A satisfying ramen adventure in Chico
Instant noodles. Not much to talk about, right? The super-cheap, super-quick, nutrient-deficient packs of sodium-rich carbs that helped me stay on budget during college have long since fallen out of my regular diet like so many other cheap, processed foods, and I hadn’t given them much thought in years. A couple of months ago, however, I came across Hans Lienesch, aka “The Ramen Rater,” at ramenrater.com, where he’s reviewed about 2,000 different varieties of instant noodles. The range of flavors and brands that he covers exposed a world of possibilities.
So, I decided to visit Chico’s Asian groceries—M&Y Oriental Market (2550 S. Whitman Place), Asian Market (347 Nord Ave., #3) and House of Rice (338 Broadway St.)—and seek out some different flavors. I taste-tested 15 varieties. Here’s a sampling of what I found.
Thailand: The Ramen Rater is big on Southeast Asia, and Thailand’s Mama brand is one of the most ubiquitous on his list and in Chico. Both M&Y (which has by far the biggest selection of instant noodles in town, with manager Tou Lor as an enthusiastic tour guide) and Asian Market carry them.
One of the things that distinguishes many of the better instant noodles from the grocery store staples is the inclusion of a variety of flavor additions, and the Mama styles I tried—pork, duck, shrimp and creamy shrimp—each had one soup base, one chili flavoring and one flavored oil pack. This provided a rich base of flavor for the broth that, paired with the thin yet nicely chewy wheat noodles, made all of them very satisfying. My favorite was the aromatic, sour and spicy Shrimp Tom Yum (both the clear and creamy versions).
Wai Wai is another Thai brand, and the flavors of the two I bought—Oriental Style and Sour Soup—were the most intense and complex of all the instant noodles I tried. In fact, the Sour Soup might’ve been my favorite overall, with the fishy lime-and-chili-flavored broth being the most delicious thing I’ve tasted in a while.
Indonesia: Do an Internet search for reviews of Indomie’s Mi Goreng and you will find an obsessive fan base singing its praises. Mi goreng is a Southeast Asian fried-noodle dish, and Indomie’s instant version is a “dry” ramen—as opposed to a soup—featuring a trifecta of oil/liquid additions, plus a dry seasoning and a sachet of dried onions. With wonderfully chewy noodles, it’s sweet, savory, spicy, oily and addictive.
Japan: Downtown Chico’s House of Rice has a small grocery section in the back corner and I was pleasantly surprised to find the Ramen Rater’s No. 1 Japanese instant noodle, Myojo Ippei-chan Yakisoba Japanese Style Noodles, tucked into the corner. Similar to mi goreng, yakisoba is a fried-noodle dish, and this is one damn fancy instant fried-noodle dish, with big, chewy noodles and an earthy/fishy and Worcestershire flavor balanced by wasabi mayo drizzled across the top.
South Korea: You can actually find U.S.-made versions of Korea-based Nongshim noodles (that I bought at M&Y) at many American grocery stores (including WinCo and FoodMaxx). Regardless, after tasting a few varieties of Nongshim’s Shin Ramyun, I would say that they are far superior to the other American standbys, and also as good as anything I tried during my taste-testing.
The kicker for me is the noodles, thick and chewy, the size and toothiness being the closest thing to ramen-house noodles that I found among the instant varieties. For the flagship Shin Ramyun Noodle Soup—the best-selling instant noodle in South Korea—the broth is good but not particularly special, a basic soy-based affair with veggies, plus a substantial chili heat that is just right. But the incredible Shin Black (“pot-au-feu flavor”) version fills in the final blank with a subtle earthy mushroom/beefiness that put it up there with Wai Wai’s sour soup for my favorite instant-noodle discovery.