If the cult of ramen still mystifies you, you could do worse than to grab a counter seat at the new Little Tokyo branch of Shin-Sen-Gumi, a small restaurant chain that introduced high-quality ramen from Japan's Hakata region to Los Angeles. Most ramen shops offer a limited set of possibilities, but at Shin-Sen-Gumi, you tick off your order on a paper card, which forces you to choose between thick noodles and thin, between noodles cooked soft or hard and between pork-bone tonkotsu broths enhanced with a little, some or quite a lot of the rich pork oil that elevates the texture and the caloric jolt to something approaching thick cream.
When you order shoyu ramen, you see the noodle chef spoon soy sauce into the bowl before he ladles in the bone broth; when you specify that you want your noodles al dente, you see him check their status a couple of times before swishing them out of the boiling water. If you ask for green-chile butter, the restaurant's equivalent of what some other noodle shops call a "flavor bomb," you are served it on the side, to mix in as you like. Sitting at the counter is kind of a demystifying process, in the way that being able to see a sushi chef flash his knife through a half-dozen kinds of silvery fish helps you to understand what the difference might be between mackerel and gizzard shad.
Los Angeles, it is fair to say, is still in the throes of its ramen frenzy, a swelling orgy of bamboo shoots, tree-ear mushrooms and soft-boiled eggs; noodles manufactured with precise attention paid to tactility; prime Kurobuta pork bones boiled until they collapse into wet mountains of calcium. Waits for tables at Daikokuya and Tsujita approach infinity. Little Tokyo, Little Osaka and the South Bay sprout ramen shops the way they used to breed sushi bars.
Not long ago, ramen meant the gray noodles you could get at aging Mid-Wilshire lunch counters, before it was superseded by the generically delicious ramen in Japanese expat neighborhoods and then by the pork-intensive ramen at places like Little Tokyo's Daikokuya.
Regionally specific ramen parlors opened, serving styles associated with Hakata, Sapporo and Tokushima, among other areas; so did the Mannerist school of noodle shops, dosing their broth with tomatoes, garlic and Parmesan cheese. In Little Tokyo now, whose noodle scene until quite recently consisted of Daikokuya and a host of places that weren't even close, you can hop between Shin-Sen-Gumi, Men Oh Tokushima and a brand-new branch of the controversial Hollywood restaurant Ikemen, which specializes in an odd take on the dip ramen called tsukemen.
A couple of years ago, it would have been difficult to come up with 10 ramen shops in the Los Angeles area good enough to be considered for a top 10 list. In 2013, the agony is in deciding which of the places don't quite make the cut.
Like Ginza Sushiko in the early 1990s or Rex among Italian restaurants a decade before that, Tsujita, a spinoff of a revered Tokyo ramen restaurant, is so far ahead of its competition that the others may as well not exist. The broth is a complex composition of chicken, fish and Kurobuta pork. The diaphanous noodles — order them cooked hard — act more as texture than as substance; they add little weight to the thick, milky brew. If anything, the tsukemen, chewy noodles served plain with a dipping sauce of greatly reduced broth, are even better, the essence of wheat, pig and smoke. Even the simmered egg, its yolk a vivid, reddish-yellow custard, is superb. Tsujita's only flaw? Ramen is served only at lunch.
2057 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 231-7373, tsujita-la.com.
If you worship at the altar of pig, you almost can't ask for more than the kakuni ramen at this Kyushu-style noodle shop: ramen with triple-strength broth made in a 20-hour process and all but overwhelmed by a massive slab of long-simmered pork belly that would be thick enough to stop bullets if it weren't also soft enough to spoon up like ice cream.
11172 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 815-8776 and multiple locations, http://www.ramen-yamadaya.com.
Men Oh Tokushima
The first Los Angeles branch of a small Tokushima-based chain specializing in the area's style of ramen, Men Oh serves what is almost certainly the best ramen in Little Tokyo at the moment, or at least the most refined. It is made with a medium-strength pork-bone broth lightened with a fragrant soy sauce blend, mellow and complex, with the region's characteristic garnish of both long-cooked chashu and stir-fried strips of marinated pork belly. The subdued, almost elegant dining room also happens to serve an excellent version of karaage, the Japanese fried chicken served at almost all ramen shops.
456 E. 2nd St., Los Angeles, (213) 687-8485, http://www.menohusa.com.
Black as tar, black as night, the signature ramen at Iroha, a Tokyo transit-hub favorite transplanted into a Gardena supermarket food court, involves dense, chewy noodles in a chicken broth dyed with soy, fermented black beans and a slug of black pepper — the best of everything black. The bowl looks sludgy as motor oil, but the broth is much subtler than it looks, edged with a slight bitterness that you realize is probably one of the dominant flavors in soy sauce.
In the Marukai Market, 1740 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena, http://www.menya-iroha.com/us
When it opened a scant three years ago, Tokyo import Jinya served the best ramen Los Angeles had ever seen: big, earthen bowls of pork-bone ramen, long, springy noodles soaking up just enough broth to become almost liquid themselves yet retaining a wheaty resilience of their own. Best of all was an intense Tokyo-style ramen, whose pork broth had been fortified with industrial quantities of dashi and dried fish, a broth umami-rich enough to make your tongue feel as if it had just run a half-marathon inside your head. Have other ramen shops caught up to Jinya, which now has branches on Sawtelle and on the Miracle Mile among other places? Probably so. But you wouldn't know it by the waits on a Saturday night.
11239 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 980-3977, and multiple locations, jinya-ramenbar.com.
Jammed into a corner of the Pacific Square shopping complex in Gardena, Mottainai is probably best known for its odd add-ins: balls of garlicky pork fat or spicy pork fat that you stir into the broth like a Cold Stone Creamery jock pounding pulverized Heath bars into ice cream. A bowl of shoyu ramen with a "Red Bomb" ( a ball of pork fat dosed with chiles) stirred in tastes more or less like a red bomb. Still, the chewy consistency of the noodles is great. And when you've got to have a bowl of their slightly caramelized miso ramen with corn, nothing else will do.
1630 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena, (310) 538-3233.
I must admit, my favorite ramen at Shin-Sen-Gumi is something not technically on the menu, which is to say, a bowl of the restaurant's Hakata tonkotsu ramen dosed with a spoonful of the chain's excellent yuzu kosho, a paste of hot green chile zapped with fragrant yuzu zest that they make for their yakitori restaurants but will sometimes sell you for $7 to $8 a jar. Barring that, the ping-pong ball of green-chile butter Shin-Sen-Gumi always has on hand gets you more than halfway there.
2015 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena; (310) 329-1335, and multiple locations, http://www.shinsengumigroup.com.
As Yogi Berra would say, nobody goes to Daikokuya anymore — it's too crowded. And the blossoming of competition in Little Tokyo doesn't seem to have shortened the line at all. But Daikokuya was the first ramen shop in town to have embraced the full pork-bone broth thing, you can specify kotteri if you want the level of molten pork fat to be turned up to 10, and on every table is a jar of fresh-chopped garlic should you desire. After an evening of opera at the Music Center up the street, sometimes your system needs that extra jolt.
327 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, (213) 626-1680, and multiple locations, http://www.dkramen.com.
Asa, marked by a Japanese-only sign in an obscure Gardena strip mall, is not a place you wander into by accident. It's not an E-ticket ramen parlor; it's a dark neighborhood joint with an excellent version of the crisp, gooey octopus pancakes called takoyaki and a very nice pork-bone broth that does not happen to be set to stun.
18202 S. Western Ave., Gardena, (310) 769-1010.
Santouka, an international chain founded in Hokkaido, may be the McDonald's of high-quality ramen, with shops both across Japan and attached to many Mitsuwa markets here in Southern California. Yet the restaurants are notoriously strict by the standards of food-court stalls: They refuse to package their noodles to go, and you will find nothing like a flavor bomb here. Its famous shio ramen, built around 20-hour pork-bone broth, is enough.
3760 S. Centinela Ave., West Los Angeles, (310) 391-1101, and multiple locations, http://www.santouka.co.jp/en.