Melanie Wong: Pharmaceutical marketing consultant by day, revered San Francisco Chowhounder and ramen-obsessive by night.
Richie Nakano: Chef-owner of Hapa Ramen at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market; slated to open a brick-and-mortar (1527 Fillmore St.) in the new year.
Jerry Jaksich: Former ramen-shop apprentice who—with his erstwhile Chez Panisse cohorts Sam White and Rayneil de Guzman—just opened Ramen Shop (SEE PAGE 73) in Oakland in January.
If there’s a bowl of noodles that merits a heated roundtable discussion, it’s ramen. Momofuku in New York might have brought this classic Japanese comfort dish to the fancy-food front lines, but it’s always been a hot topic for true connoisseurs. Today, San Francisco has never been richer in ramen. Three type A rameniacs weigh in on what makes their chosen dish so unforgettable—for better and for worse.
What do you look for in a noodle?
Jaksich: They should have a springiness—a life to themselves. There are straight ramen noodles and wavy noodles. Each type should suit the other components of a particular ramen, just like Italian pastas complement the sauce they’re going with.
Wong: They should be firm; they should be chewy. At Tsujita in L.A., you can specify how you want them—soft, medium, or hard—but they recommend them hard.
Are housemade noodles necessarily better? I think Namu Gaji and Ramen Shop might be two of the few that make their own.
Nakano: I think Namu’s are really good because [chef] Dennis Lee is in there making them himself like a crazy person—crazy in a good way. Anyone can go to a Japanese goods supplier and order a case of generic ramen noodles that will cost pennies. What I look for these days is something special—and it starts with that noodle.
Wong: I love everything about Namu—I love their farmers’ market stand. But one time I had their handmade ramen at their original Namu restaurant in the Richmond, and I just panned it. I thought it was terrible. The noodles were soft and thin. I gather that a lot of the other Japanese ramen places, like Santa [Ramen] in San Mateo, have their noodles custom-made for them.
Jaksich: For the Ramen Shop, I bought a 600-pound used machine from the guy who taught me to make noodles in Japan. It took seven months to get out here, but it’s like my baby—I talk to it. We even make our own alkaline. As much as I hate putting chemicals in things, it’s what gives the noodles their spring.
Chewy noodles are generally made with alkaline salts. Why don’t you use them for Hapa Ramen’s noodles?
Nakano: Unlike a lot of hardcore ramen people, I’m not a huge alkaline guy. Alkaline salts numb your palate a bit.
You used to make your own noodles. Do you still?
Nakano: Now we have this guy who makes our own recipe for us. He uses egg powder and whey powder and tweaks the noodle to make it as chewy as possible without adding junk.
What draws you to a broth?
Nakano: I used to really gravitate to tonkotsu broth, which is creamy, emulsified, and fatty, but it’s like eating a bacon double cheeseburger with an egg on it. These days, I’m leaning toward shoyu broth.
Wong: I think tonkotsu is very obvious if you really like big, bold flavors. I actually love a well-made shio, or salt, broth, which has briny seafood flavors in it. I think it requires more finesse. The one that comes to mind is at [Ramen Tenma] in San Jose. Even when the chef makes his tonkotsu broth, it doesn’t sit so heavily on you.
What makes a good ramen as a whole?
Wong: I can almost tell if a ramen is going to be good just by the precision—by the way the bowl has been assembled. Precise ones will more likely have balanced textures and flavors.
Jaksich: Men Eiji, in Sapporo, Japan, blew my mind. Their ramen was so complex, and the best part was that the chef made his own noodles in-house.
Wong: It was at Halu Ramen in San Jose. Chef Kumao Arai’s noodles are thicker and very, very chewy. And he makes this very serious tonkotsu broth that he sprinkles with chopped-up bits of pork fat.
Nakano: In terms of putting your bare-naked soul out there, I think that the chicken ramen at Ippuku [in Berkeley] is the one.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of San Francisco Magazine