Last week we kicked off our Ultimate Battle of the Dishes ramen bracket that pits some of the Valley's restaurants against each other in a tournament-style match up to find the city's best ramen spots. In our first throw down we put Phoenix's Hana Japanese Eatery against the Clever Koi and in the end it came down to a preference for simplicity over Clever Koi's modern take. You can recap the play-by-play for yourself here.
This week we're taking the action to Tempe to see which ASU-adjacent ramen shop will move on to the second round of our Ultimate Battle of the Ramen.
In this corner: Republic Ramen & Noodles
The Setup: For years Republic Ramen, located just south of ASU's Tempe campus has been the student's go-to spot for ramen with flavoring that doesn't come out of a packet. It's a trendy sort of scene with nice-looking (but pretty uncomfortable) wooden booths and red light fixtures that give everything an eerie glow by night. In addition to ramen they also offer boba drinks, beer, and sake. Because, college kids, duh.
At Republic you get your choice of toppings on your ramen -- either "original," which includes spinach, sprouts, scallions, and carrots; or "traditional," which includes memma (bamboo shoots), nori (seaweed), naruto (fish cake), and scallions. Both also include your choice of meat.
The Good: Republic offers nine different types of broth, which means that there's something to appeal to everyone. We tried the Shio, sea salt, and Tokyo, a spicy Tonkatsu borth, on this recent visit. The shio was lightly salty and perfectly enjoyable, but completely out-shined by the flavorful Tokyo broth. The pork-based dashi broth offered nice body and richness, in addition to just enough heat to get your nose running by the end of the meal. Dashi broth is traditionally made with dried smoked bonito flakes and sea kelp, so by combining dashi with pork broths you get a unique hybrid that's relatively light but still gives a a bit of that ideal meaty-ness.
The Bad: Republic's noodles were overcooked, lacking the firm texture of authentic and properly cooked noodles. We also didn't particularly love their pork, which was dry and a little too tough for our taste -- despite being soaked in ramen broth.
In this corner: Umami
The Setup: This relative newcomer to the ramen scene seems perfectly poised to poach Republic's student customer base with its location just off Mill Avenue. The only problem is that it's hidden from the main drag as the entrance is located on the backside of the Brickyard building on Sixth Street. Owner and chef Jared Lupin is a former Republic employee, which means these two Tempe spots should have a lot in common. But as far as atmosphere goes that theory doesn't really hold true. Unlike its counterpart, Umami sports a bright, colorful vibe with chalkboard walls and murals throughout a spacious dining room and bar.
The Good: Umami veers away from the norm by offering a paitan broth that's made with pork and chicken bone. Paitan refers in this case to the style of broth, which should be thick and creamy. The most popular example of this style broth is tonkatsu, a variation that's made with pork bones only. Umami's version of paitan is milky-colored and thick, as it should be, but didn't have that extra dimension of flavor you get with super slow-cooked bone broths that can take days to make.
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The Bad: All of the ramen at Umami comes with memma, scallions, carrot flowers, fish cake, and seaweed with the option to add other toppings (think egg, corn, and roasted, garlic) if you like. It's nice to be able to customize your bowl, but we don't particularly like spinach and raw carrots with our ramen. And we still found the noodles here to be slightly on the soft side, though closer to our ideal texture than at Republic. As for the pork, Umami offers "roasted pork" and "chashu (pork belly)" but we were mostly underwhelmed by the latter, which was tougher than we would have liked.
The Winner: Republic Ramen
This is a close match-up since both places have rich, flavorful broths you can't really find elsewhere in the Valley, but in the end we have to go with Republic for a couple reasons. The quality of the food is comparable at both places, Republic gets bonus points for being cheaper -- if only, slightly cheaper. At Umami your bowl will cost you $8 plus an additional couple bucks for protein. At Republic you get a completely loaded bowl for just under $8. We also have to admit we're more likely to head to Republic, which has a spacious parking lot, than Umami with its hard-to-find entrance and validated parking garage. It's worth mentioning that we definitely prefer the atmosphere at Umami better and really, no matter which you choose you're in for a solid bowl of ramen.