4 Chefs Share Their Secrets for Upgrading Instant Ramen

Ramen salad? Yes please.

Jo-Jo Valenzuela's ribeye-topped ramen. Photograph courtesy of Jo-Jo Valenzuela.
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How do you turn instant ramen—which has long been the ultimate budget-food cliche (c’mon, did you really survive on it for all four years of college?)—into something more memorable than just a sodium bomb with some curly noodles? Not only is it possible, it’s pretty easy. 

“Adding elements to instant ramen is all about speed,” says Danny Lee, the chef/restaurateur behind DC Korean restaurants Anju and Mandu, plus the fast-casual Chiko. “You need to have everything prepped and ready, because once you start cooking the noodles you have a small window before they will become overcooked and bloated.”

The chefs here all recommend specific brands and ingredients, but really you can just use whatever you already have.

Danny Lee
Chef/restaurateur behind DC Korean restaurants Anju and Mandu and Korean/Chinese fast-casual spot Chiko
Favorite ramen brand: Sapporo Ichiban original (aka “what almost every Asian kid in America grew up on in the ‘80s”). When we wants spicy he goes for Shin Ramen.
Method: First, Lee makes the noodles—they should be fully submerged in water at a full boil, and should have space to move around while cooking. He uses chopsticks to gently separate the strands. After 90 seconds—when the noodles are about halfway done—Lee pours out most of the water, leaving as much as he wants to end up with for broth (about 1 1/2 to 2 cups). He adds the seasoning and dried veggie packet to the pot. Then, he throws in his preferred add-ins: sliced rice cakes which have been soaked in water for a few minutes; diced and seared Spam; shrimp; and an egg cracked straight into the pot, which he swirls around in the hot noodles. He pours the mixture into a bowl, and garnishes it with bias-cut scallions and a full sheet of roasted nori, roughly torn. “It really adds that final touch of umami,” he says. 

Matt Baker
Chef/owner of Ivy City fine dining restaurant, Gravitas 
Favorite ramen brand: Shin Ramen black noodle soup (spicy pot au feu flavor).
Method: Baker is best known for the customizable tasting menus at his fine-dining destination (sample dish: lobster poached in carrot/curry butter). At home, though, he’s not opposed to quickie ingredients. To doctor his ramen, he makes the soup according to the package instructions. Then, he adds a little homemade chicken stock to the broth and lets it reduce a bit. He’ll throw in a pat of butter and some mushrooms or shredded carrots if they’re on hand. He finishes the soup by grating raw garlic overtop, or adding a touch of honey.

Alex McCoy
Chef/owner of Lucky Buns, the Adams Morgan/Union Market burger spots, and Som Tam, a Thai street-food stall in Union Market
Favorite ramen brand: Mama noodles—seasoning packet included—from Thailand.
Method: McCoy, a Thai cuisine obsessive, turns his ramen into a street-snack-inspired noodle salad. He starts by poaching any proteins he’s got—shrimp, ground pork, sausage, imitation crab, whatever—in boiling water. He removes the meats or seafood and cooks the noodles in the same water. He then mixes the noodles and proteins together in a bowl and adds halved cherry tomatoes, sliced shallots or white onions, cilantro, mint, and scallions. If you have fresh or dried Thai chilies, put those in there, too. Then, add 3 cloves worth of chopped garlic, 2 tablespoons lime juice, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, and 2 tablespoons white sugar. Toss, then add the spice packet and serve.

Jo-Jo Valenzuela
Co-owner and chef of the Game, the Filipino/American sports bar in Adams Morgan, and sister bar Tiki on 18th
Favorite ramen brand: Nissen Raoh tonkatsu and miso ramen (one of his kids likes the soy flavor best).
Method: First, Valenzuela scours the fridge to figure out what he has on hand. His best off-the-cuff creation so far, he says, has been tonkatsu ramen topped with slices of ribeye, sauteed cremini mushrooms, corn, a soft-boiled egg, black sesame seeds, and a sheet of nori. Another favorite: miso ramen with roasted pork belly, teriyaki chicken, kimchee, corn, and the nori/soft-boiled egg/sesame seed finish is another favorite.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.