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Curious why ramen is so rare and yet sushi joints are on every corner?

  • k

With all the fervor for the new YumeWoKatare, I wonder why really good authentic ramen is not something more chefs are keen to make here in Boston? I've been to Ippudo and Totto in NYC and on every night of the week the lines start forming 1/2 hour before they open for dinner and don't let up all night.

Just curious whether anyone has any theories/thoughts. And quite frankly, I just like to talk about ramen! Ha. (Anyone here had ramen in Japan? My favorite place was chain called Kamakura.)

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  1. And on that note... Every time a hear about a new Japanese restaurant opening, I get a glimmer of hope that they'll serve something like sukiyaki or yakitori -- but, nope, 99.9% of the time here Japanese restaurant equals sushi with the obligatory chicken teriyaki for non-sushi eaters.

    5 Replies
    1. re: kdl

      There is Yakitori Zai, now in the South End. Has gotten generally good reviews on chow, although pricey.

      1. re: Bob Dobalina

        True. I'm glad someone is doing real yakitori here.

        1. re: kdl

          Ugh what a disaster that place is

      2. re: kdl

        Definitely. I really would kill for a real Izakaya.

        1. re: Spelunker

          Seriously. I just spent some time in Vancouver and loved the Izakayas. So fun.

      3. Pure speculation on my part. Perhaps its due to the profit margin? It seems easier to charge a lot of money for sushi and sake rather than a bowl of noodles. Along those lines, I long for the specialist beef noodle shops of Taiwan but I doubt that will ever make it here...

        2 Replies
        1. re: silent129

          I think it's volume business versus "specialty".
          somehow vietnamese pull it off.
          I think americans stigmatize ramen, and they don't stigmatize pho.

          1. re: Chowrin

            Or, you can't "just add hot water" when it comes to sushi?

        2. I'm more bummed by the extremely limited menus in Japanese food. I see basics repeated from place to place. And most of them seem executed as an afterthought because they expect to sell mostly sushi and sashimi.

          Here's a contrast. Over 30 years, I used to eat at a Japanese restaurant in an industrial suburb of Detroit. The restaurant was set up for the Japanese auto executives visiting and working in the area. I've never seen food like this in Boston. Yes, a few places do creative Japanese food or Japanese-inspired food but this was 30 years ago and the food was traditional. I would order whatever the specials were. I still remember one bento as a top 5 lunch ever: a lightly fried - really lightly fried - oblong of fishy paste that was like a fish jelly in a crust; a piece of fish with bones sticking out like sculpture, charred on one side and raw on the other and so on. It cost under $10. I'm not complaining about Boston. It seems that all over this country, with only a few exceptions, sushi and sashimi have overwhelmed the very deep reality of Japanese cuisine.

          3 Replies
          1. re: lergnom

            "It seems that all over this country, with only a few exceptions, sushi and sashimi have overwhelmed the very deep reality of Japanese cuisine."

            This is a very good way of stating it.

            1. re: lergnom

              And your comment on the repeated basics on menus reminds me of "Chinese restaurants" that for years seem to have the same template -- chicken fingers, pu pu platter, boneless ribs, duck sauce, etc. I guess that's what has happened with "Japanese restaurants" to some extent.

              1. re: lergnom

                totally agree. I always wonder too why the izakaya hasn't really caught on in any sort of bigger way in the states. this seems like a great exploitable niche for Japanese restaurants to me--a good range of beers and some interesting bar food with a casual atmosphere. but cookie cutter sushi joints with the same set of options seem to be mostly what opens...

              2. Im sure they will begin to pop up very soon. IMHO Ramen shops are going to be the new "thing" all over the US in the next few years. The ones in NYC are always crazy busy, as are the ones Ive seen in california. A ramen shop just opened here in austin and people are lining up over an hour before the place opens!

                3 Replies
                1. re: twyst

                  I hope you're right! It's got to be catching on.

                  1. re: kdl

                    Ramen will catch on. It'll then take the same path that most other "ethnic" foods, including sushi restaurants, do: they average place will just not be that good.

                  2. re: twyst

                    Agree. Maybe it's noted further down in the thread, but Snappy Sushi re-inventing itself as Snappy Ramen seems prescient.

                  3. Over the past 20-30 years or so, sushi has become the iconic Japanese food in America, and still has an air of sophistication and culture to it, even when it's easily found at Trader Joe's or Shaws.... whereas 'ramen' still reminds everyone of the .25-cent noodles they ate in college. Some folks might still balk at raw fish, but a lot more tend to roll their eyes at paying $10 for ramen before they've had the real stuff.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Boston_Otter

                      $10...for soup....?
                      It'll never happen. ;)

                    2. There was a ramen chain with a few locations here in Boston/Cambridge back in the 80's. Anyone remember the name? Or why they didn't make it?
                      Pho certainly has a following.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: trufflehound

                        Was it Goemon? I remember a location at One Kendall and one downstairs from Tatsukichi, perhaps one more?

                        1. re: Chicken with a Capon

                          You're probably correct - here's a thread about Goemon from last year:
                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/798603

                          1. re: Chicken with a Capon

                            I was addicted to Goemon back in the 90s. I frequented the one on the BU campus quite often. I, too, would love to hear about what happened.

                            I've often wondered over the years if I should open a noodle soup shop in Boston. Many other major US cities have a plethora of them while we have a dearth.

                            How's Mentei doing these days (I think like them more than others on this board)?

                          2. Because ramen is everyday food in Japan, while sushi is special. Don't get me wrong, you can get sushi in any Japanese supermarket these days but it wasn't always that way. Just look at how many of the top restaurants and top chefs in Japan are sushi-related. So once eating raw fish was seen as acceptable here, it makes sense that Japanese restaurants would try to serve it. Add in the profit margin and the other Asians cashing in on sushi's popularity (most sushi in this country is made by non-Japanese) and you have a sushi boom. One more point is that technically, ramen isn't Japanese food.

                            6 Replies
                            1. re: pouch19

                              Ok, I'll bite, what is it's origin?

                                1. re: devilham

                                  First cooked in japan, but by chinese cooks is what Ive heard.

                                  1. re: twyst

                                    Cool, thanks for the replies silent129 and twyst

                                    1. re: twyst

                                      And now Ramen is gaining traction in China, so full circle. Chinese-style soup noodles are not uncommon in Japan. Surely most places that serve this are not the "original" la mien that landed in Japan in the early 1900's but whatever is contemporary in China now, I imagine. Food sort of diverges, feeds back into itself over time, kind of like parallel species that separate and then come back into contact. You just never know what it really came from. We look at dogs and say that is a pure-breed or that is a mutt, but it's a construct not really reflective of the reality that distinctiveness is just in the eye or palate of beholders.

                                2. at a certain age and weight, everyone wonders how many carbos they should be taking in. I never have a problem thinking that i should be eating less sashimi.

                                  1. When I was standing in line on the sidewalk the other night, some guy walked by, saw the number of Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the line (90%, I'd guess), and asked, "Can the sushi be that good?"

                                    I was tempted to correct him, but i suspected he was asking rhetorically, just being a mocking d-bag. I imagine he's like a lot of Americans: sushi is the only Japanese cuisine he knows, and he probably doesn't care for it, maybe hasn't even tried it.

                                    http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: MC Slim JB

                                      I lived for a little while in Italy when I was a kid. I was stunned to discover that what we thought of as Italian food wasn't, that pasta was essentially an appetizer or side dish, that most places didn't make spaghetti and it didn't come covered in sauce. Then we learned American Italian food was southern Italian and we were in the north but when we went south we discovered the food wasn't at all like American red sauce. People thought Italian food was spaghetti and pizza but much of Italy didn't serve pizza then. As I remember, there was 1 place in our town of Forte - Cervo Bianco (white stag) - that made pizza.

                                      Japanese food is like that now.

                                      Greek food isn't much better off, reduced to moussaka and maybe pastitsio and lamb chops and gyros.

                                      1. re: MC Slim JB

                                        Its no different where the last place I worked - people would say "Lets eat ethnic - Italian or Chinese?"

                                      2. After eating fresh-made soba noodles at Ippaku in Berkeley a couple months ago, I'm longing for a soba noodle place. At least we have a couple of Ramen options in Boston (Pikachu @ Super 88, Sapporo at Porter, and now YumeWoKarate.) I can relate to your disappointment of the overall pigeon-holing of Japanese cuisine to sushi, but it's simply what happens to ethnic foods. Look at Italian-American (Red sauce, chicken parm), American-Chinese food, Indian (Tikka Masala), Thai (Pad Thai). People's tastes tend to graviate towards foods that appeal to their palate while seeming exotic or different. I think for many people, the saltyness, fatty pork, and even ignorance toward ramen being something other than "cup-o-ramen" is what prohibits it from being more popular.

                                        The one cuisine that I'm really surprised hasn't exploded in America is Korean food. While a lot of it can be challenging for the American palate, sweet barbarqued meats should fit right in in America.

                                        6 Replies
                                          1. re: TimTamGirl

                                            I am, by no means, a ramen expert. My only comparisons are Momofuku in New York, some place recently in San Fran and Sapporo in Porter. In comparison I would give it a slight edge over Sapporo and it's a couple bucks cheaper. It's a solid bowl of ramen even if it's not superlative. The staff is super friendly as well.

                                            Mind you, Boston isn't currently a ramen town and it's not going to blow your mind but I would say it is worth a visit for solid, cheap ramen. I had the spicy miso and the broth had a nice richness and good heat to it but perhaps could've had more depth of flavor. Pork was fine, noodles had the appropriate snap, egg was fine. My only real complaint is that it was overly salty, even for an expected salty food like ramen.

                                            1. re: TimTamGirl

                                              It's Pikaichi. (Pikachu is a Pokemon character.)

                                              It's not as good as Ken's was, but it's perfectly decent ramen. I will second Klunco's comment that the staff is very friendly and cheerful.

                                              1. re: Allstonian

                                                Haha, thanks for correction Allstonian. Hopefully it's easier for TimTam to find ramen searching for Pikaichi on the web than Pikachu.

                                                1. re: Klunco

                                                  Hee! That makes more sense - though I had a mental image of a sign with Pikachu gobbling a massive bowl of noodles, and it was pretty cute.

                                              2. re: TimTamGirl

                                                my main complaint about the ramen around here is that the pork is usually these stingy thin dried-out pieces of pork, like cardboard, not the glorious pieces of fatty succulent pork one gets at other places

                                            2. Profit margins.

                                              and FYI, most "Sushi" places in the Boston area are owned by Chinese, and are staffed by Chinese (Mandarin speaking) sushi chefs. They figured out that it's just more profitable than trying to open up yet another "cheap chinese food" restaurant...

                                              Oiishi and Oga and that little place in the basement in Coolidge Corner are notable exceptions.

                                              3 Replies
                                              1. re: Spike

                                                Add Toraya in Arlington to the list. One of my favorites. Sad I can't get over there for a bento at lunch anymore.

                                                  1. re: MC Slim JB

                                                    Cafe Sushi in Cambridge is also Japanese owned and run, I believe.

                                              2. slurping isn't date-friendly for many people. Chowhounds and ramen enthusiasts excluded, natch.

                                                1. Resurrecting this thread to say: I've enjoyed the kakuni ramen at Osushi in Harvard before, but I had it yesterday and it had gone downhill. Soup was milder and the 3 pieces of kakuni had noticeably shrunk in size. There's been a change of chef and other staff in July which might have something to do with it.

                                                  1. Just asked a local sushi chef this very question. His answer: turning out great ramen is both difficult and boring.

                                                    4 Replies
                                                    1. re: pocketviking

                                                      Boring? *shocked face* I do find it interesting that many a Japanese place will have udon (and maybe even venture into soba) but, like you said, ramen seems to present some strange barrier to entry.

                                                      I'd be ok even if noodles weren't all handmade. I know I've eaten at some lower end joints in Tokyo that didn't make their own noodles, but they are still satisfying when that's what you're looking for, even if it isn't the best bowl you've had.

                                                      1. re: kobuta

                                                        Ramen is low-class, end of drinking night food in Japan. Small wonder that a "chef" doesnt' think of it.

                                                        1. re: Chowrin

                                                          This doesn't jibe at all with what I've seen in Japan. Sure there are low class joints that serve the late-night drinking crowd, but there are also high-end places that are destination restaurants unto themselves.

                                                          1. re: kobuta

                                                            You're undoubtedly right. However, any way you cook it, Ramen is a volume business.

                                                    2. Ate my way through Inaka's menu for my Improper review (in the new issue). Quite like it.

                                                      http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                                      3 Replies
                                                      1. re: MC Slim JB

                                                        Well done review. I've put it on my list. Thank you for scouting it!

                                                        Penny
                                                        http://www.bostonzest.com/

                                                        1. re: BostonZest

                                                          Thanks, Penny! It was Allstonian and Jenny Ondioline’s review here that pushed it up my list.

                                                          http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                                          1. re: MC Slim JB

                                                            Ah, two more reliable food scouts. Thanks to Allstonian and Jenny Ondioline too.

                                                      2. When I was in Japan three years ago, my husband and I were wandering around Kyoto with our tour guide, on our own, to go to a Japanese craft museum we wanted to see.

                                                        Afterwards, the guide asked if we wanted to stop for some lunch and asked what we were in the mood for. I immediately said "ramen", because we hadn't really had any so far on the trip. His eyes lit up and he took us around the corner and down a side street to a tiny ramen bar without even a sign outside. I think it had 6 seats at a bar facing the kitchen.

                                                        He ordered for us, and they placed two bowls of the most delicious soup I've ever had in my life in front of us. Big steaming bowls with this rich, amazing pork broth, big pieces of tender pork, some tendon, scallions, and a huge mass of tender ramen noodles. It was just amazing food. The even more amazing part was that it was the cheapest meal we had had in Japan. I think it came to $6.00 per bowl.

                                                        I don't know if it was part of a chain or not, but it really opened my eyes and changed my opinion of ramen soup forever.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. I once asked Junji-san at Sushi Island (before it closed) why he wouldn't consider adding Ramen to his menu. He told me that it was too difficult to do well. He said there are a lot of places serving mediocre Ramen but almost none doing it like you would have in Japan. Having lived in Japan for many years I have to agree. If you want to get an understanding of why Ramen in Japan is almost a religion check out a movie called Ramen Girl. It's a cute sort of romantic comedy of an American girl who ends up working for a tyrannical ramen shop owner. It's hilarious at times but it really gives you a feel for Japan's ramen culture

                                                          18 Replies
                                                          1. re: RoyRon

                                                            Or check out "Tampopo", which will make you hungry for noodles.

                                                            1. re: Stride

                                                              Where? I've been trying to find that flick for years.

                                                              1. re: justbeingpolite

                                                                Several public libraries in the area have the dvd.

                                                                1. re: justbeingpolite

                                                                  hollywood express in porter square has it on dvd!

                                                                      1. re: yumyum

                                                                        Huh, who knew? I actually saw it first run in the movie theater as a teenager.

                                                                    1. re: Stride

                                                                      I loved Tampopo, still my favorite food-themed movie. I hated Ramen Girl. Tampopo is The Godfather of ramen movies. Ramen Girl is Godfather III.

                                                                      I'm very surprised to hear someone dismiss ramen in Japan as drunk food. That's like saying pizza is just low-class drunk food in the States. That is partly true, but misses a segment of the market that is much more serious and so draws serious fans.

                                                                      http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                                                      1. re: MC Slim JB

                                                                        Hated The Ramen Girl?! The Classic Brittney Murphy vehicle?

                                                                        I'm shocked.

                                                                        1. re: justbeingpolite

                                                                          I feel that Brittany's work in The Ramen Girl just never quite rises to the level of her performances as Luanne on King of the Hill.

                                                                          http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                                                          1. re: MC Slim JB

                                                                            Although both "ramen girl" and Luanne Platter are food references, so at least there's that.

                                                                        2. re: MC Slim JB

                                                                          Totally loved Tampopo, gosh last saw it sooooo long ago first run in the theater.

                                                                          1. re: StriperGuy

                                                                            Whoa, cool! I discovered it on rental video in the VHS era. Got my own copy on DVD a few years ago. To be fair, it's not just a food-geek's movie: it's a movie-geek's movie, too, a really funny pastiche on a wild grab-bag of cinema genres. So damned clever, affectionate and knowing about its subjects.

                                                                            For anyone who thinks ramen is just drunk food, or that a quintessentially Hound-ish obsessiveness and delicacy of feeling about it is a new phenomenon, I invite you to view this clip from this 1985 movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WrkdT...

                                                                            Or this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcMaZL...

                                                                            Anyone who has ever subjagated their career interests to the pursuit of an exquisite meal, as I must admit I occasionally have, is going to appreciate that second one.

                                                                            http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                                                              1. re: Uncle Yabai

                                                                                It's actually just what happens every time a Chound eats out with non-chounds.

                                                                          2. re: MC Slim JB

                                                                            I think ramen is low-class in Japan (it's for certain not "courtly cuisine"). This does not mean that they don't take pride in making it right (probably including the
                                                                            ramen carts serving drunks).

                                                                      2. Had a very nice ramen from the Fugu truck today - light pork broth, ground pork, corn, scallions, pickled bamboo shoots, and a perfectly cooked soft poached egg and noodles - 8 bucks - I have had their bibimbap a few times and it was ok for downtown lunch, but this ramen was a triumph.

                                                                        3 Replies
                                                                        1. re: Bob Dobalina

                                                                          I've read that ground pork is a fairly common ramen protein, but never seen it here. Intriguing!

                                                                          I have had some very nice bao bao from that truck, prefer the belly to the pulled pork shoulder. Two would make a nice light weekday lunch; four are better.

                                                                          I did make a point of calling them out on their pre-opening menu that intimated they would serve actual fugu. They were good sports about it.

                                                                          http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                                                          1. re: MC Slim JB

                                                                            I had their ramen this week and thought it was great, perfect for the weekday lunch niche they fill. I think it may be the only ramen in Boston that you could eat on a regular basis without severe weight implications. You can barely see the noodles and broth hiding under all of the toppings, which I guess goes along with the mazemen name. Mine also had kimchi and I think nori.

                                                                            Has anyone tried the late night ramen at Abigail's in Kendall on Thurs. and Fri.?

                                                                            1. re: CportJ

                                                                              Had not heard about Abigail's doing late-night ramen: good to know!

                                                                              http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                                                        2. This has become an excellent discussion of ramen but the original question keeps haunting me. Why is sushi become part of our popular culture while ramen has not? Especially in Boston winters.

                                                                          Is it possible that soup is not a cool thing to order or eat in our culture? How often do you order any soup in a restaurant? Pho, chowder, french onion, lobster bisque, and gazpacho are the cool soups so they make it onto menus but it is not food category that is given a lot of respect.

                                                                          Even one of the best soup makers around, New England Soup Factory, was not able to sustain a customer base across the street from the Prudential Center on Boylston when they tried a few years ago.

                                                                          Understand, this comes from a soup lover. But, I also know that soup is a meal with a heritage of poverty not plenty. It took a long time before I could convince my husband that soup was not just for when you were sick and that serving soup to guests was not a sign that we were poor or broke.

                                                                          It's an interesting question. Thanks to kdl for raising it. It will give me something to think about as I make pot after pot of soup in the cold months ahead.

                                                                          Penny
                                                                          http://www.bostonzest.com/

                                                                          28 Replies
                                                                          1. re: BostonZest

                                                                            Funny that you frame ramen as a soup dish. I've always thought of it as a noodle dish.

                                                                            1. re: pouch19

                                                                              Interesting observation. I would guess you are a ramen eater. I was thinking more of the people who haven't tried it and see it as soup because it has broth.

                                                                              I have one friend who is so disappointed when he find broth in his dish that I've taken to alerting him when he is about to order a menu item that indicates it is in broth. He always seems to miss that detail.

                                                                              1. re: BostonZest

                                                                                I am indeed a ramen eater. Well, at least I was more of one, when I lived in Japan. I didn't mean to suggest that the broth isn't important or that there isn't a wide variety of broths available. I guess I think of it as akin to pasta in Italian food. One way to describe it would be that I often found others (and myself) would leave broth in the bowl, but we always finished the noodles.

                                                                                I'm hoping the trendiness of ramen will get bigger here in Boston. Yumewokatare is a start. But it would be nice to see more shops open up with a variety of styles. And it would be great to see yakitori become more of a thing here. A bowl of ramen for lunch and yakitori+beer after work are the two food experiences I miss the most about Japan.

                                                                              2. re: pouch19

                                                                                I think of it as a soup dish. It's evaluated more based on how good the broth is, than how good the noodles are. Also,
                                                                                the broth is brash and crazy. It's not a chinese noodle soup,
                                                                                which I could well see as a "noodle dish".

                                                                                1. re: Chowrin

                                                                                  Your opinions are interesting...

                                                                                  1. re: pouch19

                                                                                    Possibly interesting, but decidedly idiosyncratic. I'm especially puzzled by the assertion that "it's not a [C]hinese noodle soup," since ramen is generally held to be a Japanese take on Chinese noodle soups.

                                                                                    Also - "the broth is brash and crazy"? I don't even know what that's supposed to mean.

                                                                                    1. re: Allstonian

                                                                                      Agreed. I was too lazy to have to write why I thought he/she was wrong. I like the "brash and crazy" descriptor though. Made me chuckle.

                                                                                      1. re: Allstonian

                                                                                        Allstonian,
                                                                                        I take it you've never been to a Chinese noodle soup joint?
                                                                                        Ramen comes across as meaty and filling (and I'd say so without eating a single noodle!), miso ramen in particular is thick, but even the pork broths are not thin. Oh, yes, did I mention it's salty (I like salty!).

                                                                                        Chinese noodle soups have a relatively thin broth, with less emphasis on salt or other flavorings. It allows the noodles to come to the forefront.

                                                                                        1. re: Chowrin

                                                                                          Yes, I've had Chinese noodle soups. I'm aware of the differences. I still believe that the noodles are in the forefront in both dishes.

                                                                                2. re: BostonZest

                                                                                  Hmm... few reasons I can hypothesize

                                                                                  1) Often a very limited menu (although I love ramen).. most sushi joints still have the gyoza, katsu don's and tempura, so larger groups have choices.

                                                                                  2) The Noodle Slurp doesn't fit with our eating mores

                                                                                  3) Sushi is seen as sort of a luxury meal.. ramen is seen as a restaurant version of those $.25 store packs.

                                                                                  4) No chance to lounge - ramen joints are small in my experience, so there is a necessary culture (aka Soundbites) of "EAT AND LEAVE".. a lot of people want to get a table and lounge a bit when they go out.

                                                                                  5) Difficult to append to existing menu's well - its a lot of work to add good ramen to your menu so existing Japanese places or other's don't bother..kind of the same reason places that serve a gyro here and there don't have proper vertical rotisserie's in the back

                                                                                  6) No established chain yet.. this may change, but when I went to college in Atlanta in the late 80's, there were single-shop burrito places doing just what Chipotle does today (Frijoleros, if I recall, for expat Atlantans).. if someone can successfully grow a consistent chain that will draw investors and customers, cultural excitement about ramen could grow.

                                                                                  1. re: grant.cook

                                                                                    Also, sushi is seen as a healthy meal. Sticking to sashimi this is accurate, but considering maki loaded with mayo and fried tempura, it is not.

                                                                                    1. re: grant.cook

                                                                                      #3 is probably the biggest reason, in my mind. Sushi is seen as a luxury, healthy, light, fresh sort of meal, something refined you eat with chopsticks and feel good about yourself afterwards. Diet-friendly, health-concious, and tons of choices.

                                                                                      Ramen places typically give you three or four choices, and it's sort of the exact opposite of a light sushi lunch: heavy, very filling, steaming hot, and often fatty. I love the stuff, but its audience is a lot different than sushi.

                                                                                      1. re: grant.cook

                                                                                        I agree with this..

                                                                                        Strange is when i traveled all around northern japan (hokkaido) and tokyo i didnt notice many "ramen" places.. There were plenty of noodle/soup places but it seemed that the main offerings were Soba and Udon, not Ramen. Maybe they are one in the same?? I ate Soba and Udon quite regularly there, usually with shrimp tempura on top.

                                                                                        I should also add that my Japanese hosts in every city all found it bizarre that i would prefer to eat this cheap food or Yakitori over sushi they wanted me to eat..

                                                                                        1. re: hargau

                                                                                          I'm not the most literate person on Japanese cuisine, but let me try.

                                                                                          Ramen and udon are both wheat-flour long noodles with origins in China, traditionally served as soups, but with different broths and accompaniments. Though there's now a wide variety of broths, ramen broths were traditionally based on pork bone stock, while the traditional udon broth is lighter, flavored with dashi, mirin, and soy sauce.

                                                                                          Ramen noodles come in a variety of thicknesses, curly or straight; udon noodles are always straight and thick. Ramen always has a variety of add-ons to the noodles and broth: meat, seafood, soft-boiled egg, vegetables, mushrooms, narutomaki (surimi fish cake), nori, etc. Udon can be served this way, but often is served more simply, with little more beyond broth than a garnish of chopped scallions and a piece of tempura shrimp.

                                                                                          Soba is a rather different beast, a thin buckwheat-flour long noodle served in various ways: hot (usually in broth), cold (usually with a dipping sauce on the side), with a variety of added vegetables, meats and seafood.

                                                                                          http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                                                                          1. re: MC Slim JB

                                                                                            All three types of noodles have their origins in China actually, but soba caught on very early in Japan and was embraced earlier on. The conventional wisdom in Japan is that Tokyo and Kanto areas in the eastern part of the country are known for soba and Kansai and Shikoku, areas to the west side of Japan, are known for udon. Tokyo used to be dominated by soba shops up until the 19th century when Japan ended it's closed policy.

                                                                                            There was an influx of Chinese into Japan at this time. They worked in the open cities like Nagasaki and especially Yokohama (location of largest Chinatown in Japan still to this day). The Chinese workers brought noodle soups- especially those made from pork or chicken. This was rather a novelty in Japan because there had been a ban on meat eating for many years. Anyway, the Japanese looked down on the Chinese for eating what was basically ramen. They called the dish "Shina soba". "Shina", written in Chinese as "支那", was a slightly derogatory word for Chinese. As there was no other word for noodle at this time, the Japanese were basically calling the dish "Chinese soba". Despite the derision they may have felt to the Chinese, the dish caught on and eventually adopted the name "ramen" as a Japanization of Chinese word for the dish. However today, there are many shops in Japan that call their dish "Chuka soba". This means Chinese soba as well, but the word "Chuka" is more politically correct. I do know though, there are still "Shina soba" places here and there in Japan.

                                                                                            Ramen took off in Japan especially after WWII when there were food shortages and you could make meat proteins go a long way by serving the hearty broths. Today, there are some romantics that want to say ramen is all about the noodles, but it is about the soup. In fact, most ramen shops in Japan outsource their noodles. There are in fact a few well-known noodle companies that are reasonably prestigious in the ramen world. Also, ramen is not cheap salaryman drunk food in Japan. Many of the best shops aren't even open at night. And there are, in Tokyo, probably in excess of 1,500 ramen shops throughout the city. They are everywhere. They are ubiquitous. Nothing to compare to it in the US. Sushi and ramen typically top the favorite food list of Japanese surveys.

                                                                                            Udon is about the noodles. The broths are deliberately light and aromatic. There are actually a variety of different udon, including thick gauge, thin gauge, a little curly, etc. It depends on the region. Most people know the thick type, known as Sanuki udon. This has become a sort of de facto standard.... Soba has very little variation except in the percentage content of actual soba in the ingredients.

                                                                                            Hope this helps.

                                                                                              1. re: Silverjay

                                                                                                Chuka-soba is one of the ingredients for yakisoba.

                                                                                                1. re: Chowrin

                                                                                                  Chuka-soba is just another word(s) for ramen. It's not a specific type of noodle. Even places with wide flat noodles will call it "chuka-soba" sometimes.

                                                                                                  1. re: Silverjay

                                                                                                    "Also, ramen is not cheap salaryman drunk food in Japan. Many of the best shops aren't even open at night. "

                                                                                                    I'm not an expert in Tokyo/Japanese food but I think you mean it's not *just* cheap salaryman food. There's plenty of high end places, sure, but their presence doesn't mean ramen is universally haute cuisine just as the existence of Butagumi (while amazing) doesn't mean tonkatsu is typically high end either.

                                                                                                    1. re: Splungie

                                                                                                      Not sure what you mean by "high-end" ramen... Even the nice places are fairly cheap if I remember correctly.

                                                                                                      1. re: pouch19

                                                                                                        I agree. I was saying it is also cheap and for salarymen.

                                                                                                      2. re: Splungie

                                                                                                        You are equating "best" with "high end" and "haute" and that is not the case. Ramen is king of the "B kyu" or "B-class" type of foods. Tonkatsu is another one as well....Some of the "best" ramen shops are not open into the evening because they run out of soup and noodles, not because they are receiving the precious treatment and sourcing of a place like Butagumi. Not only that, but these ramen shops may very well be located in what looks like unfinished basements.

                                                                                                        1. re: Silverjay

                                                                                                          You said "[ramen] is not cheap salaryman food." which I've inferred to mean you're saying it's expensive, high-end food. I'm disputing that assertion just as you now are.

                                                                                                          I'm glad we agree.

                                                                                                  2. re: hargau

                                                                                                    Hmm...We saw (and ate in) a lot of ramen shops in Tokyo and Kyoto (although soba seems to be the specialty in Kyoto and boy was it fabulous).

                                                                                                    We ate in plenty of ramen shops in Tokyo...hole in the wall joints/modest people trying to make a living slinging soup in one of the most expensive cities in the world, which was amazing to us. We definitely got some quizzical looks walking into some of these shops..many were of the "just-outside-the-train-station-holy-$#!t-gotta-slurp-this-scalding hot soup-quickly-to-catch-my-train" variety.

                                                                                                    We can get this to work in Boston!

                                                                                                2. re: BostonZest

                                                                                                  In Boston? New England is one of the few parts of the country that continues to consume ice cream well into winter. I think you guys just don't notice the cold.

                                                                                                  1. re: BostonZest

                                                                                                    I've never found soup filling (and I don't find its primary ingredient, water, filling either) and so i can certainly sympathize with the notion that soup is what you eat when you can't afford real food. That said, it's often delicious, but I still can't think of it as a substantial part of a meal.

                                                                                                    1. re: BostonZest

                                                                                                      I'm with you as a soup lover. I make a lot of soup year round and for all holiday meals, a soup course is a must.

                                                                                                      That said, while we often go and get pho, ramen, or nabe, it's difficult for soup to get more respect in America when restaurants don't offer substantial portions of soup or heartier soups. So often at American restaurants, soup is considered an "appetizer" even if you get a bowl of it. And from time to time, when I've made a meal out of an "appetizer" soup, I can sense the disappointment that I didn't order a main.

                                                                                                      I wish more restaurants would offer soups and stews as main courses. Not to hijack this thread too much, but any suggestions for places that have great main course soups besides Asian places?

                                                                                                    2. Lots of great comments from lots of great Chowhounds, but I think this is really just about the Boston restaurant scene being small, slow moving and relatively risk averse. There is clearly demand for good ramen here. If YumeWoKatare (or any other good ramen place) opened up a place 4 times YWK's current size tomorrow in a good location, it would be crowded every day. I was in NY last week for 2 days and all the people that I was with from Boston in their suits just wanted ramen (Went both days, 1st to Momofuku and 2nd to Hide-Chan, talk about different styles of ramen!). It's only a matter of time that Ramen really hits Boston, I just wish it would come sooner.

                                                                                                      3 Replies
                                                                                                      1. re: ScotchandSirloin

                                                                                                        I concur with ScotchandSirloin...the original question was, why isn't ramen as ubiquitous in Boston as it is in NYC (or SF or Seattle, etc). I think some of the posts here have addressed US eating habits vs. Asian eating habits but that doesn't really address the original question (are we really THAT different from NYers?!). As a life long New Englander, I am still puzzled that with the number of Asian students that converge on Boston every year, there aren't more noodle shops. I have bemoaned this fact for over 20 years (I don't have the gumption to open one myself).

                                                                                                        I have fond memories of going to Sapporo almost every weekend and loving Goemen Noodle on Comm Ave as a quick and cheap in-between-class snack.

                                                                                                        If anyone has notions that soup is not filling, I urge you to try the jambong at Buk Kyung in Union Sq, or any of the ramen at Sapporo (though I haven't been there in ages...I wonder if the portion sizes are still the same?!). Or a large pho anywhere around town?

                                                                                                        1. re: digga

                                                                                                          I found the assertion that soup isn't filling kind of baffling, too. I know far more examples of hearty, meal-in-a-bowl kinds of soups than I do featherweight consommés.

                                                                                                          http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                                                                                          1. re: digga

                                                                                                            my first visit to gene's chinese flatbread in chelmsford and we were elbow-to-elbow with chinese students who had driven as far as from connecticut to eat his noodles. and god knows that original location is really in the middle of nowhere.

                                                                                                            are we back to the economics of trying to serve super cheap food but having to pay sky-high boston rents?

                                                                                                        2. I've been out of Boston in DC for several years, and regardless wouldn't feel comfortable giving an opinion about this particular food in this particular market.

                                                                                                          But, I would like to say that y'all are silly. By that I mean all the talk of Japanese equivalents and pork and _____. Different country. Different market. Stop comparing. Even to NYC and LA. I've never been to Japan. But while I've traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, I don't hold restaurants in that part of the world as absolute comparisons to what I find here. Nor what my mother (born and raised in that part of the world) made as an absolute comparison. It informs...not distinguishes.

                                                                                                          That said, there a number of good ramen joints in DC. By good, I mean I like them and they are reviewed well. I cannot compare them to anything in Japan or NYC or LA personally. However, they seem to be well regarded and despite the international population in this town, the "not up to Japanese or NYC standards" snobbishness doesn't seem to appear here.

                                                                                                          But to the question of sushi vs. ramen: I don't know why one got accepted over the other originally, but sushi began invading the American conscious back at least in the 80's, if not 70's. That's a pretty big head start, which led to the proliferation of sushi over ramen in towns across this country.

                                                                                                          Ramen is just breaking in over this last five or ten years, so regardless of other factors I wouldn't be surprised if it took at least another ten years before it became established across the US.

                                                                                                          1. Both:

                                                                                                            1) Exotic
                                                                                                            2) Flavorful

                                                                                                            Ramen:

                                                                                                            1) Unhealthy
                                                                                                            2) Inelegant
                                                                                                            3) Synonymous with being poor and/or in college

                                                                                                            Sushi:

                                                                                                            1) Healthy
                                                                                                            2) Elegant
                                                                                                            3) Expensive/Associated with wealth

                                                                                                            10 Replies
                                                                                                            1. re: QuakerInBoston

                                                                                                              I'll buy that ramen (or, rather, the eating of ramen) is inelegant, and that it's tarred with an unfortunate association with 10/$1.00 instant ramen. But "unhealthy"? With the exception of the super-fatty broths such as YumeWoKatare's, is that really true or even perceived to be true?

                                                                                                              1. re: Allstonian

                                                                                                                Again, it's got to be couched in our American perception of ramen.

                                                                                                                64 grams of ramen (a small bowl):

                                                                                                                300 calories
                                                                                                                15g of fat
                                                                                                                1400 mg of sodium
                                                                                                                37g carbs

                                                                                                                60 grams of sushi rice:

                                                                                                                85 calories
                                                                                                                0 g fat
                                                                                                                200 mg of sodium
                                                                                                                18 g carbs

                                                                                                                Comparatively it's not close, at least between bagged ramen and traditional sushi rice.

                                                                                                                1. re: QuakerInBoston

                                                                                                                  I'm not convinced that this is a fair comparison. Where did these numbers come from? And would "60 grams of sushi rice" actually constitute a sushi meal?

                                                                                                                  1. re: Allstonian

                                                                                                                    Also 10c ramen from the store has WAY more fat in the noodles than real ramen because the noodles are deep fried.

                                                                                                                    That said, I really wish that there were more/better ramen options in Boston. Sapporo is fine, but Yume Wo Katare doesn't sound like my kind of thing and there aren't a whole lot of other options. I had fantastic ramen in DC at one of the many shops there. And DC proper has the same population as Boston proper, so I'm not sure why they have so much more ramen...

                                                                                                                    1. re: maillard

                                                                                                                      True but, again, we're talking why these ramen joints don't exist. I'm giving the store-to-sushi rice comparison as that's the stuff people know.

                                                                                                                    2. re: Allstonian

                                                                                                                      Well, no but I'm going for serving-to-serving equivalence. Is 2 oz of ramen a meal? No, of course not. But on an equivalent measure ramen (prepackaged, the stuff people know AND the source of stigma) is way worse.

                                                                                                                2. re: QuakerInBoston

                                                                                                                  I don't think the people queueing up at places like Uni, Totto, and Ippudo are associating ramen with being poor or in college. In 2013, that's a really dated stereotype.

                                                                                                                  http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                                                                                                  1. re: MC Slim JB

                                                                                                                    Is it? I think it's incorrect to conflate foodies who will queue up for a few high end ramen places in NYC (and Uni's late night) with a more general population in a city that's decidedly not as metropolitan, no?

                                                                                                                    1. re: QuakerInBoston

                                                                                                                      I agree. Slim probably hangs around a higher percentage of food nerds than I do, but it's amazing how many people raise an eyebrow when I talk about ramen - clearly picturing the maruchen type packets.

                                                                                                                      1. re: jgg13

                                                                                                                        That's what my mother thought when I would say I went out for ramen.

                                                                                                                3. It's easy to eat sushi with chopsticks and even easier to eat sushi with your hands.

                                                                                                                  Eating soup with chopsticks is illogical and messy.

                                                                                                                  It's very tough to get someone to try and eat ramen/pho/saimin who is worried about looking like a bumbling round eye.

                                                                                                                  1. Because to Americans, ramen is fat-laden instant junk food for students and poor people. Anyone who's eaten real (i.e., fresh) ramen in a good ramen joint knows better, but generally that's only Americans who have been to Asia or to the few American cities where ramen bars are relatively common. Even in those, most of the customers always seem to be people from Japan.