If the mere mention of ramen brings forth memories of beer-fueled college dorm room meals highlighted by 30 cent packages of dried noodles and questionable, MSG-packed flavor packets, it's time to update your interpretation of the popular Japanese noodle bowl. Despite recent proclamations by Momofuku chef and ramen popularizer David Chang that the noodle dish is dead, ramen is showing up everywhere, especially in Charleston.
How did ramen go from being the dorm- room standby to its current status? An often cited version of ramen history claims that the yellow alkaline noodles migrated from China to Japan, where it became a working-class meal for Chinese migrants who set up noodle stands for their Japanese customers. From there, it moved to noodle houses in the U.S. and eventually became a cheap meal for college students when Momofuku Ando invented instant ramen in 1958. Now, it's been elevated to its place as a hip culinary obsession.
Although ramen comes in many styles based on the type of broth, seasoning, and place of origin, the typical noodle is an alkaline wheat or egg noodle. According to the Eat with Your Eyes Closed blog, "Alkaline water is potassium carbonate and sodium bi-carbonate solution that gives the ramen its yellow color, makes it springier, earthier."
You're likely to find mashups of traditional ramen variations using unconventional toppings, broths, and noodles. Here are four of the core traditional styles:
Shio — A lighter variation with sea salt, seasoned chicken, and vegetable broth, popular in the Hakodate prefecture of Japan.
Shoyu — Chicken, pork, or seafood broth seasoned with soy sauce that creates a dark and savory, yet light, soup.
Tonkotsu — One of the more common styles, tonkotsu is often the base of many regional ramen bowls. It's got a rich broth made milky white from simmered pork marrow bones that coats the noodles.
Miso — Fermented soybean paste is the star of this seasoned broth that became popular in the mid 20th century and originated in the northern city of Sapporo.
Now, we'd love to send you to Japan to taste test these varieties, but without having to drop a wad of cash, here's where you can find a few noteworthy bowls of ramen (organized by location) around the Lowcountry.
If you are on any form of social media in Charleston you've likely heard of 2 Nixons Ramen pop-ups. A prodigious promoter, chef Jeffrey Stoneberger holds a few pop-ups a week at bars and local breweries, including Proof on King, Revelry Brewing Company, Freehouse Brewery, and Frothy Beard Brewing Company. Often straying from the traditional styles, he's offered bowls of phô-ramen, pepperoni ramen, and vegetarian ramen. It's outside the box, but definitely worth a bowl or two. Bonus: you'll probably be at a brewery or bar, so booze. Find his next stop on Twitter @2Nixons.
340 King St., Downtown
Asian Fusion eatery CO's Vietnamese ramen uses egg noodles in a rich pork broth, with two types of pork toppings and bok choy.
Menkoi Ramen House
41 George St., Downtown
Menkoi is about as close as you're going to get to a raman-ya (ramen house) in Charleston. With bowls of tonkotsu, miso, shio, and shoyu, it hits all the traditional styles, but also has a few others if you're looking for more variety. While the topping choices are limited, it's still a worthy bowl. Their low prices and proximity to the College of Charleston are likely no coincidence.
Short Grain / The Daily Ramen Pop-Up
652 King St., Downtown
Every Friday and Saturday night in January, the Daily on King Street hosts a ramen pop-up with the folks from Short Grain food truck. To make things interesting, each weekend features a guest chef. We've already seen Jonathan Ory of Chicago's Bad Wolf Coffee, Blake Joyal of The Westendorff, and Michael Toscano (who recently moved here from New York City and is working on opening a restaurant in the former Leaf called Le Farfalle) add their take on ramen to the weekend menu.
Short Grain offers their own variations at the pop-up, including tonkotsu, chicken confit, and mushroom ramen. Guests chefs have been known to add truffle shavings, drop in whole beef bones, and change it up with tsukemen (noodles with a separate dipping broth or sauce). With Bob Cook of Cypress and Artisan Meet Share on Jan. 29, and Jason Stanhope of FIG on Jan. 30, things are about to heat up.
Two Boroughs Larder
186 Coming St., Downtown
The Cannonborough-Elliotborough destination used to serve their noodle bowls for lunch. Sadly, lunch service has been discontinued. Luckily, they still have the noodle bowl on the standard nightly menu and a special Noodle Night every Thursday.
The everyday bowl consists of pork dashi broth with alkaline noodles, roasted pork, kimchi, and pickled mushrooms. On Noodle Night, vegetarian broth makes an appearance alongside the pork dashi, and there are a number of optional toppings such as beef, pickled vegetables, shaved daikon, and even trout.
915 Houston Northcutt Blvd., Mt. Pleasant
Aya has three different ramen bowls: braised pork, fried chicken, and vegetarian. The tonkotsu pork broth is nicely rich and saturated with emulsified fat. Toppings include a tea-brined soft boiled egg, bamboo shoots, fried tofu, nori, charred bok choi, bean sprouts, mushrooms and corn. Aya also has a Wednesday $5 ramen night that covers the four major styles. The wide variety of toppings include the above, plus torched corn, pickled bamboo shoots, roasted spicy sesame oil, and Mayu, a pungent burnt black garlic oil. Seekers will need to ask for the ramen on Wednesdays because it's off-menu and "is for ramen lovers only," according to the staff.
604 Coleman Blvd, Mt. Pleasant.
Known for its sushi, Mt. Pleasant's Bambu offers one style of ramen: shoyu. On the lighter side, but still flavorful, the chicken-based broth seasoned with soy comes topped with a fish cake, spinach, and shrimp.
1035-B9 Johnnie Dodds Blvd., Mt. Pleasant
Over in Mt. Pleasant, sushi titan Sean Park of Kanpai offers classic tonkotsu, miso, and shoyu styles of ramen. The tonkotsu broth is milky, strongly porky, and served with soft boiled egg, braised pork, nori, and vegetables.
3515 Mary Ader Ave. West Ashley
It's in a gas station and, yes, it's a Korean place, but don't let that steer you away from West Ashley's Ko Cha. Korea has its own ramen tradition called ramyun or ramyeon which is typically made with instant noodles instead of fresh ones. Ko Cha serves their take on the style in a deep bowl of kimchi-red chicken broth, speckled with drops of sesame and chili oil. You can choose spicy or not, but you should choose spicy for its flavor. Accompanying the ramyun is a tray filled with spicy and funky cabbage kimchi, cucumber kimchi, and fried dumplings.
Ms. Rose's Fine Foods and Cocktails
1090 Sam Rittenberg Blvd., West Ashley
Ms. Rose's does a Tuesday ramen night featuring a shoyu broth and toasted rye noodles. There are standard toppings and some that veer from the typical such as cilantro, house made sambal and jalapeños and proteins including chicken feet, house-made brisket, and pork belly among others. Bonus, they have sake and cocktail specials every ramen night to add to your slurping swilling enjoyment.
122 East Ashley Ave, Folly Beach
Folly Beach's Chico Feo has recently started offering ramen after 4 p.m. That means you can enjoy the beach followed by a pork broth made from roasted and smoked pork neck bones, house-made noodles, and pork belly, bok choy, and other toppings.
Myles and Jun Yakitori
710 Bacons Bridge Road, Summerville
Summerville's Myles and Jun specialize in yakitori — skewered, grilled meat — but they also have two ramen offerings: yakibuta (which is a roast pork similar to the Chinese Char-su) and shoyu. In his review last year, Eric Doksa called the yakibuta ramen traditional with a soft boiled egg, thinly sliced pork, and light, hazy broth.