Who has better ramen: New York or San Francisco? My recent fixation with ramen brought about a bicoastal trek in search for the answer.
First Stop: Manhattan
In the East Village, just around the corner from Momofuku (New York’s other famed noodle house), lies the first U.S. outpost of Ramen Setagaya, a mini-chain of ramen shops originating in Japan. Setagaya has garnered solid acclaim this year.
Upon entering, I immediately noticed the pared-down atmosphere. The kitchen was entirely visible from the small seating area, which, besides having Japanese TV, was completely no-frills. Consequently, I was surprised to see a sign that said, “No takeout.”
The kitchen at Ramen Setagaya
The menu offered only one flavor of ramen: shio (or salt-broth) ramen with pork. The only menu options were in size and serving style: The ramen could be ordered piping hot in shio broth, or tsukemen-style, with thicker, cold noodles to be dipped in warm shio broth. I opted for something new and went with the noodles in dipping sauce over traditional soup ramen, since I love chewier, thicker noodles.
Because I really wanted to enjoy the noodles like a traditional bowl of ramen, I wound up transferring all of the noodles into the warm shio broth. The cold noodles, with the warm shio broth, turned the temperature of the dish to lukewarm, which regrettably put quite a damper on my eating experience.
Shio dipping broth
Still, I couldn’t discount the tender, chewy cubes of pork, the extremely al dente noodles, and the broth, which was made with a cornucopia of ingredients, including pork, chicken, several dried seaweeds, fried onions and dried scallops. Each ingredient seemed to add another layer of complexity of the soup’s flavor profile: the scallops added a meaty texture, the seaweed a briny flavor, and so on. I only supposed this made up for the lack of add-ons (such as scallions, bamboo shoots and egg) that typically top ramen bowls.
Tsukemen immersed in shio dipping broth
My only other complaint was that, of all three waitresses at Setagaya that night, not one seemed to be professional and attentive. The sat in front of us, gossiping, even crouching down at one point to hide from the customers (even though Andy and I could see they were squatting on the floor, whispering in Korean). While we finished our meal, the waitstaff proceeded with their cleaning duties, and it was difficult to enjoy my delicious, aromatic pork ramen while I had the smell of Windex up my nose. And more importantly, I left with a bunch of burning tsukemen questions left unanswered: Why did the tsukemen arrive without toppings? And why was the pork in the tsukemen cubed, rather than sliced? Why didn’t the regular ramen have the option of being served with thicker noodles? (Her answer to this last question was, in not so many words, just because.)
FYI, to all the ramen aficionados out there: The questions still stand.
Stop Two: San Mateo (Bay Area)
A week later, I found myself standing in line at the renowned Santa Ramen, on the busy street of El Camino Real in San Mateo. My friend Steph has long touted Santa as the best ramen in the Bay Area, and my two-stop trek really is nothing compared to her six-stop ramen day tour (you can read her recap here). Santa Ramen, which is notorious for its long lines and taxing waits, recently moved to a larger location to better serve its clientele.
Santa Ramen interior
While I realize that should have ordered the shio broth (and yes, I feel guiltily unfair for not doing so), I went for the miso broth, which a Japanese friend recommended. It was creamy, to the point of being almost milky, although I’m pretty sure it contained no dairy whatsoever. The broth was cloudy, lacking any of the clarity that I saw in the my shio broth at Setagaya, but it was also the least salty broth, which I liked. Unlike Setagaya, my ramen came fully loaded with two oversized pork slices, a sheet of roasted seaweed, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots and chopped scallions. I also added kimchi to my order, and Andy added a cooked egg.
Pork Ramen with Miso Broth
The noodles were enticingly al dente, but I wished they had absorbed more of the soybean flavor of the miso broth. The bean sprouts added a bit of crunch, and I enjoyed the two elements, crunchy and chewy, that I experienced when biting into the noodles. The sour, pungent, crisp kimchi was one of the highlights of the meal. The pork, which should have been one of my favorite elements, wasn’t warm enough, moist enough or fatty enough. As my friend Fumiko would say, fat is essential to any good ramen.Next time, just to be as fair as possible, I’ll be sure to order the ramen in a shio broth (although I didn’t see tsukemen as an option on the menu).
If I could have it any way I wanted, I think I would pick and choose, just like in a salad bar:
Broth: the miso, from Santa Ramen
Noodles: the tsukemen, from Ramen Setagaya
Pork: the cubed pork, from Ramen Setagaya
Egg: the barely-cooked style from Momofuku
In short, the verdict has remained somewhat elusive. I’ve determined that this simply requires that I perform another taste test.
That, plus I just heard there’s an even newer, bigger and better ramen haunt in town: Ippudo. The pork-based broth supposedly simmers for fifteen hours…
Ramen Setagaya, 141 First Ave., New York, New York 212.529.2740
Santa Ramen, 1944 S El Camino Real, San Mateo, Calif. 650.344.5918