Ramen has come a long way since the five-for-a-buck instant "noodle bricks" of our college dorm days. In Japan, ramen is a comfort food dish consisting of thin wheat noodles curled up in a rich broth. There are several types of ramen, and many regional variations, including the popular miso ramen, shōyu (soy sauce based) ramen and our favorite -- tonkotsu, a creamy broth made with pork bones and fat.
A few years ago, ramen was tough to find outside of supermarket shelves. But thanks to rising interest in Japanese culture, this culinary trend has made its way to Phoenix. This week, we check out the tonkotsu ramen at two local noodle houses. Who will win the Noodle Cup?
In One Corner: Republic Ramen & Noodles
1301 E. University Dr. in Tempe
We wander into Republic Ramen at 8 o'clock on a Saturday night. The place is deserted (not a good sign), save for one nuclear family speaking in hurried Japanese (which is a good sign) and a trio of college students. Republic is similar to Pei-Wei in style and format: you order at the counter, take a number and wait for your food to arrive. The decor is Asian minimalist meets urban warehouse chic, with chunky square furnishings, exposed ductwork and white walls with no artwork other than a large sign advertising the restaurant's name.
Our cashier is friendly and informative, noticing that it's our first visit. She holds up a large, flat bowl that's bigger than my head and tells us that it's a single serving. Holy crap! It would take me hours to finish a bowl of noodles that size. It's also under $7 a bowl. She runs through the list of available ramen -- miso, shio, vegetarian. At the recommendation of several Yelpers, we spring the $1 for extra noodles in our tonkotsu.
My dining companion and I enjoy shrimp tempura ($3) and gyoza ($2) while we anxiously await our noodle bowl. The broth arrives topped with fresh spinach leaves, flower-shaped carrots, bean sprouts and three thin slices of pork. It's a pretty presentation.
We dig in with white plastic miso spoons and are surprised by the creaminess of the broth. It's salty, but not overly so, with a savory pork flavor. Milk products are not generally added to tonkotsu, though from the velvety texture you might swear it's a cream-based broth. "This is delicious," says my dining companion. "The broth is addictively good." The noodles are plentiful, though nothing special.
The veggies are crisp and fresh, but the pork is a disappointment. Only three small slices, and they're fattier than we like. I barely eat a mouthful before I turn the meat over to my partner and go back up to the counter to order peas and more carrots. Next time, I'll try the chicken breast or order my bowl meatless.
Never having visited Japan, I can't testify to the authenticity of Republic's ramen. It feels more Pan-Asian than exclusively Japanese, but I can forgive that since the broth is so satisfying.
In the Other Corner: Cherryblossom Noodle Cafe
914 E. Camelback Rd. in Phoenix
We pull up to Cherryblossom Noodle Cafe for a weeknight dinner and walk in to an almost packed house. The place is small, but warm and comforting, with faux brick walls and a shiny red telephone booth reminiscent of the muggle entrance to Harry Potter's Ministry of Magic. In the open kitchen, Asian chefs laugh and banter in their native tongues whilst churning out endless batches of noodles, sushi and even Italian pasta. A dessert case beckons with colorful cakes and silky chocolate mousse -- a favorite with local food blogger JK Grence.
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SHOW ME HOW
We order a happy hour California roll for two bucks and await our dish of Hakata ramen, another name for tonkotsu derived from a Japanese city north of Kyushu. A few minutes later our dish arrives. The bowl is noticeably smaller than Republic's oversized china, and the broth darker in color. Inside is a nest of homemade-looking wheat noodles topped with thin curls of kikurage mushroom that look deceptively like noodles.
"The broth is warm and savory," says my volunteer taste-tester. "But this pork has way too much fat." The broth is less creamy than its counterpart, with a smoky pork flavor and a strange bitter undertone I can't place. It's so heavy, I can only stomach a few mouthfuls before I need a palate-cleansing bite of California roll.
I barely touch the pork, leaving my companion to down the bland, fatty strips. The noodles in Cherryblossom's ramen are glutinous and heavy, but taste fresh. Overall, that's a good description for this ramen dish: heavy. Kikurage strips lighten it with earthy flavor, as well as a much needed crunch. The mushroom was a nice touch. But while corn or carrots aren't commonplace in most types of authentic Japanese ramen, I miss the texture of the fresh vegetables slowly steeping in the broth.
The Winner: Props to Cherryblossom for their authenticity and warmth, but Republic Ramen & Noodles is where I'll go for a delicious bowl of noodles.