Phoenix has totally taken to sushi, but it's just getting warmed up to ramen.
Considering how many places here are devoted to Vietnamese pho, I'm a little puzzled about the relative scarcity of the Japanese noodle soup — unless you're talking about ubiquitous instant ramen, savior of broke-ass college kids everywhere.
While Top Ramen fills your belly with spongy noodles in a salty broth straight out of a packet, real Japanese ramen is a sensual pleasure, with tender egg noodles steeped in lipsmacking broth that you can't get enough of.
In Japan, stopping for a bowl of ramen is along the lines of grabbing a burger. It's cheap, filling comfort food that you can find everywhere — at mom-and-pop restaurants specializing in it, on train platforms where hurried commuters stand and slurp, on the menu at stylish izakaya, or at cramped street-side yatai (food stands) where the broth is as luxurious as the setting is shabby. And, as with burgers, some restaurants do more exotic, gourmet renditions, adding foie gras or shark fin, and charging accordingly.
You won't find any of the fancy stuff here (yet), but I've done the homework and found several restaurants around town that serve the classic dish.
One new spot in Tempe is all about ramen. Open since this spring, Republic Ramen (1301 E. University Dr., #1, Tempe, 480-388-3865, www.one.republicramen.com) serves up a compact menu of a half-dozen kinds of ramen in a sleek, contemporary cafe setting. There are also a few simple side dishes (curry rice, edamame, or crispy fried gyoza), and cold boba drinks that double as dessert.
I sampled four of the different broths here: shoyu (soy sauce), tonkotsu (pork bone), miso, and the spicy house specialty, Republic. The latter two appealed to me the most, with more robust flavor.
They didn't skimp on miso paste in the miso broth, while the Republic ramen had a nice red chile kick. Shoyu was straightforward and balanced, but the tonkotsu, although tasty, was thinner than it should have been. Slices of juicy charsiu pork made up for that, somewhat.
Of course, you don't have to get pork in your noodle soup. The choice of meats (charsiu pork, shrimp, or beef, as well as tofu) was a welcome option, as was the list of add-ins. Spinach, red bell pepper, carrot, scallions, and sprouts were included with every bowl (and those aren't all traditional ramen ingredients), so I liked being able to dress it up with egg, naruto (fish cake), corn, kimchi, and more meat or tofu. Since shichimi togarashi (seven spice) isn't available on each table, I suggest asking for it at the counter.
Sushi Ken (4206 E. Chandler Blvd., 480-706-7060) is an excellent spot for ramen. As the name suggests, the restaurant is more about sushi, but the menu is expansive, with about as many kinds of ramen as Republic, but a more traditional spin on the dish (each bowl contained sliced fish cake, hardboiled egg, seaweed, pickled ginger, bamboo shoots, scallions, and sprouts).
Portions were about as generous as they come. At lunch, a bowl of soup was even served with some California roll and a salad or edamame — almost too much food, really, but I wasn't complaining.
The tonkotsu broth at Sushi Ken had more body than Republic's, with a richer, meatier pork flavor, while the pork itself was fattier, not as succulent. Better yet was the spicy miso ramen, a truly memorable broth full of umami and just enough heat to keep me slurping past the point of fullness. Very good stuff.
For years, I've relied on Cherryblossom Noodle Cafe (914 E. Camelback Rd., 602-248-9090, www.cherryblossom-az.com) for the best tonkotsu broth in town. It's supple and flavorful, complemented by better-than-average egg noodles.
They call their tonkotsu ramen Hakata, after a ward in Fukuoka, in southern Japan (where tonkotsu is the regional specialty), and also serve a couple versions of the dish with extra pork or some pickled mountain vegetables. I must admit, though, that the roast pork in the soup can vary between sublime and fatty, depending on the day.
A more recent menu addition is miso ramen with salmon, which was also very good — silky broth that didn't overpower delicate slices of fish.
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Nagasaki Grill Toh Zan (2120 W. Southern Ave., Mesa, 480-668-6688) serves three basic kinds of ramen. Here, I'd recommend the miso, which was richer and more complex than the salty, comparatively weak tonkotsu. Curry ramen was fragrant and, frankly, more interesting, because it's a rarity in these parts. Cabbage, bok choy, scallions, and surimi (fake crab) rounded out the soups; the sole option of chicken was a disappointment.
At Hana Japanese Eatery (5524 N. 7th Ave., 602-973-1238, www.hanajapaneseeatery.com), the unsung ramen is classic and worth checking out: yakibuta, a clear, porky soy broth filled with roast pork, fish cake, bamboo shoots, seaweed, and scallions.
Yes, they serve only one kind of ramen here, but this lavish bowl of noodles definitely hits the mark when I'm on a soup mission.
Does it make me an honorary Arizona native for seeking out this stuff in the middle of July? I think so.