike, the main appeal of ramen noodles was that they could fill you up for less than a dollar.
The Japanese have a much higher opinion of the ramen noodle, and for good reason. It's a completely different thing when the wheat noodles are freshly handmade, served in a rich, meaty, laboriously concocted broth, with all kinds of other flavorful things thrown in. And not just Japan — in recent years, the real ramen has become common in many of America's culinary capitals and expatriate hubs.
Now, ramen noodles are suddenly everywhere in Pittsburgh. They've followed pad thai (a stir-fried rice noodle dish), pad see ew (flat Thai rice noodles), pho (a Vietnamese soup featuring white rice noodles), and several other Asian noodle dishes, which have become surprisingly ubiquitous in Pittsburgh very quickly.
For acclaimed Pittsburgh restaurateur Kevin Sousa, the spark came from trips to New York City, with visits to ramen specialists like Momofuku and Ippudo.
“We started ramen about nine months ago at Salt (of the Earth), one Sunday a month,” Sousa says. “It worked well, because no one else was really doing it. There were no Japanese noodle shops. A few places had it, but it was an instant broth, and had no real love to it.”
Salt of the Earth keeps changing its menu, but they didn't want to give up the ramen entirely. So, Sousa moved it to Station Street, another restaurant he owns nearby in East Liberty. Station Street is currently expanding from a simple hot dog shop into a specialist in high-quality street food from all over the world: gourmet tacos, soft-serve ice cream, burgers, falafel and so on. Ramen fit right in.
Unlike their Top Ramen relatives, made-from-scratch ramen takes some time.
“We make our noodles,” Sousa says. “They're not dried, instant noodles. They're handmade, thin, kind of eggy noodles.”
Noodles, however, aren't nearly as important as what they go into. Sousa's take on the dish is especially labor-intensive.
“The broth is the most important thing,” Sousa says. “First, you start with a really rich chicken or pork stock, and then you add bits of smoked or unsmoked meats and make what is called a ‘tare.' Basically, it's almost burning the (meat) products, and then continually deglazing with saki and mirin (wine). And you keep scraping the bottom of the pot to build this really rich depth of flavor. There's a little slight bitterness, but then it's offset with the sweetness of the wine. Then, you get all the depth of flavor from continually caramelizing the meat. Then, you add that to your rich stock, and you finish with smoked bonito, which is fish. ... Add some dried mushrooms, ginger and garlic, and lots of aromatics.”
At $14, the price exceeds the rest of the “street food” at Station Street by a considerable margin. But Sousa thinks it's fair, given the complexity and effort required.
“Handmade noodles, a really well-executed broth, and a poached egg,” Sousa says. “We use smoked pork shoulder from Union (Pig & Chicken), our barbecue place. Some classic Japanese fish cakes — basically just white fish pureed and formed in a tube. Then, lots of sliced radishes, scallions and a then a big handful of shredded nori seaweed on top. We think it's pretty damn good.”
Though ramen's origins lie in China, the noodle has become a staple of Japanese culture. There's even a ramen museum in Yokohama, replicating rows of noodle stalls in 1950s Tokyo.
Even the instant ramen packets get respect in Japan. Their inventor, Momofuku Ando, wanted no less than to wipe out world hunger. In 1958, he introduced a product called “Chikin Ramen.” In 1971, he introduced Cup Noodles. In a 2000 Fuji Research Institute survey, the Japanese chose instant noodles as the greatest Japanese invention ever (karaoke was second).
There are many styles and regional variations of ramen. Tonkotsu, for example, has a murky white broth made with pork bone and thin, straight noodles. It's associated with Kyushu region, and pickled ginger and sesame oil are commonly added. Another example is shoyu, which features a light, salty, brown broth made from soy sauce.
Ramen Bar, which just opened in Squirrel Hill, offers three basic broths: shoyu, shio (clear salt base) and miso (marinated soy bean paste). Then, there are multiple options to fill out the soup, including negi ramen ($9, seasoned pork, spicy marinated green onions and a dried seaweed topping) and chashu ramen ($9, includes bean sprouts, bamboo shoots and extra roasted pork).
“I think the key is to do something different,” explains Ramen Bar owner Mike Wu, whose Forbes Avenue, Squirrel Hill, restaurant mini-empire also includes Rose Tea Cafe and Sun Penang. “Real ramen is the broth. Our soup broth, we cook it every day for seven hours. Whatever we don't use the day prior, we throw away.
“Our noodles are also fresh. We don't make it on-site, but the day that I order, they make it that morning and ship it to us.”
Soon after opening in December, Ramen Bar had lines out the door. Clusters of students and mostly younger diners waited patiently for seats in the small space, whose only decoration is a wall-size photo of Tokyo's bright, garish nightlife.
“They have different types of ramen broth,” Wu says. “I chose these kinds because it's healthier. Typically, they use tonkotsu, which is pork bone only. It's a lot thicker and not as healthy.”
Other specialty-noodle soups at Ramen Bar use coconut curry, kimchi, garlic and egg drop soup.
“In our area, it's pretty diverse,” Wu says. “I wanted to do a bit of everything. We do kim chee ramen, which is Korean, but cooked Japanese-style. We have two types of curry. Those are leaning towards more Thai, but made Japanese-style.”
Fukuda in Bloomfield gets lots of attention for its sushi, but their ramen does well, too.
“It's our main seller,” says Fukuda chef/owner Matt Kemp. “When it's cold outside, (diners) get sushi, but almost every table also gets ramen.”
Kemp's take on ramen ($10.50) features pork belly, scallions, young bamboo shoots and a poached egg. Like most other serious ramen scholars, though, it all goes back to one thing.
“It starts with our stock,” says Kemp. “We make it in a giant pot. It takes 12 to 24 hours. It's primarily chicken and pork-based. There's pigs feet and pork knuckles in there, which gives it that awesome gelatinous sticky texture, so it's really rich and fantastic.”
“We do make the noodles from scratch. We messed around with a bunch of different recipes (and made) something that's a little bit springy, and has that perfect rounded texture to it.”
This month, Fukuda will be expanding its ramen options into lunches.
“We'll have three different types of ramen for lunches,” Kemp says. “The original pork-based one, a fish-based one (using fish heads from all the fresh fish we get here), and a vegetable and miso-based one.”
Soon there will even more noodles in Squirrel Hill. Another noodle shop called Everyday Noodles, whose sign says “traditional handmade noodles and soup dumplings,” is going in across the street from Ramen Bar.
There's also Noodlehead in Shadyside, which doesn't sell ramen at the moment, but does a great job with Thai street noodle dishes.
“We always had the idea of doing a noodle bar,” says Noodlehead co-owner Michael Johnsen. “My partner, she's Thai. We were going to do some other genres of noodles, but there are enough good Thai noodles that we thought we'd stick to that for now.
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.