If you haven’t sat down to a bowl of steaming hot ramen, inhaled the scent of rich broth, mixed the toppings into the noodles, then carefully twirled them around your chopsticks and slurped them down, you’re missing out on one of the Bay Area’s best culinary experiences. These local ramen shops have elevated a humble Japanese fast food to bowls of lip-smacking luxury, and with a new one seeming to open every month, the piping hot craze shows no signs of cooling off. Read on to find out our favorites.
Good to know: A quick word of warning: most ramen shops don’t take reservations, and eager crowds regularly form outside long before opening time. Although this sounds tricky if you have kids, most ramen places are surprisingly kid friendly once you get inside, and what kid doesn’t enjoy eating noodles? At every ramen place, you’ll see whole families, every head bent happily over their own bowl of ramen. Plan to arrive early to either stake a spot in line or get your name on the list. Most places have menus posted so decide on what you want while you’re waiting. Once you’re seated, many servers can take your order immediately and dishes usually come quickly, which parents will appreciate. All that’s left is to enjoy that rich ramen goodness.
A true classic in the Bay Area ramen scene, Ramen Dojo’s garlic pork ramen has turned many a ramen newbie into line-waiting believer. There are soy sauce (shoyu) and soy bean (miso) options, but the garlic pork (tonkotsu) is definitely the star. Topped with slices of roasted pork, fried garlic, kikurage mushrooms, chives, a quail egg, and swirled with a “chicken gravy” that adds richness and heft, this one of the most flavorful and satisfying ramen bowls around. Although Ramen Dojo advertises its ramen as spicy, there is a non-spicy level available. Tip: If your spice tolerance is low, try asking for half non-spicy and half mild broth; the extra kick of flavor from the chili oil is worth it. Even for ramen shops, Ramen Dojo is tiny – 24 seats, exactly, so arrive early or be prepared for an oh-so-worth-it wait. It’s also a bit tricky to fit strollers into the small space, so if you’re still carrying around a lot of baby gear, there’s a third option: Ramen Dojo has two sister shops in the area, Santa Ramen and Ramen Parlor, that are slightly larger, have similar (although not identical) menus, and are also more accommodating of small children, if you want a more leisurely ramen experience with your kids.
805 S B St.
San Mateo, Ca
Online: Ramen Dojo Facebook page
While many ramen shops in the Bay Area have a minimalist aesthetic, Himawari is a lovely exception. The owner is a jazz enthusiast, and the walls of the restaurant are lined with old records and album covers, while jazz music plays in the background. It gives Himawari a cool, relaxed vibe and encourages you to take a moment to sit and enjoy your ramen instead of slurping it down immediately. Himawari offers soy sauce (shoyu), salt (shio), and miso ramens, which you can fancy up with additional toppings like extra roasted pork or, intriguingly, buttered corn. Their most unique ramen is the tan tan men, the Japanese take on spicy Chinese Szechuan noodles, with a fiery red chili-laced miso broth enriched with ground pork. It’s super filling and comforting on a chilly evening. If you want to make a full meal of it, Himawari also offers a remarkably long selection of appetizers, salads, sushi, and even dessert. The chicken karaage (fried chicken), gyoza (fried potstickers), and buta kakuni (stewed pork) are all delicious and kid-pleasers. The staff is especially accommodating of families and cheerfully offer high chairs and kid-size bowls to the little ones.
202 2nd Ave.
San Mateo, CA 94401
Among the many ramen shops in the Bay Area, Uchiwa Ramen boasts a uniquely memorable interior design, with its striking wood ceiling and communal tables. It turns eating ramen into a zen spa experience. If you sit at the counter, you can watch the open kitchen as well while you enjoy your noodles. The menu kindly calls out gluten free options, which include the tonkotsu and and shio (salt) ramen: the topkotsu is The kale salad is a tasty change up from the more typical salad offerings at ramen shops; it features fresh and roasted kale tossed in a toasted sesame dressing and topped with slices of Asian pear. Don’t miss their signature side dish as well, the “pork wing”, which is really a pork shank covered in a chili glaze that’s both spicy and sweet. The staff is very welcoming to small kids and they offer two kinds of kid’s ramen, including a gluten free. There’s options for everyone at this shop, which should please all the picky eaters of your family.
821 B St
San Rafael, Ca
Santouka is easy to miss as it’s located inside the Mitsuwa shopping center, but once you step inside, you’ll have no problem spotting the line of hungry eaters outside the humble storefront. Santouka is probably the best representation of a classic Japanese ramen fast-food joint in the Bay Area: You line up, order at the counter, then find a seat in the food court and wait for your number to be called. The shio (salt) ramen with toroniku (pork cheek) is rightfully famous; the broth is creamy and flavorful and on the lighter side compared to other ramen shops, but the tender slices of pork add more than enough richness. Santouka ramen also comes in three sizes, which makes it helpful when you’re ordering for smaller appetites, and also offers set meals where a bowl of ramen comes with a bowl of rice covered with various toppings like tofu or salmon. It can be a bit of a hassle staking out a table, but the food court arrangement is great for families; the atmosphere is casual, high chairs are available, Afterwards, you can check out the Japanese grocery and bookstore nearby.
675 Saratoga Ave, San Jose, CA 95129
One of the stars of the South Bay ramen scene, Orenchi Ramen is another spot where you’re strongly advised to arrive early before opening (a minimum of 30 minutes before opening for a shot at being in the first seating, otherwise you’ll have to wait for the next rounds). The thrill of getting your name of one of the first slots on their signup sheet is matched only when a bowl of their signature Orenchi ramen arrives in front of you. Made with a pork-based (tonkotsu) broth, topped with roasted pork, green onions, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, nori, and a soft-boiled egg, this ramen is creamy and filling but not too fatty, and the noodles are pleasantly springy and al dente. Orenchi also offers a decent selection of appetizers if you want to round out your meal: the karaage chicken (fried chicken) and takoyaki (octopus balls) are solid choices. Although the interior is a bit crowded and dark, it’s surprisingly family friendly once you sit down: the tables are sturdy and spill-resistant, and you can order just noodles and broth for the kiddies. To the delight of San Franciscans, a second branch, Orenchi Beyond has opened on Valencia Street and offers mostly the same menu as well as a special “beyond” version of their ramen.
3540 Homestead Rd.
Santa Clara, CA 95051
174 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
The first Shalala Ramen opened in Mountain View, but our preference is for their second branch in Japantown, San Francisco. Their tonkotsu broth comes in white (enhanced with sea salt) and black (enriched with soy sauce) versions. The black version is richer and fattier from the extra seasonings and pork. Perfect solution: order the white version but ask for the thicker noodles used in the black version. Toppings are minimal to focus attention on the broth: roasted pork, green onions, cloud ear mushrooms, seaweed, a soft-boiled egg. One appetizer worth a try: the chashu “muffin sand”, which is like an English muffin sandwich stuffed with roasted pork. The spacious restaurant offers plenty of space for strollers, and the staff is quick to offer high chairs and kid-size bowls so they can have some of your noodles.
1737 Buchanan St.
San Francisco, CA 94115
The unassumingly named Ramen Shop is in actuality a high-concept and very tasty intersection between ramen and California cuisine. The owners are alums of Berkeley icon Chez Panisse, and they bring the freshness and spontaneity of farmers’ market produce to some very original bowls of ramen. Examples from the constantly changing menu include shoyu (soy sauce) ramen with braised duck leg and smoked duck breast, shiitake mushrooms, baby fennel and mustard greens; green garlic miso ramen with ground pork belly, dino kale rabe and butterbeans; and an amazing veggie meyer lemon shoyu ramen with king oyster and maitake mushrooms, daikon, and mizuna that tastes of spring. Appetizers and desserts also have a Western slant: don’t miss the shrimp and pork fried rice with wild nettles, sunchokes and chili paste, and the black sesame ice cream sandwiches made with brown butter cookies. Like most popular ramen joints, they don’t take reservations and there can be a wait if you don’t arrive right at opening, but they are kid friendly and offer a kid’s ramen which is simply noodles and broth, so you can be as adventurous as you like.
5812 College Ave.
Oakland, CA 94618
Do you have a favorite Ramen spot in the Bay Area? Tell us in the comments below!
All images courtesy of the author unless otherwise noted.