Have you had a bowl of ramen lately? Not the instant kind, but a big, soulful bowl of broth layered with handcrafted noodles and regionally sourced veggies and protein.
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 ramen also abounds — decked out with marinated soft-boiled eggs, mushrooms, tofu, greens, seaweed and more.
Inspired? Portland has become a hotspot for Japan-based ramen chains in recent years, with an abundance of both authentic imports and Portland-based chefs spinning their own playful innovations.
The trend didn’t happen by accident. Both Marukin and Afuri, two of the Japanese ramen giants, say they chose Portland as their first U.S. location specifically because of the Rose City’s purity of water and the bounty of the local harvest.
There’s 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, a ramen enthusiast-turned-entrepreneur who launched her own brand of organic ramen noodles, Umi Organic, in 2016.
Her product — made in North Portland with just six ingredients — is the only organic noodle available for ramen lovers to make at home; it’s sold at local farmers markets and grocery stores.
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 opened its massive Southeast Portland space in 2016 to much fanfare. 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 mushroom, a seasoned egg, roast pork, endive and seaweed. The bowls here are the priciest you’ll find in town ($14 to $20), but it’s reflected in the exquisite quality.
Vegans can rejoice that two of the four daily specials at Marukin Ramen, another lauded Japanese transplant, are vegan, developed especially for the Portland market. The spicy vegan red is addictive, made with onions, garlic, shiitake mushrooms and konbu. Marukin’s authentic offerings are pleasing fans at their two locations, in Southeast Portland and in Old Town at Pine Street Market.
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.
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. Since opening in 2015 it’s been packed with hungry daytime crowds. You can choose a lower sodium broth here and easily customize your toppings.
The ramen spot inside Uwajimaya supermarket in Beaverton, Ramen Ryoma, 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.
It’s not traditional, but curry lovers will get a kick out of the curry chicken soup broth ramen at Noraneko Ramen, which comes with a little spice. Portland chef/owner Gabe Rosen, of Biwa, opened this whimsical spot near OMSI in 2015. The crispy karaage (Japanese fried chicken) is also exceptional here, which is important for late-night snacking and cocktails.
Craving more fried chicken with your ramen? You can get it at Boke Bowl, a cheery hipster ramen spot with locations in Southeast and Northwest 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, cornmeal crusted oysters and housemade spicy chicken sausage.
The hip hop music here is loud, the bowls of ramen are huge and the space is industrial chic. Portland seems to love it; Boxer Ramen just opened its third location, in Northwest Portland, to complement their Northeast Alberta and downtown spots. Founders Micah Camden and Katie Poppe know how to brand it — they’re also the geniuses behind Blue Star Donuts and Little Big Burger. Try Boxer’s shiitake shoyu, a simple and decadent version of the classic with a soft-poached egg, cabbage and scallions.
Kayo’s Ramen Bar
A recent addition to the embarrassment of riches 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 Smokehouse & 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.
The veggie ramen at Mirakutei is one of the city’s best, with a separate housemade broth, bok choy and trumpet and shiitake mushrooms. This tiny, darkened den with windows looking onto on 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.