Portlanders love comfort food, and there's no Japanese food more comforting than a hot bowl of ramen. We spent some chilly winter nights sampling 20 bowls at 13 restaurants around town.
Ramen, a wheat noodle soup with Chinese origins, comes in four main varieties, all of which can be found in the Portland area: tonkotsu (intense pork flavor), shio (broth seasoned with salt), miso (broth seasoned with fermented bean paste) and shoyu (broth seasoned with soy sauce). From there, a variety of toppings can be added—everything from simple veggies to meat to menma (fermented bamboo shoot). There are other great ramens out there—Ping's sour-and-spicy Thai version or Ate-Oh-Ate's Hawaiian variation called saimin, for example—but in this roundup we'll stick to the Japanese classics.
215 SE 9th Ave., 239-8830,
Biwa's opening in 2007 was the spark that ignited Portlanders' present interest in ramen and Japanese pubs. The restaurant's ramen reached its peak about two years ago with housemade noodles and an unusual but soul-satisfying porklicious broth with charred onions. The current broth is milder, with a pork bone flavor muted somewhat by chicken. It's one of the least sweet broths around, perhaps because it contains no MSG, but the flavor could be more rounded. The commercial noodles Biwa now uses are sufficient, but the toppings elevate the soup and make it something special. No ramen I've had anywhere—the Bay Area; L.A.; Vancouver, B.C.; or even Japan—has had such carefully prepared and delicious toppings. The soy-poached egg has a custardy center. The grilled miso pork loin has an amazing infusion of umami. The pork shoulder has a fried-meat crust, yet inside is as tender as good Texas barbecue. The funky kimchi, specially made for the soup, adds a nice bright and spicy balance to the broth. $11 basic ramen, $22 loaded; $5 basic ramen early and late at the counter.
Broth: B Noodle: B- Toppings: A+
10500 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, Beaverton, 641-4613.
Hakatamon, the Japanese restaurant attached to the Beaverton supermarket Uwajimaya, has been on a steady decline for years. The ramen is still worth eating, but it suffers from inconsistency. Some days the broth is quite salty, some days bland; usually it's oily. The underlying flavor of the broth has an intense and mildly sweet pork flavor augmented by alliums, but the greasiness is off-putting. The thin, fresh noodles are too soft and brittle, but still among the better ones I tried for this survey. The lean pieces of chashu (roasted or braised pork) are too dry, while the fattier pieces aren't adequately rendered, leaving fat that's gummy. The soup also comes with pickled ginger, green onion, sesame and seaweed. $7.50; $9.50 with extra chashu.
Hakata/chashu broth: B- Noodle: B Toppings: C+
5714 SE Powell Blvd., 771-4648, ichidairestaurant.com.
This longtime favorite for value-conscious, but not overly picky, sushi-eaters also produces one of the few non-pork bowls of ramen in Portland that's worth eating. The broth tastes strongly of chicken, without any telltale signs of bouillon or MSG. The al-dente noodles are commercial, but fresh. There isn't much more in the bowl, just sliced green onions and chewy chashu, but the soup also comes with a side of Ichidai's chicken karaage (fried chicken), which works better in the soup than à la carte. Not only is this a good ramen, it's one of the better chicken noodle soups in town. $9.50.
Broth: B Noodle: B- Toppings: B
14308 SW Allen Blvd,, Beaverton, 646-1267, ikenohana.com.
Ikenohana is a westside sleeper, one of the better values for Japanese food in Portland with inexpensive, tastier-than-the-norm sushi. The ramen has a light, slightly woody shoyu broth, with very good thin noodles. The bowl comes with julienned carrots and green onion, shiitake mushrooms, fish cake, and boiled greens—all mild ingredients matching the mild broth. The chashu is very lean and thus a bit dry. $8.75.
Broth: B- Noodle: B+ Toppings: B-
Photos from Nick Zukin's Ramen Tour
photos by Nick Zukin
Koji Osakaya/Shogun Noodle
Multiple locations, koji.com.
A local chain, Koji provides what most chains provide: barely more than edible, consistent, cheap food in a corporate environment. Neither its tonkotsu nor its shoyu broth has much flavor, and what's there comes, I suspect, from an MSG-laden seasoning packet. The difference is more apparent in the tonkotsu, which should have an intense pork flavor but here has almost none. The noodles are indistinguishable from packaged ramens. The shoyu comes topped with fish cake, menma, sprouts and green onions, while the tonkotsu also has pickled ginger. The chashu is lean, dry and sometimes chewy. The related Shogun Noodle in the Fubonn Shopping Center is no better, just slightly cheaper, without the chance to eat bad sushi. $6.95 for miso, shoyu or tonkotsu; $7.95 with extra chashu or wakame.
Tonkotsu broth: C Noodle: D Toppings: C
Shoyu broth: C+ Noodle: D Toppings: C
4057 N Interstate Ave., 719-6152,
Miho, like Biwa, represents the new breed of izakaya—a hip but casual bar that mixes traditional dishes with chef-created specialties, often driven by what's local and seasonal. Miho's pork ramen, a version of tonkotsu ramen (though not called such on the menu), definitely leans more on the traditional side. It has a suspiciously white and creamy broth that's sweet, almost buttery. There's a nearly overpowering punch of pepper, possibly from the default topping of togarashi (a spicy, chile-based seasoning), or possibly just an inherent part of the broth. The soup includes green onion, boiled egg, fish cake and sprouts, plus tender chashu. The curly, tasty noodles are the same used by several restaurants in this roundup. $8 for roast-pork ramen, vegan ramen also available for $8.
Broth: B- Noodle: B- Toppings: B
536 E Burnside St., 467-7501,
Mirakutei is the newest addition to Portland's ramen scene and a sister restaurant to Hiroshi, one of Portland's two best sources for sushi. The menu is not as focused on ramen as food geeks like myself may have hoped, but ramen is still what Mirakutei does best. All three types of ramen start with the same rich pork broth, which is then enhanced with shoyu, miso, or a spicy mixture of miso and yuzu (a Japanese citrus). The richness of the broth isn't sufficiently balanced by the miso, which only deepens the umami flavor. But the shoyu and, even more so, the spicy yuzu, add a delightful brightness to the broth. Each of the soups comes with green onions, sprouts and menma, but more topping choices would be very welcome. The chashu is quite good—suitably fatty with a nuanced sweetness. The fresh, curly noodles are fine, but I think everyone anticipating Mirakutei's opening was hoping for handmade noodles. $8 for shoyu or miso ramen, $8.50 or spicy yuzu miso ramen.
Shoyu broth: B+ Noodle: B- Toppings: B Miso broth: B Noodle: B- Toppings: B Spicy yuzu miso broth: B+ Noodle: B- Toppings: B
7007 SW Macadam Ave., 293-1066.
This Johns Landing restaurant was once part of the Koji empire, but seceded to the benefit of its diners. Nearly every aspect of its ramen is better than that of its former parent. The pork broth has a pleasant butteriness and a silkier mouth feel. The soy broth has an agreeable caramel character. The curly noodles are a big step up from Koji's or Shogun's and seem to be a fresh variety, though they are not housemade. Best of all is the pork. The hunk of sweet meat is thick and tender like stewed kakuni (pork belly), but lean like most chashu in town. Osakaya's bowls of ramen are quite large, too. $7.50 to start; $8.15 with wakame; $8.35 with extra meat; miso broth also available.
Pork broth: C+ Noodle: B- Toppings: B Soy broth: C+ Noodle: B- Toppings: B
910 SW Salmon St., 688-5202,
Shigezo is a Japanese chain that for some reason chose Portland over cities like Seattle and San Francisco for its first mainland location. (It also has a location in Hawaii.) I approach chains with skepticism, but the ramen here is easily the best item on its menu and clearly among the best bowls in Portland. Shigezo has three broths: the tonkotsu, a rich, pork-permeated broth with a funky undertone and without some of the sweetness that can dominate other pork broths; the miso, which is flat and flavorless, an unfortunate miss; and the "Tokyo Ramen," a chicken and shoyu broth with a light, well-balanced flavor reminiscent of soba dashis but with more meatiness. All noodles are made in-house and are the best in this roundup. The noodles in the miso ramen and tonkotsu ramen are slightly thicker than average, which works better with the robust tonkotsu than the limp miso broth. The thin noodles in the Tokyo Ramen work well with the subtler soup. Both types of noodles are firm without being chewy, and a pleasure to eat. The tonkotsu comes with few toppings, just seaweed, green onion and chashu. The chashu is tender without much complexity, and even the large bowl comes with only two small pieces. The Tokyo Ramen, a regular item on the specials menu, comes with sprouts, seaweed and green onion as standard. However, the specials menu includes a list of additional ramen toppings: boiled egg, butter, corn, cheese, nori and kimchi. The miso ramen comes with a garden of vegetables not worth listing—they just further muddle an already lackluster bowl. $9.50 for a regular bowl, $13.75 for a large bowl (only slightly smaller than a football helmet). Additional ramen toppings range from 50 cents to $1.
Tonkotsu broth: A- Noodle: B+ Toppings: B- Tokyo broth: A-Noodle: B+ Toppings: B
Miso broth: C- Noodle: B+ Toppings: B
10324 SE Holgate Blvd., 760-8135,
One of Portland's oldest Japanese restaurants, Takahashi is known for cheap sushi and a toy train that runs along a track above patrons' heads. The sushi is some of the worst in Portland, but cooked items are occasionally better. The ramen is not worth the trip to Felony Flats, however: The salty broth tastes like it came from a bouillon cube. In addition to usual toppings like bean sprouts and green onion, the bowl seems to be loaded with whatever is left over from making tempura—carrot, onion, chicken and even broccoli, which doesn't work at all in the soup. The noodles are too thick for the light broth and are more gummy than firm. $9.50; $11.50 served with a side of the worst gyoza you'll ever eat.
Broth: C- Noodle: C+ Toppings: D+
745 SW 185th Ave., Beaverton.
Toshi is another restaurant popular more for its prices than for quality. It has 10 different bowls of ramen—more than any other restaurant in town. The broths I've tried, whether merely seasoned with salt or flavored with soy sauce, seem to start with the same insipid base. Add butter and corn and the soup is edible—because it tastes like butter and corn. The noodles seem to be fresh, but barely better than a dried noodle. Both of the bowls I tried included green onion, sprouts, menma and wakame, plus a very lean and dry "barbecue" pork. $7.95 for soy sauce, $8.50 for corn butter; none of the 10 renditions exceeds $8.95.
Soy suace broth: D- Noodle: C+ Toppings: C
Salt, butter-corn broth: D Noodle: C+ Toppings: B-
4130 SW 117th Ave., Beaverton, 350-1801.
Yuzu has long been a hidden gem, a tiny izakaya known mostly to Japanese Portlanders and savvy restaurant industry workers looking for cheap late-night eats and sake. It doesn't have a sign and service can be stand-offish for those who haven't proven their bona fides by becoming regulars who order sufficient booze. The menu is solid from top to bottom, and the ramens are no exception. The tonkotsu broth has a stronger following with its creamy texture and unnaturally white color, as if it has been enriched with milk powder. But it has some pork flavor, made tastier by the addition of garlic and sesame seeds offered on the side. The soup is served with traditional thin, straight noodles, which are also somewhat brittle and soft, and topped with seaweed, onion, pickled ginger and menma. The chashu is moderately fatty, but a bit bland. The shoyu broth is less lauded online, but for the style, a better rendition. It's light, a little woody, with a funky fish flavor underlying the salty-sweet broth. The shoyu ramen comes with curly noodles, similar to the ones at Biwa and Mirakutei. The soup is topped with wakame, green onion, menma, a perfectly cooked egg and the same chashu as the tonkotsu ramen. $8.95 to start, $9.50 with chashu, $10.95 with stewed pork.
Tonkotsu broth: B- Noodle: B Toppings: B+ Shoyu broth: B Noodle: B- Toppings: B
3486 Southwest Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton.
Taishoken is a famous Tokyo restaurant that, unlike the others in this survey, serves a large selection of ramens (including the less common tsukemen ramen), some side dishes and nothing else. This soon-to-open store in Beaverton promises to make its own broths and noodles and focus only on ramen. If truly related to the Tokyo original and similar to the now-closed Hawaiian outpost, this could be the spot that nails broth, noodles and toppings, raising the bar even higher for ramen in Portland. Let's cross our fingers.
BIO: Contributor Nick Zukin is the co-owner of Kenny & Zuke's Delicatessen and SandwichWorks. He also runs the local food sites portlandfood.org and extramsg.com, and is a voracious consumer of under-the-radar ethnic cuisine.