The cult of ramen

The popular Japanese noodle dish makes believers out of Sacramento diners

Ramen & Rice owner Chuck Kim says he invents a new ramen dish “almost every month.”

Ramen & Rice owner Chuck Kim says he invents a new ramen dish “almost every month.”

photo by wes davis

Sacramento winters often come with a side of freezing nights and extra rainfall, the kind of conditions that lead to sore throats, runny noses and colds. In other words, soup weather. Weather that makes eating noodle soup not just tasty, but borderline medicinal.

Japan, in particular, has perfected the art of the dish.

“Noodle soup is a near-universal comfort food, and Japanese people turned to ramen for comfort,” explained food writer Karen Leibowitz in her 2011 essay “Mankind is Noodlekind,” published in Lucky Peach magazine.

This is how my Sacramento ramen journey begins: with a certain bowl that soothes a particularly miserable sore throat. After the sickness recedes, a few more bowls at several different local shops slurp down even more easily. Then, I learn that several new ramen shops have opened recently in Sacramento. They, too, are sampled.

Now, after the Japanese noodle soup has helped me survive so many sore throats and cold evenings, I feel indebted to the food gods to spread the good word—of ramen.

Praying to the ramen gods

Ramen restaurants, called ramen-ya, are the most popular kind of eateries in Japan. But the dish is eaten all around the world thanks to Momofuku Ando’s invention of instant ramen, which eventually helped World War II-ravaged Japan—and the rest of the globe—eat on the cheap. Today, 98 billion packages of instant ramen are consumed internationally per year, according to the World Instant Noodles Association. Or an average of about 13 bowls per person. But at a ramen-ya, the dish is a much more serious affair than the typical store-bought flash-fried brick of noodles and chemical-laden foil flavor packet that we’re used to.

Shoki Ramen House offers vegetarian ramen options, including the Tan Tan Men. Relax, you can order the same dish with meat as well.

photo by wes davis

My first experience with a traditional ramen-ya was memorable. It happened in 2005 in Orange County when a college writing professor held office hours at a popular local ramen restaurant. We arrived, signed a waiting list, and waited to be called. Finally, we ate, and I still remember being disappointed because the anticipation seemed so much greater than the meal.

A few weeks later, I returned—this time arriving before the restaurant opened. There was already a sizable line outside, but I couldn’t spot the clipboard with the waiting list. I pushed open the door to see a handful of chefs and employees gathered in a huddle. They were all wearing headbands, holding each other and praying to what I believed was a Shinto god. Or was it a ramen god? Whatever it was, they stopped mid-prayer to stare at me. I apologized, exited and waited outside for the clipboard. It would still be a long time before I understood this cult of ramen.

Ramen-ya rising

Today, Sacramento is home to several relatively new ramen-ya. These include Ramen & Rice (807 Howe Avenue) and Ryu Jin Ramen House (1831 S Street), both of which opened in 2012. But the ramen-ya with possibly the longest waiting line is Shoki Ramen House (2675 24th Street), which also opened a second location in 2012 (1201 R Street). Sure, there were several ramen joints in town before Shoki first opened in 2007, but Shoki was probably the first to have to adopt a waiting list after positive reviews and word-of-mouth drummed up demand.

However, Shoki co-owner and chef Yasushi Ueyama wasn’t always revered in Sacramento. Ueyama is from Kobe, Japan, and met his wife Kathy when she was visiting her family there. They married in 1999, settled in Kathy’s hometown of Folsom and opened Shoki Japanese Restaurant there in 2001. It specialized in kaiseki, a traditional Japanese haute cuisine style featuring courses of small dishes, such as grilled fish, fresh pickles and seasonal vegetables.

Initially, says Kathy, many customers didn’t seem impressed.

“People had a hard time understanding it. Everyone wanted chicken teriyaki, sesame chicken [and] sushi,” she says. “A customer came up to [Yasushi] and told him that he doesn’t know how to cook Japanese food.”

Eventually, the Ueyamas decided to try a different approach. They sold the restaurant in 2006, and Yasushi commuted regularly to study the ramen business at Ramen Halu, a restaurant in San Jose.

Saho Ueyama—daughter of Shoki Ramen House co-owner and chef Yasushi Ueyama—garnishes a bowl of ramen with bamboo.

photo by wes davis

In 2007, they used what remained of their savings and opened Shoki Ramen House in a quaint Curtis Park structure that fits just a handful of tables. That November, the Ueyamas launched their first waiting list after customers started showing up en masse. Demand led them to open a downtown location in 2012. It’s more than double the size, but nevertheless, a waiting list popped up there as well.

Although Shoki is known for traditional shio (salt) and shoyu (soy sauce) ramen, Kathy says, it offers plenty of variety. Because Yasushi has a Japanese degree in nutrition, all soups are served MSG-free, and there are also vegan options.

In fact, it’s the only ramen-ya in Sacramento to carry a soy-milk broth, which conjures a comforting Taiwanese breakfast soup my mother used to make. This comfort factor (along with Ryu Jin’s spicy tonkotsu ramen) initiates me into the cult and truly makes me believe in the dish.

But still, I’m sure there are many perfect bowls citywide that I’ve yet to find.

Noodlekind otaku

Shoki isn’t the only ramen-ya drawing crowds these days. In the past year, I’ve put my name on waiting lists at three different places. Perhaps this signals the rise of Sacramento’s ramen otaku (a term used in anime and manga circles, which roughly translates to “obsessive fan”), knowledgeable foodies quick to discern every subtle hint of flavor in each bowl. Perhaps the ramen gods fated me to become one after interrupting that prayer in 2005?

“I believe anime has a lot to do with it,” says Kathy Ueyama, of Sacramento’s growing ramen scene. “But for us, we don’t even think about it because we’re so engrossed [in making ramen]. We can’t take our mind away from what we’re doing, because one mistake would change everything.”

Across town, Chuck Kim, co-owner and chef at Ramen & Rice, invents a new ramen “almost every month.” At a previous restaurant he owned in Berkeley, Kim served more than 45 ramen styles. Today, his most popular dishes include a newly invented bulgogi ramen featuring Korean marinated beef, and champong, a spicy seafood-based ramen that’s a mixture of Chinese-, Korean- and Japanese-cuisine influences.

“Everybody likes noodles,” says Kim. “Look at pho. Pho is all over the place. It’s a trend. The next [few] years, there will be more ramen places.”

Yet, there are few ramen otaku bigger than Keizo Shimamoto, who runs a blog called Go Ramen! Shimamoto, who is from Orange County, has blogged about ramen since 2007. In 2009—a couple weeks before he left his tech-consulting job and moved to Tokyo, where he now manages a ramen-ya called Bassanova—he made a pilgrimage to Shoki and struck up a friendship with the Ueyama family. This past December, he helped the Ueyamas open its newest Shoki Ramen House in Kobe. He notes that Japan is full of ramen otaku bigger than he is.

“To take any bowl of ramen and say, ’This is ramen!’ is, truthfully, incorrect,” says Shimamoto, who claims to have slurped more than 600 different bowls in 2011. “This is the quality that makes ramen so attractive and why so many people fall in love with the lifelong search to find their perfect bowl.”