When I was 24, I spent two weeks in Kyoto. At the time, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines in desperate need of a vacation, and plane tickets from Manila to Japan were insanely cheap.
I went to the resplendent Golden Temple. I went to the gorgeous Kiyomizu-dera temple. I walked among the innumerable torii gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine, and biked through the city along the Kamo river to the shimmering bamboo forest.
But when I think about Japan, two memories stick out. One, a ramen stall in the historic centuries-old Nishiki Market. My travel buddies and I visited this particular stall a handful of times because of a few things: I loved pulling away the small curtain to enter the teeny tiny shop; the same two middle-aged women were there with beaming smiles each time we came in; the ramen was so incredibly simple, so dang good, and so dang cheap. It was an unadorned bowl of perfectly glossy noodles in a comforting broth, topped with a slab of lightly fried tofu and little else save a sprinkling of scallions. It was called “kitsune” ramen: kitsune is the Japanese word for “fox.” Apparently, foxes love eating tofu, and I found this explanation charming.
The second memory is unabashedly cliche: after a night of drinking that ended in a late-late-night karaoke session with newly made friends, ever-present Irish and Canadian backpackers, we found ourselves slurping gigantic bowls of shoyu ramen in a vast, high-ceilinged wooden ramen house. It was one of the most uniquely satisfying meals of my life. The broth was out-of-this world delicious, and only in part because it was soaking up the whiskey.
This was in 2009, before ramen became a thing in DC, my hometown. I came back to DC in 2011, a few months before the opening of Toki Underground on H Street NE, which seemed to incite a Japanese noodle soup awakening in the District. Now I could not be happier about my city having an embarrassment of riches when it comes to ramen options. From traditional toppings like menma (bamboo shoots), nori (seaweed), nitamago (pickled egg), corn, woodear mushrooms, pork chashu (braised pork belly); to ramen with fried chicken, kimchi, hot and sour broths, cheese, soft shell crab, coconut milk, and napa cabbage, to name a few, there’s a whirlwind of options whether you’re looking for tradition or creative departures.
The Heavy Hitters
Toki Underground can claim to have kicked off DC’s love affair with ramen. And chef/owner Katsuya Fukushima and owners Yama Jewayni and Daisuke Utagawa have established a ramen mini-empire , with Daikaya, Bantam King, and Haikan all under their highly capable purview; Fukushima has taken a few trips to Japan to further research technique and craft an exemplary ramen.
Toki Underground (1234 H Street NE) is not your traditional ramen house, and maybe that’s why it was the perfect gateway ramen initiation. Nestled upstairs next to beloved dive The Pug, the hip spot blows tradition out of the water, fusing Taiwanese and Japanese flavors, and despite not being physically underground, it embodies that rebel underground attitude.. To say that Toki Underground is wildly popular would be an understatement – especially for those with crushing hangovers; their Taipei Curry Chicken that sinks a huge piece of fried chicken in a spicy, ginger-y aromatic broth is a surefire antidote to one too many cocktails the previous night. Speaking of cocktails, Toki’s cocktail program is nearly as renowned as its ramen.
Daikaya’s (705 6th Street NW) entrance seems perpetually crammed with antsy customers waiting to be seated. What is it, exactly, that draws such a constant crowd? The space itself is bright and cheeky, with old school hip hop blaring over the noodle slurping crowd.. But it’s really Fukushima’s dedication to ramen as a craft that draws crowds – his noodles are custom ordered from Sapporo and his ramen is in the style of the same city. What does this mean? Daikaya’s ramen (the delicate shio ramen, deeply flavorful shoyu ramen, and miso ramen) all use a clear broth base called chintan, made with pork, beef, and chicken bones. The noodles have the perfectly chewy texture the Sapporo style is known for. Also, Daikaya’s vegetarian ramen has a cult like following, and this omnivore orders it often.
Around the corner, Fukushima’s other spot, Bantam King (501 G Street NW), is likewise often slammed – but why open another ramen shop quite literally around the corner from one you already own? Because Bantam King offers a decidedly different, less traditional ramen experience while keeping the hipness of the former: Bantam King specializes in chicken ramen, utilizing a paitan broth that is like a Japanese version of the cold-curing hot chicken broth your mom used to make as a kid. Along with chicken ramen, Bantam King offers a faultless crispy, juicy fried chicken plate with rice. Unsurprisingly, Bantam King is up for Best Casual Restaurant at this year’s Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington’s (RAMW) Rammy Awards.
Lastly, Haikan’s ramen is also Sapporo style, but it is more expansive in both space and menu than Daikaya. Located in the Atlantic Plumbing building, Haikan means “pipe works” in Japanese. The ramen shop has a long bar and an outdoor patio in warmer months. The menu includes inventive appetizers; who would have guessed a ramen shop would offer poutine? Haikan smothers fries in mapo tofu, mozzarella curds, ground chicken and those gum-numbing Szechuan peppercorns. It is also one of the only places that offers a summery ramen, meaning you’re getting chilled noodles with a chilled shoyu broth with crunchy, refreshing cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and ground chicken; the lot drizzled with Szechuan chili oil. Even the most stalwart ramen fans don’t want to down a bowlful of steaming hot ramen during DC’s infamously swampy summer days.
There are a slew of ramen shops that may not be the most acclaimed in the land of hot chewy noodles specially imported from Japan and plunged into chef crafted broths, but nonetheless hit the spot, especially when you’re not in the mood for an hour-plus wait.
Oki Bowl DC (1817 M Street NW) in Dupont is easy to miss if you’re walking down the sidewalk, but it is not easy to miss the wacky interior once you walk in. A half-submerged hole-in-the-wall, Oki Bowl’s walls are littered with bric-a-brac as if a few Etsy shops came in and went wild. While the broth and noodles may not be the result of R&D trips to Sapporo, and may not meet the elevated ramens of the Daikaya group or Toki, Oki Bowl has solid offerings in varying flavor profiles borrowing mostly from Thailand – like the hot and sour tom yum soup ramen, the coconut milk based vegetarian galanga ramen, or the “Spider” tom yum ramen that has a whole soft shell crab nestled in the spicy broth. Service is also crazy fast, so if you are in a rush, ramen bowls arrive within minutes of ordering. Be sure to check out their restroom. It looks like Radio Shack stapled their remaining inventory to the walls.
Chaplins (1501 9th Street NW) is a date-worthy ramen establshment. A two-story full restaurant; it’s dark and stylish with a huge menu of cold and hot appetizers, nabe (Japanese hot pot), a large cocktail list, in addition to the ramen on offer: veggie shio, miso, tan tan men (with sesame paste), and Chaplin’s A.S.S – “asian spicy sour” – replete with lemongrass, coconut milk, red chili and cilantro. If that doesn’t sufficiently entice you, Chaplin’s also offers alcohol infused dumplings. Yes. You read that correctly: dubbed “Drunken Masters,” you can order dumplings injected with Japanese whiskey.
Sakuramen (2441 18th Street NW) is an Adams Morgan mainstay, and their selection of steamed buns (chashu, bulgogi, shroom, and spicy pork) are enough to draw people inside. They have a much wider selection of ramen styles to choose from than most others, including a Korean style ramen with bulgogi and kimchi, DC miso ramen with monterey jack cheese (wwhhaatt?) and fish cake, and tonkatsu (pork based) ramens. But one of their most popular ramens is their shoki bowl, for protein-craving patrons: it’s filled with berkshire pork belly chasu and beef bulgogi.
Reren Lamen (817 7th Street NW) is the greatest departure from traditional ramen, because it’s a Chinese, rather than Japanese, take on ramen. It’s similar enough that Reren will satisfy anyone’s need for a ramen-style bowl of noodles. Their signature ramen highlights pork belly, and soy bean tempura ramen uses miso paste and is topped with shrimp tempura. The Buddha ramen is chock full of vegetables and tofu.
I would love to go back to Japan and return to the tiny fox ramen stall. I would love to go back and belt my lungs out off-key in a tiny room to terrible pop songs with near-strangers at 3 a.m., and subsequently tuck into a massively deep bowl of shoyu ramen in huge Japanese ramen hall.
But if that’s not possible, settling for the pretty stellar offerings in DC isn’t half bad.