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Ramen on the rise in the South Sound

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on May 16, 2014 at 12:00 am | No Comments »
May 21, 2014 8:22 am
Shoyu ramen at downtown Tacoma's Fujiya Japanese Restaurant is flavored with a soy sauce broth.
Shoyu ramen at downtown Tacoma’s Fujiya Japanese Restaurant is flavored with a soy sauce broth.

I’m just going to say this now, for the record: You won’t ever find me waiting four hours in line for ramen.

In certain pockets of the country, ramen chefs achieve rock star status for fancying up a culinary underachiever long relegated to American dorm room cooking.

Last week’s opening of Ivan Orkin’s ramen shop in New York City yielded a media frenzy, and diners lined up for a bowl.

It’s not just an East Coast weird food thing. Seattle is in on the ramen frenzy with more than a dozen eateries opening there.

But long lines for ramen in Tacoma? Would that — could that? — ever happen here, in a region that practically prides itself in snubbing precious foodie trends?

Ramen noodles should have the slightest chewy resistance; the broth is best when boiled from pork or chicken bones.
Ramen adviser told me this: Noodles should have the slightest chewy resistance; the broth is best when boiled from pork or chicken bones. This is a bowl of tonkotsu ramen at I Love Ramen in Federal Way.

Nah. I don’t foresee Tacomans waiting hours for ramen, and I don’t think ramen ever could knock pho — the Vietnamese beef noodle cousin to Japanese ramen — from its revered soup pedestal here. A few restaurants have dabbled in it, such as Gordon Naccarato’s short-lived (and excellent) ramen on his Noodle Bar menu in 2010, but nothing has stuck. Until now.

Lately, I’ve seen a trickle of ramen pop onto menus – and readers are asking where to find it. Tacoma reader Sean Dean sent me this in April: “… is there anywhere to get honest-to-goodness ramen in Tacoma?”

Dean’s question led to a deeper South Sound search and interesting discussions with Dean and chef Masahiro Endo, who opened the Fujiya Japanese Restaurant in downtown Tacoma 30 years ago and who recently started serving ramen (more on that in a moment).

First, meet Dean. He’s an adventurous eater drawn to ramen photos circulating on social media feeds. I asked: What makes him want to find ramen here?

The crux of his curiosity wasn’t about the flavor of ramen, but about presentation, “It’s kind of artwork, from what I know of it. Somebody who takes a lot of pride in their ramen, when they put it in the bowl, it’s noodle and egg and whatever they put in it. They arrange it in a way that’s pretty. It’s not like pho, where you throw everything in a bowl.”

OK, fair point. We diners eat with our eyes and in the culinary universe; Japanese chefs rank highest for painstaking attention to aesthetics.

Take, for example, the beautiful plating of Japanese sushi.

In fact, Endo believes diners here should view ramen as something like the evolution of sushi. Thirty years ago when he opened Fujiya, Tacoma didn’t “understand” sushi, said Endo. Today, sushi comprises the bulk of his sales because Tacoma’s palate, as he described, “matured, grew up.”

Endo said ramen here has that same potential as sushi, judging from ramen’s 20-year fervent following in Japan and more recent United States acceptance.

“Hundreds of ramen stores line the streets,” explained Endo of his native Japan.

When visiting Japan, he finds copious choices, from soups topped crazily with faddish foods to ramen spiked with chiles (he calls those “young people’s ramen”). Or, one of his favorites, a bowl of Japanese ramen with a pork-bone stock called tonkotsu (different from the Japanese breaded pork dish, tonkatsu).

A bit of ramen education, courtesy of Endo and other ramen experts: Don’t think of restaurant ramen as that instant soup stuff scarfed in a dorm room. That’s akin to comparing a fast food burger joint to a steakhouse. While packaged ramen takes seconds to create and is loaded with dubious-sounding sodium-laced ingredients, restaurant ramen (at least the good stuff) should begin with a stock that takes at least a day to boil from pork or chicken bones (tip: ask before ordering how the stock is made).

Like any soup, there are countless ways to create the flavor base for ramen – with or without a bone-based broth – but for those I talked to for this story – a bone broth was the unifying check on the ramen must-have list. Endo  noted several flavors can fuel a broth – shoyu (soy sauce), miso (the paste) and seaweed (Endo’s a fan of that one).

Seafood ramen at Pho Ever in Tacoma.
Seafood ramen at Pho Ever in Tacoma.

It takes Endo’s sous chef two days to make Fujiya’s soup stock, which he described as something of a tonkotsu broth in that it’s been long boiled.

Second on that ramen check list, the bowl of soup should be as beautiful as it is deeply flavored. Let Fujiya’s be your guide. Ramen there comes with artfully arranged seaweed, boiled egg halves with still-creamy yolks, a raft of sliced scallions flanking wedges of pink-swirled fish cake, roasted pork sliced on the bias and a tangle of vibrant green spinach. Fujiya’s ramen bowls were gorgeous, complexly flavored and well-priced at $8.95.

I couldn’t resist asking Endo: If ramen has been so prolific in Japan for decades, why are Americans just now embracing it in recent years?

It boils down, so to speak, to the age-old problem for food imports: ingredient access.

Twenty years ago, Endo started serving ramen in Tacoma, but had to make do with yakisoba noodles, something he abandoned quickly. “We couldn’t get them here,” he said of ramen noodles that come with a slippery texture and a deliciously chewy resistance (which is nothing like the instant stuff).

As Japanese companies recently began importing ramen noodles to American restaurants, highfalutin ramen shops followed. Now, some restaurants, such as the aforementioned Ivan’s Ramen in New York City, have elevated ramen with house-made noodles.

Below are places where you can find a bowl of ramen — but don’t worry, you won’t have to wait in line four hours.

Miso ramen is another variation of the noodle soup at Tacoma's Fujiya Japanese Restaurant.
Miso ramen is another variation of the noodle soup at Tacoma’s Fujiya Japanese Restaurant.

Fujiya Japanese Restaurant
1125 Court C, Tacoma; 253-627-5319, fujiyatacoma.com.

Since 1984, Fujiya has been Tacoma’s go-to destination for beautifully styled Japanese food, and the recent menu addition of ramen has been no exception to that simplistic beauty for which Fujiya has built a reputation. Of four restaurants sampled for this report, Fujiya’s was the most pleasantly presented. Ramen ($8.95) came with a base stock perked up with a choice of flavorings, either miso or shoyu (soy sauce). Chewy noodles with delicious resistance left me chasing every bit of ramen in the bowls filled with salty satisfaction.

Shoyu ramen at Federal Way's I Love Ramen. This soup came with a side of tempura.
Shoyu ramen at Federal Way’s I Love Ramen. This soup came with a side of tempura.

I Love Ramen
31254 Pacific Highway S., Federal Way; 253-839-1115.

While Tacoma has yet to fetch a ramen house, Federal Way has. I Love Ramen listed more than 20 choices. A bowl of milky-colored tonkotsu ramen ($9.95) imparted an oily sheen on my lips from the collagen-rich, deeply nuanced pork bone broth. A bowl of shoyu-spiked ramen ($12.95, with tempura) was lighter, the flavor less complex. Both bowls popped with flavor from sweet corn and pickled ginger.

Kimchi ramen at Pho Ever in Tacoma. It's not a traditional ramen, but it's tasty.
Kimchi ramen at Pho Ever in Tacoma. It’s not a traditional ramen, but it’s tasty.

Pho Ever/House of Ramen
1901 S. 72nd St., Tacoma; 253-475-7777.

This pho cafeteria restaurant has an eight-item menu called “House of Ramen,” an intersection of Vietnamese-Korean-Japanese fusion. We picked seafood ramen ($8.95) with a briny broth and shellfish and a bowl of kicky kimchi-spiced ramen with pork ($7.95). Broths here tasted sharper, but lacked slow-boiled depth. I appreciated the trove of ingredients that sank to the bottom: sliced mushrooms, scallions, carrots, zucchini and plenty of onions. Perhaps because of its environment, the ramen looked more like pho than Japanese ramen.

Miso ramen at Sushi Niwa in Lakewood. This soup is not always available, but you can ask for it.
Miso ramen at Sushi Niwa in Lakewood. This soup is not always available, but you can ask for it.

Sushi Niwa
9701 South Tacoma Way, Lakewood; 253-212-1282

Find miso-flavored ramen with braised pork ($6.99) as an occasional special in this cafeteria-style restaurant at Lakewood’s Paldo World, a sprawling Korean grocery store.

YOUR TURN: Has ramen snuck into the region elsewhere? Post your findings below, eaters.

Sue Kidd dines anonymously and The News Tribune pays for all meals.

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