San Francisco is one of the few places in which it is imaginable to crave hot, rich ramen in the middle of July. The incoming clouds and fog beg for something far more warming than summer's obvious choices: tomato salad, BLTs, ice cream. Ramen has exploded in popularity amongst the hip and food-obsessed in the last couple of years, and the newest joints offer such a mix of traditional and totally-out-there approaches to noodle bowls that it's hard to get bored. Pop-ups like Hapa Ramen are likely the best source of creativity in the ramen game, but this week we're looking at two of the most popular shops in San Francisco and Oakland: Ken Ken Ramen and Ramen Shop.
Ken Ken Ramen: Classic Hakata Style Tonkotsu Ramen (pork marrow bone broth with thin noodles, pickled ginger, onsen slow cooked egg, chasu, and garlic and sesame oil) ($11)
The bowls of ramen slowly making their way out of the Ken Ken kitchen look austere and dark, rivaling the moodiness of the dining room itself. Service is slow and aloof. I remember feeling annoyed at my annoyance: Am I really old enough to complain about the service in a crowded Mission restaurant? When it takes ten minutes to get the attention of a bartender deep in conversation with his friend, I suppose the annoyance is warranted.
Once the food comes, the meal begins to turn around. Ken Ken offers a rotating cast of ramen styles throughout the week. On my visit, a Wednesday, the options were limited to vegetarian (or vegan) shoyu and hearty tonkotsu. The tonkotsu broth is milky and sticky, rich with pork marrow and collagen. It is delightful for the first few bites -- the salt is held in check by the abundance of fat. Yet it is nearly impossible to slurp for much more than a few minutes. As the broth begins to cool, it thickens and somehow becomes more intense than before. It's best, instead, to focus on the goodies layered inside.
The highlight of any ramen from Ken Ken is the egg. Served whole, the soy-soaked orb quivers in the broth. A bite reveals a silky, custardy yolk held back by the salty white. Their chasu is tender, well-seasoned, and generously portioned into each bowl. Unfortunately, I found the noodles less enjoyable. Ken Ken serves them slightly underdone, leaving each bite chewy instead of springy. Pickled ginger and slivers of scallions top the bowl, but as they're mixed in to the broth, their flavor is lost. Adding a generous scoop of the table side chile powder helps to brighten the soup, making up for the slowly dissipating heat of the ginger.
Ramen Shop: Ginger Hokkaido Butter Corn Miso Ramen (miso broth with ground pork belly, shoyu egg, roasted broccoli, red cabbage, squash blossoms, and shungiku) ($16)
Ramen Shop is no less of a challenging place to eat. The service is friendlier, but the restaurant is still packed every night. An hour plus wait on a Thursday evening was, sadly, not surprising. (The stream of people still waiting for a table after 9pm was more of a shock.) Once seated, however, food arrives at a fast clip.
Like Ken Ken, Ramen Shop's menu changes just about daily, but its alterations are based more on ingredients than a rotating cast of traditional ramen broths. Each bowl is decorated with an abundance of California ingredients, with broths tailored to match. The restaurant's always got a specialty Meyer lemon shoyu broth on hand, which often is accompanied by a shio (salt) and either a miso or similarly rich meat-based broth like tonkotsu or tantanmen.
On my visit, the miso and butter ramen decked out in summer corn was a highlight. The broth was right on the edge of being overwhelming; it was at once salty, fatty, and sweet, but the abundance of charred vegetables managed to keep its extremes in check. Ground pork belly was pleasant, slightly chewy, and managed to find its way into almost every bite. Sweet corn is a frequent addition to classic Japanese ramen, and its inclusion here was far from out of place. Ramen Shop's noodles are thicker and springier than at Ken Ken, and they've clearly spent an extra minute or so in boiling water. However, these extra steps carry a price: the cheapest bowl of ramen on the menu often tops $15. Yes, yes. Seasonal vegetables are expensive. Yes, yes. Most of us would gladly pay $15 for a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. The sticker price is still shocking -- and worth it.
Broth: Ramen Shop
Noodles: Ramen Shop
Egg: Ken Ken
Toppings: Ramen Shop
Value: Ken Ken
The winner? Ramen Shop by a hair: I'd gladly pay the extra cost for inventive toppings and springy noodles.