Enjoying a bowl of ramen in Portland, Ore., a decade ago meant a trip to the supermarket for dehydrated instant noodles. But within the last few years, the City of Roses has become the City of Ramen as numerous noodle parlors pop up in seemingly every neighborhood.
Part of the reason is the Pacific Northwest’s softer, largely mineral-free water, preferable for preparing delicate broths. Another might be that Oregon’s Asian population is the state’s fastest-growing demographic.
But the biggest reason may be that Japanese people seem to love Portland. Close to 60,000 Japanese tourists visited the city in 2015, a nearly 50% increase from 2013, according to visa statistics. In Tokyo’s hip Shibuya ward, you’ll find more than a dozen Portland-themed eateries, bars and boutiques, including the PDX Taproom, a pub that serves Oregon beer and is decorated with a replica of the “Keep Portland Weird” mural and a framed swatch of carpet from the Portland airport; and Paddlers Coffee, a wood-accented bar that plays vinyl records and serves Stumptown coffee.
The Pacific Northwest may be 5,000 miles from Tokyo, but that hasn’t stopped several authentic Japanese noodle bars from setting up shop for fans on the opposite side of the ocean. To stay warm this winter, skip the Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. Instead try some of the hottest — figuratively and literally — ramen bowls along the Willamette River.
In 2016, Tokyo-based franchise Marukin Ramen opened its first U.S. location in Portland. Instead of sending recipes, the noodle company sent chefs Masaji Sakai, who has been with Marukin since 2001, and Mayumi Hijikata, previously head chef at Tokyo’s Trattoria al Bacco, a different sort of noodle hot spot.
Their mission: to ensure the creation of Marukin’s signature thin, house-made noodles and savory broths, including the blazing-hot Marukin red ramen; tonkotsu (pork broth) made with pigs from Oregon’s Carlton Farms; a creamy paitan (chicken broth) created specially for Portland; and even shoyu and soy-milk-based broths for vegans and vegetarians.
What I ate: Marukin’s traditional miso ramen ($12), topped with thick slices of braised chashu (pork belly), black wood ear mushrooms, sliced cabbage, tomato wedges and green onions. It’s based on a 1,300-year-old recipe and prepared in small batches.
Chef Hiro Ikegaya opened Mirakutei in 2011 as a destination for fine Asian fusion tapas and omakase (chef’s choice) nigiri sushi and hand rolls.
But regulars order the ramen, a medley of milky broths made from pork and chicken bones, seaweed, scallions, anchovies, carrots, yellow onions and ginger roots. Hotheads rejoice: Any bowl can be made spicy on request.
Ikegaya semi-retired in 2018, selling the restaurant to sushi chef Job Martinez, but the attention to detail remains clear. Consider the genki ramen, made with shredded roast pork in garlic butter and scrambled eggs, served in a miso broth topped with Thai chiles. The flavors are always subtle.
What I ate: House tonkatsu ramen ($14) filled with grilled roast pork, soft-boiled egg, bok choy, king trumpet and shiitake mushrooms.
Kayo’s Ramen Bar
Owners Kayoko and Matt Kye’s Canadian wheat flour noodles at Kayo’s Ramen Bar are called Noodle No. 47 because it took 47 tries and more than three months to perfect the springy house noodles.
Prefer a lower-carb or no-carb alternative? The Kyes (Kayoko is the chef, Matt is the manager) have you covered with their stringy “noodles” made from lightly blanched and julienned zucchini and daikon.
Kayo’s specializes in Assari-style ramen — lighter broths made from chicken bones, vegetables and herbs, all gently simmered to prevent clouding. But a thinner stock doesn’t equal weaker soups; this noodle destination excels with complex bowls featuring eclectic options such as Indian curry, pineapple ginger shoyu and cold- and wasabi-smoked wild salmon lox and lemon.
What I ate: Vegan shio ramen ($12), with julienned zucchini and daikon noodles in a shiitake mushroom and seaweed broth, squares of fried tofu, spinach and scallions.
Tokyo-based restaurant chain Shigezo operates several of Portland’s most popular Japanese restaurants and izakayas, including Yataimura Maru and Wa Kitchen Kuu. From 2011 to 2015, this included the ramen cart Minizo on North Mississippi Avenue, which was eventually converted to the bricks-and-mortar Izakaya Kichinto.
Shigezo is making good use of the space; the izakaya looks the part, with shoji screens, booths modeled after sake barrels and oversize vintage Japanese beer ads adorning the bar. (Even the “perfectly tempered bidet” at Kichinto was named Portland’s best toilet by Willamette Week.)
Choose from house-made thick, thin, udon or rice noodles. Options include a chicken, soy and bonito shoyu ramen; chicken, clam, crab and sea salt yuzu shio ramen; and a soy and bonito broth topped with Japanese curry and tempura puffs. There’s even a ramen with no broth: the abu ramen, tossed in abu-kaeshi soup base and chili oil and served with chashu, nappa cabbage, bean sprouts, a soft-boiled egg, crispy gyoza skins and green onions.
What I ate: Spicy miso ramen ($18) in a chicken and sesame miso broth served with chashu, corn, nappa cabbage, bean sprouts, green onions and chili oil.
When Afuri was considering its first outpost outside Japan, the Tokyo ramen chain bypassed London, Dubai, New York City, Los Angeles and countless other metropolises. Instead, it settled on Portland, thanks to the fresh spring water of the Bull Run Watershed, which has a pH level that hovers around 7.5.
Afuri is named for Mt. Afuri, one of the peaks of Japan’s Tanzawa Mountains in Kanagawa Prefecture known for its high volume of rainfall.
In Japan, Afuri’s noodles and broth are made exclusively with spring water from Mt. Afuri, a process the company sought to replicate in the Pacific Northwest. Soft, clear water is needed to create Afuri’s hallmark yuzu shio ramen, with a delicate broth made from locally raised chicken, yuzu citrus and dry skipjack tuna.
What I ate: Yuzu shoyu ramen ($13), made with chicken broth, shoyu tare and yuzu juice, topped with chashu pork, soft-boiled egg, bamboo shoots and a sheet of dried nori (seaweed).
Yama Sushi & Izakaya
Yama Sushi & Izakaya has built a following for its meticulously prepared namesake menu item. But don’t overlook the equally polished ramen, made from chicken, pork and miso broths, with ingredients that include sautéed kimchee, braised pork belly, fried tofu and spicy ground pork.
For the ideal pairing, add a glass of sake or soju; Yama Sushi offers an impressive selection of varietals hailing from more than a dozen cities and prefectures across Japan.
What I ate: Seafood ramen ($14.95) filled with shrimp, Manila clams and green mussels.
Noraneko (meaning “alley cat” in Japanese) is the longtime dream of Portland restaurateurs Gabe Rosen and Kina Voelz.
Inside their spartan street-front ramen parlor, Rosen and Voelz serve simple bowls of soup — your choice of shio, shoyu or miso broth — plus add-ons such as spicy ground pork, poached chicken breast, chashu, meatballs and assorted veggies for an extra couple of bucks each.
Noraneko boasts serious noodle cred: The chefs use squiggly Sun Noodles, made in Honolulu and known for their light and bouncy texture. This is where you want to end up for eats after a night on the town.
What I ate: Spicy miso ramen ($15, with spicy ground pork and soft-boiled egg), a variant on the regular miso with Texas-style heat. Moderately spicy but not overpowering.
Info: Noraneko, 1430 S.E. Water Ave., Portland; (503) 238-6356
Don’t know your neko (cat) from your nori (seaweed)? Here are a few Japanese words you might encounter at ramen shops:
Bonito: a mackerel-like fish that resembles a small tuna
Chashu: fatty pork belly braised in a soy sauce base
Choy sum: leafy green vegetable similar to spinach
Dashi: a light broth made from dried fish (usually skipjack tuna or bonito) and seaweed, often used as the base for miso soup and some ramen
Daikon: a mild-flavored white radish
Genki: pep, vitality, good health, spirited energy
Izakaya: a casual Japanese pub that serves alcohol and small dishes for snacking
Katsuobushi: fermented skipjack tuna shaved in tissue-thin slices, usually a topping on dishes or mixed with kombu to create dashi.
Kombu: dried kelp used to make soup stock
Menma: dried, seasoned and sliced bamboo shoots used as a ramen topping
Paitan: a creamy chicken stock
Tonkotsu: a brown broth made from pork bones. Not to be confused with tonkatsu, breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet. (Both are delicious.)
Yuzu: a golf-ball-size Asian citrus fruit that resembles a lemon