Last week’s article for this column hit on all the soup destinations here in Philadelphia, but there were two powerhouse soup dishes that were purposefully left out: pho and ramen. As a lover of food and culture, I felt it unjust to group those two dishes into the same article about so many other fantastic soups. These bowls of broths, noodles, meats and more are not just a soup — but rather, a craft. The first of the two will be broken down in this week’s article: the well-known and forever loved ramen.
Where do you begin to look for ramen in Philadelphia? Most folks would ask a local expert or turn to the world wide web, both of which are viable options in the 21st century. If you phone a friend, odds are you’ll be sent to the Fishtown area to find a good bowl of happiness on your own terms. There are simply too many good spots.
If you decide to go the sprawling expanse of the Internet, there is a general consensus on which ramen joint reigns supreme here in Philly. You will be sent to a simple website with a bountiful bowl of ramen pictured sitting right in front of you. Written around the inside curvature of the bowl are two words: Neighborhood Ramen. This Queen Village spot is where the search for authentic Philadelphia ramen begins.
Given the honor of Best Ramen by Best of Philly 2019, Neighborhood Ramen is a 20-seat, cash-only BYOB with nine items on their menu. They have five different styles of ramen, one brothless ramen and three sides — gyoza, a sesame salad and oshinko. Their ramen styles range from their shio — a chicken broth with straight noodles, dashi, Japanese roasted salt, niboshi oil and a lot more — to their yasai — a vegetable dashi broth filled with wavy noodles, roasted mushrooms, menma, shiso oil and ajitama. Their brothless noodles may lack a hearty foundation, but that is made up for with a jidori egg yolk to serve as a binder. They’ve thought things through.
If a hole-in-the-wall spot isn’t where you prefer to dine, the next name should ring a few bells: Cheu Noodle Bar in Fishtown. The reason Cheu should sound familiar is because Philadelphia’s infamous anonymous food critic, Craig LaBan, gave it two bells (out of his four bell rating system) when Cheu opened in 2013.
Cheu does small plates along with their main six styles of bowls. Their namesake ramen are their matzo ball brisket ramen (wild, right?) and their miso ramen with pork shoulder and a soy egg. While Cheu only has two types of ramen on the menu, they are drastically different bowls that each offer an entirely different experience.
If high quality food isn’t enough, Cheu also serves beers — including Ardmore’s own Tired Hands Brewing on tap — wine, cocktails, tea and sake by the glass or carafe. This is a place that is not only embracing the culture of the food it prepares, but also the alcohol-infused food scene of Philadelphia.
If you get off the SEPTA at the Girard stop in Olde Kensington and Fishtown, you’ll have to only walk mere feet to find the next location: Da-Wa Sushi and Ramen. Tourists come for the sushi, regulars come for the sushi, locals come for the sushi. But the real star of this place? Their ramen. Da-Wa opened in Dec. 2018 by a husband-wife team: Joe and Ellie Kim.
Joe Kim spent over two decades of working in the restaurant industry after moving to New Jersey from South Korea at age twelve, and he finally decided to open up Da-Wa. He has perfected his sushi techniques, and while articles have been written about the prowess of Kim’s sushi, his shoyu, cha shu and veggie ramen are also the real deal. And they’re only $10 or $12 a bowl.
Moving west across the city, the next up is Morimoto at 723 Chestnut Street. This is Stephen Starr’s flagship Japanese restaurant, and while the Philadelphia food savant owns a host of restaurants, this one is a little different. It takes Japanese cuisine and puts it on a pedestal. Their prizewinner is the Morimoto Omakase: a $125 prix fare tasting to fully experience “the essence of Morimoto’s cuisine.”
In a menu full of hefty price tags, there must at least a few outliers that stick out, and that’s where Morimoto’s ramen comes into play. The Morimoto ramen soup is only $14, and the Iron Chef’s chicken noodle soup coming in at under the price of a large portion of dinner entrees in the city is mildly astounding. If not the Morimoto ramen soup, there is the miso soup or the yasai ramen, which both serve as viable and delicious vegetarian options.
Next up is Hiro Ramen House on 11th and Chestnut. They are a no-frills ramen spot doing absurdly good ramen. To many, this may very well be the best ramen. Hiro Ramen House is getting the “Ramen Hidden Gem” award here. If you’re a local with insider knowledge, odds are you’re making your way to Hiro. And if you want your tastebuds to feel the wrath of intense chili oil, try Hiro’s own “Gates of Hell” ramen, which is sure to pack a punch.
The last two spots to mention are Nom Nom Ramen and Terakawa Ramen. Nom Nom, located on 18th and South, is the proprietor of bringing authentic Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen to the Rittenhouse Square area. A 24-hour plus process goes into making each bowl, starting from pork bones and ending with the assorted accompanying flavors that go on top to create a beautiful bowl of ramen. The biggest difference of Nom Nom has to be their noodles — Hakata-style and boiled to your liking. The customer’s needs are taken very seriously at Nom Nom.
The final spot is a friendly and familiar name: Terakawa Ramen. While their original location is in Chinatown, Terakawa also has a location in University City, just feet from the Fresh Grocer on Penn’s campus. To outdo Nom Nom, Terakawa’s broth has a two-day simmer period before being served to customers. This method is followed by their head chefs, whose recipes hail from the Kumamoto region of Japan. These cultural differences between distinct regions highlight just how different ramen is.
As for the noodles, they make traditional Kyushu noodles — a lighter-colored noodle that are actually egg noodles. And unlike most ramen spots, the noodles are cooked al dente while they are boiled, allowing them to finish in the broth once they are added. But here’s the kicker: almost every bowl of ramen is around $11. A 48-hour simmer process of a traditional Japanese recipe for $11 almost seems too good not to try at least once. From their signature Terakawa ramen to their mayu ramen (made with mayu oil, coming from a dark leek with crushed garlic oil), Terakawa offers probably the most expansive ramen menu to bat. This may be the way to go for your first time trying real-deal ramen.
Of course, what’s a ramen list without Drexel’s own Ramen Bar? It may not be out of this world good, but it sure as heck delivers. That place makes authentic, quality ramen and is consistently a good place to go. Never take Ramen Bar out of your rotation, folks.
That’s the lowdown on the ramen scene here in Philly — and that’s barely scratching the surface — but tune in next time for info on the lesser-known but equally delicious noodle bowl: pho!