Twin Cities Ramen

Shaun Liboon / Silver City Photography / Heavy Table

In the ebb and flow of food trends, some things are worth letting fade away (sriracha aioli, “kobe” burgers, fancy banh mi) and some things are worth holding on to for dear life. Reasons to hang on may be as simple as “this is really good” or as significant as “this makes life…better.” Ramen in the MSP, real ramen made from scratch, is of the latter disposition. While some may argue about the authenticity of the current ramen offerings in the MSP, to debate this point is to miss The Point entirely. In these times, a thoughtfully made bowl of ramen is always a good thing.

While the parameters for what makes a good bowl of ramen are largely a matter of opinion, there are rules. The foundation of a good bowl of ramen is a stock that is made from scratch: This means bones, aromatics (like onions and leeks), and sometimes an accent component like mushrooms, miso, katsuobushi (a resin-like seasoning made from bonito that has been smoked, fermented, and dried), and seaweed. Noodles are an equally important component of the ramen experience.

Whether they start out as fresh or dried, a good noodle will properly absorb a hot ramen stock without turning to mush too soon. Something special happens when you slurp noodles, as you should, from a bowl of hot stock: While tasting a spoonful can give you the big picture of a particular stock’s character, the act of slurping noodles aerates the stock, opening it up and telling you the details, like decanting wine. Ramen accoutrements often include, but are not limited to, meat, eggs, fresh and / or pickled vegetables, and nori. None of these accoutrements should be fighting for the spotlight. Rather, these should be thoughtfully chosen to complement the bowl of ramen as a whole. After all, there’s more to ramen than a perfectly cooked noodle…ahem. And so, the very best bowls of ramen are the ones that work well as a whole. A good bowl of ramen is a perfect world in a bowl.

On Mondays Obento-Ya, tucked in a commercial intersection of Minneapolis’ Como neighborhood near the U of M, sells their Ginger Pork Ramen for $10 a bowl. The Obento-Ya space is meticulously clean and seating is tight. The service is very matter-of-fact, which bodes well for those on a tight lunch schedule. The Ginger Pork Ramen is served in an oblong shaped white china bowl, a modern presentation choice that immediately eliminates any expectations one may have, if any, for a more traditional bowl of ramen.

The contents of the bowl are minimal: stock, noodles, seaweed, and pork. The serving size is a conservative portion which, considering the strength of the flavors in this bowl, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The soup base is a salty and full-flavored pork stock that opens up to a smoky and fishy character when slurped and carried by softly chewy and pale yellow noodles. With the multitude of ramen choices happening around the MSP, this ramen is a decent meal if you’re in the area, but not worth going out of your way.

Obento-Ya, 1510 SE Como Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55414; 612.331.1432

Shaun Liboon / Silver City Photography/ Heavy Table

Just beyond the western edge of the U of M campus, at the intersection of East Hennepin Avenue and 4th Street SE, is Masu Sushi & Robata, initially shaped by Chef Tim McKee of La Belle Vie. As one would expect from the James Beard Award-winning chef, Masu’s Pork Belly Ramen ($12.50) is damn near perfect for a Western style of ramen, heavily influenced by the restaurant world’s current wonder boy David Chang of Momofuku in New York City.

Masu’s ramen is built upon a rich porky stock and carried by perfectly chewy noodles which are brought in fresh from the Los Angeles-based noodle maker Sun Noodle. As if the broth weren’t rich enough, the soup is garnished with a poached egg which, when the yolk is broken and stirred into the stock, creates an outright sublime texture and flavor. Diners who are more interested in the food than the scene should visit Masu during the lunch hour since the dinnertime crowd, clad in skinny jeans and fedoras, can be overwhelming.

Masu Sushi & Robata, 330 E Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55414; 612.332.6278

Shaun Liboon / Silver City Photography/ Heavy Table

Where Masu’s finds its niche as an unapologetic caricature of Japanese pop culture, Zen Box Izakaya successfully operates as an honest-to-goodness Izakaya modeled after the comfortable and fail-safe bars in Japan where businessmen and locals gather after work for food and drinks. Co-owner and Chef John Ng, along with his wife and Front Of House Manager Lina Goh, serve ramen with conviction and authenticity. Zen Box’s “Tonzen” Tonkotsu Ramen ($12) is built on the foundation of a pork stock that’s painstakingly simmered for 36 hours, a labor of love that creates a creamy texture and a deeply layered pork flavor. The soup is garnished with a generous slice of Chashu pork belly that’s been marinated, rolled and butcher tied, and slow roasted until tender.

Where chefs of any culinary background will agree that a particular chef’s level of skill can be judged by his / her ability to cook an egg, Chef John Ng’s thoughtful treatment of his eggs is downright masterful. He begins by cooking a large pot of perfectly soft-boiled eggs which, in restaurant quantities, is a feat in and of itself. Once the eggs are cooled, they’re peeled and then preserved in the rendered fat and marinade from the Chashu. Tasting these soft-boiled eggs in the context of a bowl of ramen is, above all else, a hang-your-head-and-sigh-with-pleasure experience. Thanks to Zen Box’s quality of food and unassuming atmosphere, it should be of no surprise that off-duty local chefs and Japanese food enthusiasts call this place home base. Zen Box Izakaya is located on the corner of Washington Avenue and Portland Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.

Zen Box Izakaya, 602 Washington Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55415; 612.332.3936

Shaun Liboon / Silver City Photography/ Heavy Table

Midori’s Floating World Cafe, located on Lake Street in Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood, offers their Tokyo Ramen ($11.95) as a fixture on their menu. Tokyo Ramen is based on a pork, chicken, and shoyu broth, with little or no traces of dried fish infused into the stock, making it easily accessible for anyone who is unfamiliar with the sea-like flavors found in Japanese food. The soup is garnished with sliced pork, hard-boiled egg, and fish cake, along with an occasional refreshing and crunchy bite of ginger. Though Midori’s ramen may seem too straightforward at first glance, their bowls are on the mark for an “everyday” meal that’s delicious and comforting even when you’re not looking to challenge your palette.

Midori’s Floating World Cafe 2629 E Lake St, Minneapolis, MN 55406; 612.721.3011

Shaun Liboon / Silver City Photography/ Heavy Table

Across town in St. Paul’s emerging Lowertown district, Tanpopo Restaurant offers Pork Ramen ($11.75) on Monday evenings. Where Zen Box’s ramen is comforting and Masu’s ramen is indulgent, Chef Koshiki Yonemura’s ramen shows a beautiful sense of restraint and balance. True to her signature flavor profile, Yonemura’s ramen is clean and light. The flavors in her stock of pork, fish, dried mushrooms, and seaweed are all evenly spaced and balanced, and each has room to breathe. The soup is garnished with slices of perfectly roasted pork tenderloin, spinach, menma (pickled bamboo shoots), and a simple hard-boiled egg. Despite the generous portion, finishing a bowl of Tanpopo’s ramen leaves one feeling refreshed, which might be the most unique trait of Yonemura’s approach to Japanese food.

Tanpopo Restaurant, 308 Prince St #140, St. Paul, MN 55101; 651.209.6527

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30 Comments

  1. For comparison sake I would love to know how you think the ramen at Unideli inside United Noodles stacks up. I’ve had the pork ramen (xtra spicy) and was impressed by the broth. Unideli is much easier on the pocketbook too.

  2. How do they make the noodle? On coat hanger?

  3. Annie Dunright03/28/2012Reply

    I really want a hot bowl of ramen now after reading this! I love the food pictures and attention to detail. Well written and now I have some new places to try! Thanks!

  4. Are these better or worse than Maruchan ramen?

  5. I wasn’t that impressed by Tonpopo’s version. In fact, I found it to be quite plain. I tried Kinsen’s ramen a couple weeks ago, and while it was decent, there was something missing to make it worth a second trip. As for Masu, I found their version of Zha Jiang Mian to be completely tasteless, but that probably isn’t too surprising considering it’s not even a Japanese dish lol. I’ll go back for the ramen — looks like it is worth trying!

  6. buridan's paradox03/28/2012Reply

    while colorful and meticulous, ramen pales in comparison to pho.

  7. in japan there was often a vegetarian option – how i wish i could get ramen like that here!

  8. Hasdrubal03/28/2012Reply

    What, no Moto-i?

  9. Second on moto-i. Their Abura Ramen is like crack. I can’t get enough. And it’s an entirely different style of ramen. Surely merits a mention.

  10. +1 on Moto-I.

  11. Respectfully disagree on the pho v ramen comparison. There might be more and better pho joints than ramen joints in the Twin Cities, but real good ramen is gooooooood. Tantanmen!

  12. Author

    My reasons for omitting Moto-i are simple and deliberate as this: they’re inconsistent. I am aware that their Abura Ramen is “award winning” and whatnot, but there’s more to ramen than an al dente noodle in chili oil. Anyone who has spent time in a professional kitchen knows that he soul of a restaurant is expressed through their stocks and broths, where applicable. In this particular instance, combined with their general inconsistency from visit to visit, this “dry” format of ramen isn’t an “edgy” move to me. It’s a cop out. I have no qualms about saying this since people will go to Moto-i regardless, if only for their location. Simply put, there’s ramen joints around the MSP that are far more interesting and tasty to talk about.

    Side note: If you’re into dry noodle dishes in chili oil, and with cultural definitions aside, go for the Dan Dan Noodles at Grand Szechuan in Bloomington. For the love of God, this is simply one of the best things you can eat in the MSP.

    Ramen vs Pho? Not an argument. These are different flavor programs altogether. Speaking of which, stay tuned for a comparison of Pho joints.

  13. mpls cook03/28/2012Reply

    The braised pork ramen at Moto-I is certainly worth a mention, which I noticed you left out of your reply. The broth is rich and gelatinous, the pork is tender, and the poached egg is a nice touch.

  14. ramen chef03/28/2012Reply

    There is more to the Abura ramen than just ‘chili oil and noodles’. The noodles are all made in-house, something that no other restaurant in this city even attempts. Combine the noodles with smoked pork shoulder, rendered pork fat, ponzu, pickles, bonito and an egg and you have quite a flavorful dish. And what about the other ramen dishes at Moto-i? The braised pork ramen is also pretty good IMO. And is the tsukemen ramen that runs from time to time as a special a ‘cop out’, or just a different style that is pretty good in its own right.

  15. mpls chef03/28/2012Reply

    Seriously can’t believe you would leave out the only restaurant in the twin cities that makes their own noodles. I’ll bet if you were writing about ravioli you’d mention the old spaghetti factory before Bar La Grassa

  16. its all about the facts03/28/2012Reply

    as a frequent guest at moto-i i would have to say that inconsistency is not a trait im familiar with as far as there establishment is concerned and secondly before your so inclined to distinguish what makes a ramen understand that its not the broth. most ramen are made with a broth but are not held to the standard that a broth is mandatory thus the name abura (which means oil in japenese) is given, and riddle me this if moto-i doesnt hold the crown of best ramen then why did they win the last charity held ramen off.

  17. For those of you keeping score, that’s +3 for Moto-i from legitimate commenters, and -3 for comments clearly written by Moto-i employees angered by the insult of their own personal Abura. Let’s face it, though, the backlash against the author speaks perfectly as to why Moto-i wasn’t worth a mention in the first place. So they’re the only place in the MSP that makes their own noodles. Congratulations. Why make such a commotion about a single element of a complex dish when the rest of it is so entirely ignorable? I can hand-press fettucini, slather it in Prego, and end up with a comparable result. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll head to Moto for rooftop cocktails and downblouse glances at passersby any time, but I’m certainly not gonna spring for a $12-16 bowl of house-made noodles steeped in mediocrity on any one of those visits.

  18. Author

    I get that Moto-i makes hand pulled noodles. We all get that. And we’re all well aware that Moto-i received the award of “Best Ramen” at the Eat Ramen Help Japan fundraiser because the noodles were “al dente”. I get that too, and it’s old news. I understand that the craftsmanship involved in making your own noodles takes several years of training, and there is integrity in this. This is, without a doubt, commendable. But I can’t stress this enough: there’s more to it than the noodles. “Al Dente” is a tired argument. I have to consider the two visits I’ve had there on my own, one where my hand pulled noodles came out over-steeped to mush in a lukewarm stock, clearly because my server was busy chatting up her friends at a nearby table while my meal sat on the slide. On my second visit, these sacred noodles, allegedly hand pulled by young virgins this time around, came out in a flat and over-salted broth, as if someone on the line saw six open tickets for pork ramen while being only two orders worth of broth away from being 86’ed. I’m not sure if they tried to stretch it with hot water and salt, or what was going on back there. These things are indicative of problems in the kitchen and/or with the front of house at a fundamental level. That said, it is entirely possible to do a disservice to a well made noodle. Moto-i has had their share of time in the spotlight, but it seems they’ve become complacent. A lot has happened with ramen in the MSP in the year since their win, and these things are worth exploring.

  19. Whether you love us our hate us, I find it intriguing that you are only talking about us….moto-i.

    Thank you!!!

    See you on the rooftop for some Abura Ramen & Sake. Kanpai!

  20. Ramen Chef03/28/2012Reply

    If you understand the craftmanship in making noodles by hand, then why dismiss that fact and actually give props for importing noodles from California?

  21. Mpls chef03/28/2012Reply

    For the record I never worked at moto i.

  22. mpls cook03/29/2012Reply

    i’ve also never worked at moto-i, if i was counted in the moto-i employee category. i do work in the restaurant industry though.

  23. onlinedummy03/29/2012Reply

    Love the Abura at Moto-i. Had some tonite.

  24. RamenKing03/29/2012Reply

    I had similar experiences at moto-i as Shaun Liboon. Over salted flavorless broth, room temperature. The broth is the soul, heart, and body of ramen.

  25. justlovefood03/29/2012Reply

    I agree with Shaun’s decision not to include Moto-i in the article. When you consider his sub-par experiences there, it was probably a kinder gesture to omit them from the review than to include a negative review when other ramen locations earned such high praise. I came to find new sources for excellent ramen, and that is what I found.

  26. While I enjoy a good bowl of Ramen, no one….NO ONE in this town makes a good hot and spicy Korean Raymun. If you have never had it….you’ll never want to eat Japanese Ramen ever again!!!

  27. Haricotsv204/03/2012Reply

    I also think United Noodle has terrific ramen. I’ve had their pork ramen and miso ramen and thought both were delicious. As mentioned earlier, much less expensive too.

  28. Soup Nazi07/22/2012Reply

    I completely agree with Shaun: Moto- i is incredibly inconsistent, and in my opinion, entirely overrated.

    Unfortunately though, I find Masu also a little inconsistent, but to be fair, I’ve only gone twice. The first time I had the pork belly ramen, it was almost comparable to the ramen I had living in Japan…however the second time, the broth tasted as though it was been diluted. I will definitely try it again and hopefully that second time was just a fluke.

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