The ramen in packages comes with noodles, but any objective comparisons to the real stuff ends there. It is easy to think of the square blocks of instant noodles that are a staple in college dorm rooms because it’s a cheap way to get full.
But authentic ramen uses delicious broth, flavorful meats, vegetables, toppings, and noodles that are springy in texture with a slight chew to them.
Apples & Oranges.
San Francisco is home to many authentic Japanese restaurants. Each brings its own unique flavor profile into play while using traditional techniques to make a delicious bowl of ramen. You can find classic tonkotsu pork broths made from long simmering oxtails or bones, seafood broths, and veggies.
In no particular order, here are some top local and chain restaurants where you can find the best bowls that San Francisco offers:
Mensho Tokyo SF
Long lines in San Francisco are usually associated with the latest trendy restaurant or bar and Mensho Tokyo in the Tenderloin District continues that tradition. Chef Tomoharu Shono takes excellent care to bring all of his ramen broths to life with traditional Japanese cooking techniques emphasizing quality ingredients, temperature, and timing. The signature Mensho Tokyo tori paitan (chicken) ramen is creamy, full-bodied, and made from a rich chicken broth simmered for 24 hours to bring out the maximum umami flavors. It’s served with pork belly and duck chashu, burdock, and kale. There are plenty of toppings you can add to your bowl of ramen, from fried garlic and scallions to soft-boiled eggs. There’s also a vegetarian option for those looking for something lighter or vegan.
San Francisco’s Richmond District is home to Jijime, a Korean fusion restaurant with Japanese sensibilities. Traditionally Korean Ramyeun—spicy instant noodles—are nowhere on the menu. Instead, you’ll find traditional Japanese-style creamy tonkotsu ramen made in a few different ways, each with its own unique flavor profile. Our favorite is the Gyukotsu Sesame Ramen, made with beef broth simmered for 24 hours. It has a rich texture balanced by the nutty sesame flavor, making it hard to stop eating even when you’re full. Jijime also offers a variety of Asian-fusion tapas. Their Korean-style fried chicken, potstickers, and “Monkey Brain” appetizer consist of a deep-fried mushroom stuffed with spicy salmon and mayo sauce.
Nojo Ramen Tavern
Tonkotsu (pork) broth is commonly found on most ramen menus. However, Nojo Ramen Tavern in Hayes Valley goes against the grain with their tori-paitan (chicken) broths. Their broth is so rich and flavorful that you’ll forget all about the pork and beef versions. Not your grandma’s chicken soup, Nojo’s tori-paitan broth comes in different variations. They serve ramen with chicken tsukune, miso, soy meat, and a unique tomato-based bowl with shredded chicken tenders. However, their most popular bowl is the Soy Sauce Tori Paitan, a tori paitan topped with a slow-braised whole chicken leg that gets an A+ for its presentation alone. In addition to their ramen bowls, Nojo offers a variety of appetizers and small plates that go well with the drinks from their full bar.
In 2018, renowned restaurant chain, Ippudo, opened an 86-seat restaurant in SF’s SOMA district, giving its residents a taste of “Ramen King” Shigemi Kawahara’s world famous full-bodied broth. There aren’t many variations on their ramen menu. Instead, you can choose between a few broth and noodle combinations to give your ramen bowl its unique flavor profile. The Akamaru Modern is their classic tonkotsu served with miso paste, pork chashu, and scallions. If you’re looking for something different, they also have the Karaka Spicy, their version of tonkotsu ramen served with red chili paste and garlic oil. The broth has the right amount of spice that’s not too overwhelming, but you’ll still get a kick with every slurp. Ippudo also serves a whole array of Japanese appetizers and small plates to give diners a taste of Japan without booking a flight. When you’re done with your ramen bowl, save room for their cheesecakes made in-house daily.
Japantown is a popular spot in SF where you can find just about any Japanese food, from sushi to udon. In 2017, Marufuku Ramen opened its doors, bringing authentic Hakata ramen —a simplified version of tonkotsu with a velvety pork bone broth and thin noodles—to the neighborhood. There are five different spice levels, ranging from a simple shio (salt) to “Ultra Spicy.” Marufuku also serves some of the best chicken paitan ramen in San Francisco. If you’re looking for something on the lighter side, there is also a vegetarian option. If you’re not feeling the noodles, they also offer a variety of donburi bowls with choices like fried chicken, Karaage, and Kakuni Pork Belly served on a bed of rice. There’s also an excellent selection of San Francisco’s own Sequoia Sake available to pair with your ramen.
San Francisco’s Blow Fish Sushi restaurant was Iza Ramen’s former location until it found its current one in Lower Haight. Their Facebook page proudly proclaims that they serve “hangover-slaying bowls” of chewy ramen noodles with a thick slab of BBQ pork belly in a slow-cooked, umami-rich, pork/chicken/dashi broth. Renowned chef Ritsuo Tsuchida is behind the ramen menu at Iza Ramen, giving people who visit the restaurant a taste of his unapologetically bold cooking style. He doesn’t hold back on flavor, which means that his ramen is full of flavor and a bit different from the rest. Tsukeman—a noodle dish with broth on the side—is available along with vegetarian miso ramen. All three noodle bowls have regular and spicy versions with additional toppings. It allows diners to customize their ramen bowls with their preferred flavor profile. It is sure to leave any hangover sufferer wishing for another night out.