Ramen-O-rama

As sustenance for latchkey kids, college undergrads, and broke 20 somethings for years, in the United States, ramen was considered an inferior food.  But not any more.  In the past few years we have seen a surge in interest in Japanese style Ramen restaurants opening all over the Metro Boston area.  While there were always a few token places people in the know could find, they were by no means in abundance.    Perhaps owing to the fact that there is a large college age population here, and that there is growing interest in all things from the east they have started to pop up everywhere.

Like most people my age I probably hit “maximum ramen” in my early 20’s.  It was cheap, it was easy and with all the salt and seasonings it was incredibly tasty after a late night out.   It was really nothing to write home about.  A block of dried noodles submerged in boiling water for 3 minutes would yield a supremely savoury Chicken, Vegetable, Beef, or alarmingly titled “oriental flavour,” dish for consumption late night consumption.  At 10 for $1 at the local supermarket, it was on my regular lunch rotation.  But, like all things it eventually went the way of other childhood favourites, like boxed macaroni and cheese and cupcakes.  Then a few years ago I met a friend for lunch at the Porter Exchange.

We went to Sapporo Ramen.  It’s about halfway down on the left and is a small restaurant with about ten tiny tables and a menu that features a surprisingly wide range of dishes.  I had the “House Ramen”.  It was what I would call a hearty soup/noodle dish and featured a thicker whiteish and very strong tasting and savoury “collagen building” broth.  It had a few vegetables, seaweed and a little pork along with noodles.  Coupled with the dumpling we ordered, it made a very warming and filling meal.  Moderately priced, easy to get to and pleasing to the mouth it should be no surprise that if you go at lunchtime or on a Saturday there will be a long, but quickly moving line.

Soup is already one of my favourite things to eat.  Noodle soups are a uniquely satisfying meal because they combine warming broth with chewy savoury noodles.  The ramen I ate at Sapporo Ramen in Porter Square, was not the ramen I remembered.  It wasn’t overcooked noodles in super salty brother, it was much better than that, and it appealed more to my grown up palate that still wanted the same comfort foods but in different way.

So a few months ago I decided I needed to try as many different types of noodles soups as I could.  Between online reviews and word of mouth, I made a list of about 20 places I “really should try.”  It’s currently a work in progress but I have slowly been working my way through it and I will keep you posted on my progress.

Perhaps one of my favourite restaurants is Koreana which is just outside of Central Square in Cambridge.  Although it is on the more expensive end of this group, it’s a place I frequent often with one particular friend.  Although I’ve tried a number of things on their menu, by far my favourite thing to eat there is the Ricecake and Dumpling Soup.  A generous portion of magical light and savoury broth filled with green onions, shredded beef, dumplings, ricecakes, clear noodles, and egg.  It arrives with an assortment of side dishes to munch on along with the meal.  I have eaten this so many times it is ridiculous, but it has never failed to improve the quality of my day.

After being told about Yume Wo Katare by several friends, and reading about in a few different places online I felt I had to experience it for myself.   Also in Porter Square, and right on Mass Ave, I arrived with a friend of mine right after it opened (at 5:05) to avoid the trademark long lines.  With our mission accomplised we skipped right to ordering our bowls of ramen and took our places at one of the long counters facing the kitchen.  They made it easy for us neophytes with two choices, “Ramen” or “Buta Ramen” which I am going to go ahead and assume means “Really Big bowl of Ramen”.  I went for the regular size and was still kind of intimidated by the amount of food in my bowl when it was put in front of me.   The ramen comes in a heavier slightly sweet, savoury broth that is a little oily.  The bowl is filled with thick chewy noodles that are topped with spicy garlic and incredible sweet pork that falls apart in your mouth.  I don’t know what I expected but I don’t think I was ready for how much flavour was going to be delivered with every bite.  Definitely not for people with small appetite, or who don’t eat much, but probably excellent if you have a hangover, the portions are heaping and your one goal is to finish everything, even the broth at the end of the bowl.   So you sit and nosh and  talk to friends, or listen to the “host” as he asks entertains the determined eaters with questions that make it fun to try and finish the food in front of you.  When you do finish your entire bowl, you are treated to a well earned round of enthusiastic applause and you get to share your dream with your new friends.  “Good job!”

Pho Pasteur, in Chinatown, is one those places that go to when you’re in college and stuff yourself for under $15, and then you forget all about it until the day you realize your life has been missing something, a big bowl of Pho.  Their chicken Pho with clear vermicelli is one of those dishes that you will remember and go specifically for.  With pieces of chicken and thin clear noodles floating in a light and flavourful broth with hints of basil, ginger and lemon you can almost feel the warm spring sun on your face.

I went to Penang on Wasthington street in Chinatown with another friend of mine after we spent some time wandering around watching the Lion Dances for the Lunar New Year.  It was quite cold out and I couldn’t feel my fingers so I wanted something warm like soup.   I asked the waiter and recommended Prawn Mee, which sounded pretty good.  A little spicy with a bright orange broth and nice mix of vegetables and seafood to balance everything out, there was a helluv a lot going on in one bowl.  It was a very satisfying and filling meal, made even more so by the lion dancers who had followed us into the restaurant and were parading up and down the aisles.

I have learned few important things over the past few months.  First of all, there are A LOT more ramen restaurants in Boston than I could ever eat at in 1 or 2 months.  Second, their quality ranges immensely.   Third, it is totally O.k. to be an adult and still like eating Ramen, maybe not every day (at least not for me)… Finally, as far as comfort foods go.  On a cold and rainy day few things are more perfect than noodles in a hot broth filled bowl.  But perhaps the most important thing to remember here is that not only are there many different kinds of ramen, but there are many different kinds of noodle soups in general, so why limit yourself.

My quest continues…  if you know of anywhere I should try, let me know.