In 2004, Alexandria native David Chang opened his first restaurant, Momofuku Noodle Bar, in New York—and with it the US ramen revolution began. Sure, there had been quiet ramen joints all over the country, but for most Americans the Japanese noodle soup meant a Styrofoam cup, a packet of powder, and a dorm room. Chang’s tiny East Village restaurant quickly attracted the attention of chefs, critics, and Manhattan diners, who lined up for his revelatory bowls laden with pork belly and pork shoulder. Now his mini-empire includes myriad spinoffs—bakeries and izakayas along with outposts in Sydney and Toronto—and he’s one of the most influential chefs of the last decade.
Here, ramen’s popularity has progressed slowly. You could find traditional bowls at Ren’s Ramen in Wheaton. Toki Underground, which opened on Northeast DC’s H Street in 2011, almost immediately drew hour-plus lines for its excellent Taiwanese-style soups. But only recently has the wave crested—in the last six months alone, three new ramen shops have appeared.
The most ambitious is Azuma Izakaya (316 N. Washington St., Rockville; 301-738-2126), a spacious dining room with chili-red walls and a friendly vibe.
The kitchen is led by Yuh Shimomura, who was a chef at Sei in DC’s Penn Quarter and before that spent eight years at Kaz Sushi Bistro. And though ramen is only a small part of his menu, it’s done well. A rich, pork-rib-based broth makes the tonkatsu-style bowl—loaded with curly noodles, sheets of seaweed, and roasted pork—the standout.
The shoyu ramen’s chicken-and-soy-sauce-based liquid is nearly as flavorful but has the advantage of coming in half portions. That lets you supplement your soup with other worthy bites: a quintet of chicken meatballs perked up with ginger and sesame paste and served with an array of condiments; thick slices of raw yellowtail sprinkled with scallion; or an elegantly restrained square of tofu floating in earthy dashi broth with enoki mushrooms.
But the best thing on the menu comes after the savory stuff—a snowball of shaved ice doused in mango syrup and condensed milk and finished with chopped mango.
“I eat three of those a week,” our server says. I would, too.
In Japan, izakayas are as much about drinking as eating. At Azuma, the gold lettering on the wall contains a sobriety test of sorts for patrons downing Kirin Ichibans. “It’s the Katakana Japanese alphabet,” explains manager William La. “Japanese folklore says if you leave an izakaya, make sure you can still read the alphabet, symbolizing you can still walk home safely.”
Diners won’t have any such issue at Sakuramen (2441 18th St., NW; 202-656-5285). Despite its location on Adams Morgan’s booze-soaked main drag, there’s no alcohol, nor is it open late. The hours are too bad because newbie restaurateurs Jonathan Cho and Jay Park are putting out what could be the perfect post-drinking fill-up—pillowy chasu buns filled with sweetly marinated pork belly or portobello mushrooms.
The pair gets creative with ramen, taking inspiration from their Korean heritage and throwing spicy kimchee and shreds of bulgogi into the chosun bowl and a “fireball” of ground dried chilies into a miso broth. The broths, save for one vegetarian option, are all chicken-based and not as deeply flavorful as some of the pork ones at other places. But the noodles—both wavy and curly—are high-quality, and the result is a soothing bowl of soup. If you’re nursing a fall cold, this is the ramen to get.
Tanpopo Ramen House (4316 Markham St., Annandale; 202-270-3043) can be a challenge to find. There’s no sign outside, and it’s buried inside a dingy mall next to the bustling dim sum house A&J Restaurant. But owner Dave Kim has done his best to spiff up the snug dining room—it used to be a bakery—painting its walls pale celadon and sunset orange and outfitting it with leather chairs and a blue-lit sushi bar.
Chef Mitsutoshi Shinmoto—who won fans with his offbeat rolls at Alexandria’s Yamazato and Reston’s Ariake—is handling both the sushi bar and the kitchen. So it’s no surprise that the salmon-belly nigiri is carefully sliced and rolls of shrimp tempura are well crafted.
There are four varieties of ramen, each made with a broth coaxed from pork bones, ginger, onions, and peppers. Best is the assertively spicy Nagasaki ramen, with its drizzle of peppery red oil. But bowls are undone by soggy noodles and such corner-cutting toppings as flavorless corn and lifeless sprouts.
Still, as I made my way through the tamely flavored miso broth, I was reminded that ramen is kind of like pizza or Peruvian chicken. Even average versions can be tasty enough—and they feel masterful compared with the powdered stuff of college days.