Hawaii might not have snow flurries or sub-zero temperatures, but winter does bring colder, rainier weather to the islands. And there’s nothing more comforting on a chilly December night than eating ramen.
Ramen is a Japanese noodle dish that combines wheat noodles in a broth, called dashi, often flavored with soy sauce or miso. Bowls are often topped with things like sliced pork (char siu), fish cake (kamaboko), bamboo shoots, dried seaweed (nori) and green onions.
While the dish sounds simple enough, ramen can be prepared and served in a variety of ways. There can be variations in the types of noodles, broths and toppings. In fact, just about every region in Japan has its own spin, from the rich tonkotsu ramen in Fukuoka to the miso-based version found in Sapporo.
Ramen shops (ramen-ya) on Oahu are like doughnut shops in L.A. — it seems like they’re everywhere. Many serve a basic noodle dish that’s satisfying but nothing special, but there are a few standouts among the generic ramen-ya in Honolulu. Here are five ramen shops worth checking out, especially during one of Hawaii’s winter rainstorms:
This beloved ramen shop was located in the basement food court of the Waikiki Shopping Plaza, then closed when the center was being renovated. It devastated ramen lovers around the island. Plans to reopen were sketchy, but in October, the ramen-ya debuted on Keeaumoku Street in the space vacated by the short-lived udon shop Tsuku Tsuku Tei. Kiwami is best known for its tsukemen, or dipping-style ramen (the noodles and a more concentrated broth are served separately). The fat, chewy noodles, which come either hot or cold, are always cooked perfectly and the chicken-based dipping broths — in shio (salt), shoyu (soy) or spicy — are rich and flavorful.
The highly anticipated debut of Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, Honolulu’s newest ramen shop, lived up to its hype. It’s been open since September, but there’s still a long line to get into this popular Japanese ramen chain restaurant, sometimes with an hour-long wait. Though Hokkaido is more known for its miso-based broth, this shop serves tonkotsu ramen, which is linked to the Kyushu (the island where Fukuoka is located) area of Japan. Tonkotsu broth is made from simmering pork bones, giving it a distinct taste and richness. Hokkaido Ramen Santouka has a mild, pearl-colored broth that’s tasty. Bowls are topped with vegetables, pork slices, kelp and the restaurant’s signature pickled plum.
This small ramen shop near Ala Moana Center has a basic lineup of ramen with six different types of broths, including the popular tan tan, a Chinese-Japanese hybrid using sesame and chili pepper heat. Though this place serves Hokkaido-style miso ramen, it’s locally owned by a company that does catering in Japan. The noodles here are firm and chewy and the miso broth nicely balanced.
Another ramen shop that just opened in Honolulu, across from Old Stadium Park in Moiliili, is more bistro than ramen-ya. Agu Ramen specializes in tonkotsu ramen with the thinner, Hakata-style noodles you find in Fukuoka. The bowls come with a soft-boiled egg, among other toppings, and the broth isn’t as rich as it looks. Agu serves a lighter jidori (chicken broth) ramen, too, made with organic, cage-free chicken raised on a vegetarian diet. In addition to the ramen, add an order of gyoza, it’s easily one of the best on the island.
This ramen-ya on the second floor of McCully Shopping Center makes some bold claims on its menu, saying that its collagen-rich broth helps prevent the aging of skin and joints. We can’t promise this, but we can guarantee a uniquely delicious bowl of ramen with a decadent, creamy broth made with pork, chicken and 10 different vegetables and spices. You can opt for Japanese-style noodles, which are firmer than the Hawaii version.
Photo Courtesy of Agu Ramen