When I first moved to LA, my only background in ramen was of the Cup O’Noodles variety. Then I began to get Japanese ramen at my local haunt, Atch Kotch, but this was before tonkotsu ramen began to hit it big here, and it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.
I had a lot of trepidation before writing this article. Not being of Asian descent, I questioned whether I had the background to be any kind of authority on ramen. After diving in deep, I realized I had a LOT to learn and a lot more ramen joints to try out! Of course, I was happy to remedy this.
There are four main types of ramen broth: shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso (soybean paste), and tonkotsu (pork bone).
My experiences with the often simple (read, bland) shio and shoyu broths were very “meh.” That wouldn’t stop me from slurping them down in seconds, however. Especially once spicy components were added. And then tonkotsu took over.
Maybe it had always been on the menu and I never tried it, or maybe the ramen industry needed some new invigoration to create Sprinkles-like lines around the block. Whatever happened, it’s everywhere now and it’s insanely delicious. Ramen 2.0, if you will. Tonkotsu is made by boiling pork bones, fat, and collagen over high heat for many hours, causing the broth to look like milky gravy with a highly concentrated pork flavor.
Years ago, when I first tried LA’s most popular ramen spot, Daikokuya, I was not impressed with my selection of shio ramen. Now, Daikokuya has only two ramen menu items: its signature tonkotsu and tsukemen, which is dipping ramen.
Call me a novice, but I ain’t got time for tsukemen! It’s sloppy, there are too many steps, and by the time I get anything in my mouth, it’s lukewarm. Ramen should be broth and noodles swimming lovingly together, like nature intended.
Before I get into my Top 5 ramen spots in LA, I must preface by saying I’ve only included places within a 30-minute driving distance from my home, omitting any place in Gardena. Sorry, but when I live sandwiched between Little Tokyo and Little Osaka, it’s too far. Also, I have specifically NOT included Tsujita Artisan Noodle (the hottest spot on Sawtelle) because … well … I didn’t like it. The broth was far too rich for me, so much so I couldn’t even finish it! And the hour wait just isn’t worth it.
While I’m not one to follow the crowd, I can’t help but be blown away by what is hands-down the best (and most popular) ramen in LA. Period. They only serve one type (tonkotsu), but it’s all you need. The rich and creamy pork broth and perfectly sized and cooked noodles are perfection. No complaints — except the infernal wait for a table.
I was almost going to call this place the poor man’s Daikokuya after my first bite, but then soon changed my mind. While the broth wasn’t exactly as heaven sent as big D’s, the noodles and amazing soft-boiled egg were standouts. A fine addition to the tonkotsu realm, and one of Jonathan Gold’s favorites.
You probably won’t find this place on any other Top 5 lists, but I really loved the Kara Kara pork ramen accompanied by the massive slice of tender meat and bok choy. The sort of fusion take on ramen and the more upscale and airy décor gave me cause to add them to my list. Many ramen purists would probably disagree.
Another spot not going to win any awards, Ramenya offers a unique ramen experience with their Tan Tan Men ramen. It’s basically like egg drop soup dumped over noodles with ground pork and it’s fantastic! So decadent and flavorful. And in case things aren’t spicy enough for you, you’ll be offered an obscene looking bottle of chili oil. But be warned: this place has zero air conditioning, so avoid it on hot days.
This 20-year-old chain churns out some pretty decent fast food ramen. Located in the food court of a Japanese shopping center, I really enjoyed the super casual vibe. The Spicy Miso ramen seems to be what everyone was ordering, so I followed suit. While the noodles were a bit instant-tasting (which I still enjoyed) the heat was certainly there, and I also greatly appreciated the option to get a smaller size for when you don’t have the time to go home for a 3-hour food coma nap afterwards.
I have included a bonus honorable mention for one of my favorite guilty ramen pleasures. Located in the Century City mall, this place has one of my favorite ramen dishes ever, the Beef Curry ramen. A nice change from the traditional pork experience, this curry packs quite a wallop with just the right amount of heat. I also loved the shredded cabbage that comes with it. A nice, subtle crunch to balance out the soft noodles.
Editor’s Note: What other ramen places would you include?
Bun Boy has been obsessed with the LA restaurant scene since he moved here 12 years ago. He visits about 4 restaurants a week, mostly never repeating any. Even in these wavering economic times, he absolutely refuses to give up one of his favorite pastimes.