In Japan, they call any big, nationwide trend a boom (ブーム). For example, right now cilantro is all the rage in Japan. I'm serious - cilantro on EVERYTHING. So you could say there's a cilantro boom in full force in Japan.
It's taken a long while for the ramen boom to hit the Bay Area. I grew up here, and besides exciting trips to Katanaya in downtown San Jose or Ryowa Ramen in Mountain View, there were very little options. Santa Ramen in San Mateo was a game changer but it was Orenchi's opening in Santa Clara in 2010 that really shifted the ramen landscape here.
I wrote a round-up of my favorite ramen spots in the Bay Area in 2016, and we're making this an annual tradition. Just in the last year we have seen three highly-anticipated openings - Ippudo has made its west coast debut - from Fukuoka to NYC to Berkeley - and there's still an hour long line to get into Mensho (from Tokyo to SF) a year into its opening. And Marufuku recently opened in San Francisco as well, causing a frenzy in J-Town.
In 2017, I'm proud to announce that ramen has finally hit boom status in the Bay Area!
Even with so many options to choose from, I was able to come up with my top three bowls of ramen pretty easily. These are places that you can go to time and time again for consistent bowls of ramen. That is what is the most prized characteristic of all - consistency. I want my noodles perfectly cooked, the broth full of umami and the bowl piping hot. How good should the broth be? So good that I drink almost all of it. These criteria are what make the ramen on this list spectacular.
Of course, it's always a heated topic, these "best ramen" lists. Please comment below and let us know what your favorite bowls are in the Bay Area! And make sure to read until the end for my "takeaways" section where I show you tricks and tips to order like a pro.
2015 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley
I went to Ippudo when it first opened in NYC around 2008 and had not been back since. I found the dark, club-like atmosphere and exorbitant prices to be obnoxious. $15 for a bowl of ramen... WTF?!?! I couldn't tell you how the actual ramen tasted as I was so absorbed with the pricepoint and atmosphere. 28 year old me was poor and not very discerning.
The lines have not shrunk much in the original East Village branch and there are now two locations in NYC. Ippudo announced that they would open in Berkeley in 2016 and when it finally opened this summer, we were all fatigued by all the hype. How good could this ramen actually be?
Nearly ten years after my first bowl across the country, 37 year old-me says that Ippudo makes excellent ramen. And $15 for ramen? It's the norm! I will tell you that Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen is not my favorite - I don't love the straight, thin noodles and heavy pork broth. But Ippudo's broth is light on its feet and you can choose the firmness of your noodles!
I had the basic bowl of Shiromaru Classic, which is topped with moyashi (bean sprouts), wood ear mushrooms, negi and two slices of chashu (roast pork). I got the noodles kata-men (firm) and they were easy to slurp with enjoyable texture.
I enjoyed this broth so much that I finished the bowl to the last drop. This hardly ever happens for me with tonkotsu broth - it's usually so slick with oil. The broth at Ippudo is done so well.
The interior is bright and bustling.
People still complain about the line but it goes by pretty fast if you do not go during peak lunch/dinner hours. I went on a Friday at 3pm and was in and out in 30 minutes.
1438 Broadway, Oakland
I am a big fan of Shiba Ramen but admit that I can only vouch for their newer outpost in Oakland (the original is in Emeryville). Shiba is right down the street from Umami Mart so I go there often to enjoy a bowl of ramen for lunch or a glass of sake and snacks after work.
Danny Keiser is the chef at Shiba and has a hand in every aspect of the menu - from the drinks to the appetizers to the ramen. He used to cook at Camino in Oakland (while I bartended there) so he has wide culinary range which is demonstrated well at Shiba. He takes the noodles extremely seriously and uses different styles for different bowls. The bounciest noodle, thanks to the extra kansui (alkaline), is in the "Spicy" tantanmen (pictured above and here):
I love a bouncy, curly, eggy ramen noodle. Shiba does this perfectly. Both the "Clear Dark" (shoyu) and "Spicy" (tantanmen) bowls are stand-out - the shoyu comes with bok choy, egg (always gooey), moyashi, chashu and negi and the broth is chicken based. The tantanmen is a chicken/pork bone-based sesame broth with minced pork, egg, negi and bok choy. While it does have heat to it, ask for extra spicy if you are a lover of spice.
Happy hour is daily from 4pm-6:30pm with a great sake and beer list. Shiba Ramen is a welcome addition to downtown Oakland and for the ramen scene beyond.
HINODEYA RAMEN BAR
1737 Buchanan Street, San Francisco
Hinodeya makes my favorite bowl of ramen in the Bay Area. I guess I'm a bit biased since they hail from Saitama prefecture, where I was born. Aside from that however, their House Ramen made with their signature dashi broth is just plain wonderful.
Opened in late 2016, Hinodeya occupies the old Shalala ramen space in Japantown, SF. It is an excellent addition to the ramen scene in SF. I've never had to wait in line here, and the staff is always welcoming.
This bowl boasts two generous slices of chashu, finely sliced negi, bamboo shoots, and whole wheat noodles. You can see the specks of wheat in the noodles, which are a bit wider cut, yet springy with excellent texture.
The broth itself is a dreamboat of fish stock and umami. How could it be so light in color yet have so much depth of flavor? It is a wonder.
The housemade condiments - "Tabera" and "Umami Paste" are impressive. I especially enjoyed the Tabera, which is their version of taberu rayu, with bits of garlic and onion in spicy sesame oil. This went well with the karaage (fried chicken).
The space is modern and airy. You will be asked to share a communal table if that is all that is available.
Well that's my list - whether you agree or disagree with my choices, it is clear that finding a good bowl of ramen in the Bay Area is becoming easier to find (without having to schlep down to the South Bay). I'm happy that, as an East Bay resident, there are more ramen spots opening up over here! Make sure to comment below on your favorite bowls in the Bay so I can consider them for next year's list. Until then, slurp on!
2017 Report Takeaways
Fun Fact: You can choose the firmness of the noodles!
Menu highlights: Great sake list and small bites to enjoy before the ramen finale.
Cheapest bowl of ramen on menu: $14
Insider tip: Avoid the line and go around 3-4pm on weekdays.
Fun Fact: The noodles are different in each bowl of ramen. The springiest noodle with the most kansui (alkaline) is in the Miso or Spicy tantanmen bowl.
Menu highlights: Keep an eye on the specials like renkon (lotus root) crisps and Momo Sando (fried chicken sandwich). And don't miss the Shiba Wings.
Cheapest bowl of ramen on menu: $10.50; $7 bowls of mini tantanmen during Happy Hour (4pm-6:30pm daily).
Insider Tip: Try the house-made rayu (spicy sesame oil) and if ask for your ramen "extra spicy" if you love heat.
Hinodeya Ramen Bar
Fun Fact: Hinodeya started as a 15-seat eatery in Saitama prefecture in 1885.
Menu highlights: "Cheese Royal" - cream cheese cubes marinated in dashi.
Cheapest bowl of ramen on menu: $14
Insider tip: Ask if they have any Shinkame sake you could try by the glass.