Have you had a bowl of ramen lately? There’s a reason this ancient Japanese dish has become a mainstream phenomenon in Oregon these past several years. It’s essentially a big, soulful bowl of broth layered with handcrafted noodles and regionally sourced veggies and protein. What’s not to love?
The broth may be clear and light, or deep and rich with a layer of lip-smacking fat from the roast pork or chicken. Veggie and vegan ramen also abounds — decked out with marinated soft-boiled eggs, mushrooms, tofu, greens, seaweed and more.
Inspired? The Portland Region is considered a hot spot for Japan-based ramen chains, with an abundance of both authentic imports and Portland-based chefs spinning their own playful innovations, a crave-worthy meal no matter what the weather outside.
The trend didn’t happen by accident. Two of the Japanese Ramen giants, Afuri and Marukin (whose Portland location is now called Kinboshi Ramen), say they chose Portland as their first U.S. location specifically because of the Rose City’s purity of water.
Portland’s ecosystem produces “nearly identical beautiful water” to that of Afuri’s locations in Japan. The springs of Mt. Hood are similar to that of Japan’s Afuri mountain because it supplies soft water, water that is free of harsh minerals such as calcium or magnesium. Combining this water with the bounty of local harvest, Afuri says, allows them to create the highest quality ramen and Japanese cuisine available.
There’s also another factor: “Portland represents something to Japanese people about craft and dedication, to taking care with what you make and how you live,” observes Lola Milholland, founder of Umi Organic, ramen noodles made in North Portland with just six ingredients.
So what makes ramen so special? “It’s all about the relationship between the broth and noodles,” Milholland explains. The broth needs to coat the noodle without making it mushy, and the noodle should be chewy, springy and have bite. Above all they should be “slurpable,” she adds, because Japanese custom is to slurp the whole bowl of piping-hot ramen quickly, before it gets soggy.
“The broth is a soulful experience; the noodles are fun,” Milholland says. “It’s like a layered experience.”
Ready for your Portland ramen tour? Here are some places to start:
Afuri Ramen, which opened its fourth location in the Portland Region in May 2022, is considered to be some of the finest ramen around. Their signature bowl is the yuzu shio ramen — a bright, clean and understated salt-based chicken broth with a squeeze of yuzu citrus, Japanese-style handmade noodles, shimeji mushrooms, a seasoned egg, roast pork, endive and seaweed. Afuri utilizes as many local ingredients as possible, too, like fresh clams and hazelnuts. The newest location, in Slabtown (Northwest Portland), is a showcase restaurant that allows diners to look into the kitchen to watch their ramen being prepared. You can also see the giant kettles of broth boiling and staff in the “Noodle Lab” behind glassed-in windows preparing the fresh-made noodles and dumpling fillings for the three other nearby Afuri locations. The brand is becoming a world-wide phenomenon, and is a must-visit for any true ramen aficionado.
Japanese chain Marukin Ramen has been expanding its menu over the years, which is partly the reason the restaurant separated from its across-the-Pacific owners and is now called Kinboshi Ramen. Its two locations — in Southeast Portland and inside Pine Street Market — are now locally owned. Developed by the ramen giant specifically for Portland, the menu features two vegan options, including the addictive spicy vegan red made with onions, garlic, shiitake mushrooms and kombu. Other authentic offerings include a good lineup of donburi (rice dishes), gyoza (dumplings) and Japanese-style savory and sweet Tebasaki chicken wings.
Just like it sounds, the bowls of deliciousness here come fast, since Ninja Ramen is available for takeout only via online ordering. The cozy Hillsboro shop, which opened in February 2020, uses all-natural ingredients and no MSG, and cooks their broth for more than 14 hours for maximum flavor. Warm your belly with a sukiyaki beef ramen, a tonkatsu (pork cutlet) curry plate or a giant bento for when you just can’t decide. Wash it all down with one of their ice milk teas, with the option to add a rainbow jelly topping for extra, colorful fun.
Before it ever became a craze, ramen fanatics have been slurping down the Kakuni ramen at Yuzu for years. This tiny dinner-only space in a Beaverton strip mall has a cult following for good reason: The broth is heady, thick and cloudy from the melt-in-your-mouth pork belly; the noodles are thin and springy; and it all works in harmony to steam up the windows on a cold night. You can dine in or call in to pick up an order to go.
Kikuzi Ramen & Izakaya
The garlic tonkotsu ramen at Japan-based Kikuzi Ramen & Izakaya, in the Timberland Shopping Center off Northwest Barnes Road, is crave-worthy, a rich shoyu broth that comes packed with umami goodness. You can choose a lower-sodium broth here and easily customize your toppings. If you’re interested in making their flavorful ramen at home, you’re in luck. The restaurant also sells ramen kits, which include the ingredients, spices and cooking instructions to make any kind of their ramens at home (includes five portions).
Ramen Ryoma, with locations in Portland and Beaverton, sticks to the basics, with just a handful of varieties on the menu. There are no izakaya items or sushi, as most other places offer. The miso deluxe Ryoma celebrates the marriage of the thick noodles with the large slices of smoky roast pork, three large sheets of nori, an egg and green onions. An eclectic “corn butter” ramen calls out to risk takers.
Craving fried chicken with your ramen? You can get it at Boke Bowl, one of Portland’s classic hipster ramen spots in Southeast Portland. Choose your broth base (pork, shrimp, chicken or veggie) and your add-ons from a decidedly nontraditional list that includes a buttermilk fried chicken and avocado with Jacobsen salt.
Founded by Little Big Burgers’ Micah Camden, Boxer Ramen has served up its unique brand of ramen for years now in its Northwest Portland location, which now serves sushi, sake and cocktails. Try Boxer’s shiitake shoyu, a simple and decadent version of the classic with a soft-poached egg, cabbage and scallions. There’s also a comfort-food dish called okonomiyaki tots — a play on the flavors of a classic Japanese pancake with tater tots as the base.
Kayo’s Ramen Bar
With its covered and heated patio on North Williams Avenue, Kayo’s Ramen Bar brings both authenticity and something a little wild. Their wasabi smoked-salmon ramen — with cold-smoked lox from Tony’s Smoke House & Cannery in Oregon City, sliced onion and lemon in a rich shoyu broth, with a wasabi kick — is not your grandma’s ramen. Any ramen on the menu can be made vegan. Don’t forget to puruse their extensive menu of inventive dishes, which includes a number of Japanese tacos, rice dishes, dumplings and revolving menu of specials.
The veggie ramen at Mirakutei is one of the city’s best, with a separate house-made broth, bok choy, and trumpet and shiitake mushrooms. In addition to its lineup of traditional and unique ramens, the mneu also features sushi, sashimi, and speciality plates. This tiny, darkened den with windows looking onto East Burnside feels most like a Japanese izakaya, the action of the world passing by while you’re completely immersed in one delicious bowl of ramen. It’s easy to order online for takeout or delivery.