In the pantheon of the great gods of soup, tonkotsu ramen sits contentedly like a fat, happy Buddha. His devotees seek out his presence in noodle shops and Japanese restaurants, and he sometimes even makes a surprise appearance in revered temples of beer and cocktails alike. What is it that ramen lovers seek? A rich, milky, pork-infused broth that kisses the lips then melts into the soul, a tangle of chewy noodles dangling from chopsticks, a few bites of tender chashu pork belly, and maybe a yolk-oozing soft-boiled egg.
Ramen has become an obsession the world over, spawning movies, museums, fan blogs, and festivals. Here, we tackle that obsession with our own search for tonkotsu ramen nirvana. This is the Atlanta Ramen Smackdown.
Atlanta's ramen scene has simmered for years throughout the city's farther reaches, from Marietta to Suwanee and back to Buckhead. More recently, the simmer has boiled over in the heart of the city. At Miso Izakaya ramen morphed from a late night–only secret to a lunchtime treat to, now, Atlanta's sole entrant in the national ramen burger craze (the bun is made of fried noodles). Occasionally, ramen pops up at chef-driven spots like Abattoir or the Porter. Holeman & Finch now and then does a spin on the classic, employing pig skin (of course) instead of actual noodles.
For the Atlanta Ramen Smackdown, we decided to stick with restaurants that consistently keep tonkotsu ramen on the menu. We canvassed a wide spectrum of Atlanta's ramen cognoscenti — from dedicated noodle shops to hipster hangouts to sushi stalwarts with a soft spot for the soup. Each bowl was judged on three key criteria: noodles, toppings, and broth. The noodles should be thin and springy — firm yet tender enough to slurp and soak in flavor. The toppings — traditionally some form of sliced pork, soft-boiled egg, and a smattering of scallion or other veggies — should offer an interplay of flavors and textures to complement the noodles and broth. And most importantly, the tonkotsu broth, which should be rich and creamy and layered with deep flavor from long-simmering pork bones.
For you, dear Smackdown audience, I supped on more than 10 bowls of ramen in the past five days. Here's my rundown on the competition.
I waited 90 minutes to get a seat at tiny Gato Arigato, the hip Japanese pop-up that takes over Gato Bizco Monday through Wednesday nights (7-11 p.m.). Gato's ramen was certainly the least traditional of the group. The housemade, tea-infused noodles were chewy and firm with a starchy, almost nutty flavor. The shimmering broth packed a pork-y punch, though maybe a bit too much salt. It came topped with an oozy soft-boiled egg, strands of smoky grilled green scallion, and meltingly tender charred pork belly. But the breakthrough came in the thin slices of lightly fermented Fuji apple. I never expected to see apple in my ramen, but it went brilliantly with the pork belly, like pork chops and applesauce, a sweet and savory pairing that just plain works. $9.75. Gato Bizco, 1660 McLendon Ave. 404-371-0889.
Mibo Ramen is Mihoko Obunai's Monday through Friday (11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.) lunch pop-up operating out of So Ba in East Atlanta Village until November 15. (Obunai is in the process of securing a more permanent space, which she hopes to lock down soon.) Obunai has made a name for herself as one of the city's foremost ramen fanatics, traveling the country for special ramen events and to partner with chefs such as Shigetoshi Nakamura from the famed ramen lab at Sun Noodle. Obunai's tonkotsu is fueled by pork bones from Gum Creek Farms. The resulting broth may seem light, but is rich with collagen-infused body. Nuanced layers of pork flavor come in elegant waves. The noodles — sourced from Nakamura's Sun Noodle — are al dente but more tender than most, with an easier chew. A lovely orange-yolked egg and thin but fatty slices of pork add further character. I do wish Miso served its ramen a bit hotter, though, as on two occasions it came out fairly tepid. I want my bowl steaming hot. $12. So Ba, 560 Gresham Ave. 404-627-9911. www.facebook.com/miboloveramen.
Raku, from the owners of Honey Pig, is a young, hip, Korean ramen shop that makes a guy like me feel old, unhip, and decidedly not Korean. Bouncy K-pop videos blare on a big screen TV. Funky chandeliers light the room in a jarring clash of metal and wood. Raku's tonkotsu is a big, broad, gorgeous bowl of ramen. It's topped with two brown-around-the-edges slices of pork belly, bright red pickled ginger slivers, and a pile of crisp bean sprouts and sliced scallions. The broth has a smooth, milky texture, with a bit more oil on the top than most. The crunch from the scallions and sprouts counters the chewy (in a good way) noodles and chewy (in a not so good way) pork. The vinegary ginger adds a welcome spark of flavor to cut through the pork fat. All in all, it's a solid rendition, but the soup doesn't quite live up to its looks. $8.95. 2550 Pleasant Hill Road, Suite 112, Duluth. 770-476-1212. www.rakuramen.com.
Chef Taka Moriuchi wins points for his concurrent loving and near-loathing of ramen. On his blog, he likens ramen to other high-calorie high-sodium foods such as french fries or chicken wings — things that should be eaten in moderation. Taka's tonkotsu is an eye-pleasing work of art, splashes of red pickled ginger playing off green onion and the pure white and yellow of an almost-firm sliced egg, all masterfully placed inside the ceramic bowl. The ramen features a light broth made from simmering chicken necks and pork feet. It's smooth and deep, with evident but not overpowering salt and garlic. The fatty pork is cut into bite-size chunks. And the noodles feature a firm chew that strikes that right balance between pliability and bite. $10. 375 Pharr Road. 404-869-2802. www.takasushiatlanta.com.
Umaido proudly bears its ramen dedication in everything it does. You walk in past the kitchen and see big bags of flour ready to be turned into noodles, giant pots of broth bubbling and steaming over flames, a big plate of pork belly slices ready to be plopped atop noodles. It's another Korean joint, clearly focused on quick delivery of hot bowls of soup (wheeled out on plastic rolling carts) in a minimalist milieu. Umaido's tonkotsu bears a slick of black garlic oil on its surface, adding a heady aroma that works well with the tangle of mushrooms and runny-yolked egg. Umaido's noodles are thinner than most with a great springy bite to them. The broth packs plenty of pork flavor and an exceedingly smooth, if not quite creamy, texture. Eating ramen at Umaido is like eating a good steak in a steakhouse — you know you've come to the right place. $8.95. 2790 Lawrenceville Suwanee Road, Suwanee. 678-318-8568. www.umaidos.com.
Jinbei has been crowned ramen king multiple times over the years, including in these very pages. Alas, this unpretentious strip mall spot has seen better days. Jinbei's tonkotsu came with a heavy sprinkling of sesame seed that overwhelmed the aroma of the broth. Amidst the brown on brown shades in the bowl, an oval slice of pork atop the noodles looked dry and unappetizing, and tasted the same. The large pile of thinly shaved cabbage in the middle didn't help matters, either visually or flavor-wise. That said, the broth itself was perfectly soothing, veering towards the rich chicken stock side of the ramen spectrum. And the noodles were adequate in taste and feel, but not at all interesting. I left full, but not fully satisfied. $9.90 2421 Cobb Parkway, Smyrna. 770-818-9215. www.yakitorirestaurant.com.
Crowning a true tonkotsu ramen champion is no easy task. Five of these six contenders are worthy of accolades. That said, our Smackdown needs a winner, and that winner is Umaido. At Umaido, ramen is most front and center to the experience and both the tonkotsu broth and housemade noodles demonstrate the pursuit of ramen perfection. I'm hesitant to call it "best," but Umaido's tonkotsu came closest to the ideal ramen.
Two other competitors were tantalizingly close on Umaido's heels, but for different reasons. Gato Arigato won points with their novel pairing of perfectly cooked pork belly and Fuji apple (it's important to note that the pork is freshly cooked, too — many of the others, including Umaido, cook their pork in advance). And when it came to the critical broth, Mibo rose above the rest thanks to layers upon layers of intoxicating pork flavor.
Raku and Taka were both valiant contenders, and in fact offered the two most visually appealing bowls of ramen. Either one offers a ramen experience that will please any soup-seeking soul. Alas, Jinbei, Atlanta's former reigning champion, needs to get back in shape and pay more attention to the little details that elevate a ramen from merely soothing to soul satisfying.
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