No, this is not a review.
It’s not even a think piece or a historical piece.
This is simply my way of securing ramen into one of the pedestal shelves in the corner of my heart – a place where everything stored is normally greeted with the type of hug that is shared only between intimate friends and ex-lovers.
All of this started with a very good bowl of ramen in Los Angeles and a hour long conversation between friends during our drive back to San Francisco. Our argument was centered around the noodle thickness at the ramen restaurant we both visited separately. As if by fate, I even received an invitation that very night for a ramen tasting party.
Some people don’t understand the relationship. For those people, I can only explain it as symbiotic. Many people develop irrational fears with certain foods because of bad experiences and improper exposure, but almost equally, people often develop an irrational love for foods that are consistently present at our most emotional and developmental moments. If you choose to label this as “comfort” food, you are more than entitled to, but I’m not certain that they are the same. While comfort food may be items of homage that recall fond memories of mom’s culinary repertoire, it is not always intrinsically emotional. I can only relate by telling you that the idea of comfort food is to ramen as “In My Life” is to “Tears in Heaven.” It just possesses a different gravity.
To this day, I can still eat 3 packs of Nissin Ramen (seen above) easily in one sitting. Personally, I love an over-easy fried egg and Chinese beef tendon meatballs on top. The little blue robe blonde Japanese kid is a close personal friend and childhood fixture. He’s been there more than most people in my life – cold wintery mornings, tough emotional times, drunken stupors, weekend hangovers and all types of mental breakdowns. Of course as the years have rolled on by, ramen has taken new forms and risen to new heights. In high school, I found out that ramen could not only be fresh, but it could also contain all types of wonderful tasty partners nestled in a big bowl of broth. This was an epic discovery because on that day, my brain melted to soft jelly and my heart warmed to a feverish pitch.
My most recent discoveries (epiphanies sometimes) over the last few years have really pushed my expectations for a great bowl. It has become a yearning and a constant search for something great – akin to the longing for a recognition of one’s soulmate. With newfound maturity and a fully developed palette, ramen now has a different mystique. The ability to properly critique (a happy byproduct of exposure and experience) has elevated the craftsmanship of ramen into art. The noodles, the broth, the egg, the pork, the house selection of accompanying vegetables and the texture are all now subjected to a rigorous analysis stemming from the mouth to the cortex of the brain.
I have to tell you that it isn’t all love. This affinity to ramen is both a curse and a blessing. The average price of a bowl normally sits at about $8-$9, which is not a lot of money for a meal by most people’s standards, but it becomes the weighing scale in determining how judiciously it was spent. A bad bowl of ramen feels like it has come at a grave and heavy expense, but a great bowl of ramen may feel as light as pennies. Not many specific items in the culinary world have such a well defined teetering seesaw scale. Ask the likes of my former chef and friend Tim Luym and many other enthusiast chefs alike – and, they will tell you all about the inherent thrills and mind numbing disappointments that await at every ramen shop. Sadly, the most common phrase that seems to come at the conclusion of most ramen meals is normally, “well, if they only did this…” or “the _____ wasn’t that good…”
I won’t lie to you. Success is a long drawn road. You will come by failure upon failure many times in a quest for a good bowl. You may even begin to believe it doesn’t exist. Your search is one of desperation as you cling to merely the whisper of a recommendation that there may be good ramen…somewhere. You will begin to take recommendations 10, 20, 30 or 400 miles away. You even take recommendations 3000 miles away. You may go as far as NY to find it, and – if you are like me, you schedule a block of time in your calendar just to eat it.
Content people and those without this obsessive affliction may simply settle for a “that’s pretty good” type of place. And, for most people who enjoy things on a comfort level, that’s perfectly fine. But please understand that if you want greatness out of what you decide to keep as a constant in your life, you will have to work to achieve it. And that work is sometimes fruitless, but ultimately, you will find that true love and devotion is rewarded.
And when it happens to find you…
it is nothing but satisfaction, redemption, relief and exhilaration. It’s kind of feeling where the world begins spin around you without focus on anything but your tasty noodles. Mesmerizing.
A truly tiring and wonderful drug. It’s enough to make you want to pass out afterwards…