Ramen, Ramen Everywhere: Where to Get Ramen in Washington

There are more places than ever to warm up over big bowls of the Japanese noodle soup. We slurped our way through them—and found some excellent pork-belly buns and mango shaved ice along the way.
Unwinding over ramen at Tanpopo in Annandale. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Unwinding over ramen at Tanpopo in Annandale. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

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.



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