Is “Good Enough” Ever Good Enough?

Elements of a ramen bowl, at Ooink in Seattle.

A recent transplant to the Seattle area expresses his disappointment – so far – with the local ramen scene.

A year into my move to the Seattle area and I’m still unsatisfied, and frankly, a little disappointed. I had high expectations given the many ramen restaurants here and, like San Francisco, a thriving Asian population.

I’ve been to Yelp’s five top-rated ramen spots in town. While one of them gets high marks, with the rest I found myself using words like “serviceable,” “not bad,” and the unfortunate “good enough.”

When the term “good enough” is used, it generally implies that something meets the minimum requirements or standards, but it may not be the best or most ideal solution. It suggests adequacy rather than excellence. … a temporary solution until something better can be achieved. -says ChatGPT (abridged)

That last line is where I’m at – waiting for something better. Given my research, I’m hoping it will be Midnite Ramen, a food truck (and soon-to-be fixed location) with a lot of great buzz. But first, a quick scan of my experiences so far.

• Ramen Danbo (Capitol Hill): I’ll refer you to my earlier review from a few years back, which spoke of salty broth and limited depth of flavor among other points. Admittedly, I need to give this acclaimed chain another try. 

Tonkotsu Shoyu ramen at Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya.

• Kizuki Ramen & Isakaya (Capitol Hill): A mixed bag here, with some impressive elements and others that fell flat. The broth was a tonkotsu shoyu blend and was nice. As I’ve experienced before, it was not complex. It had a single flavor profile, but a nice one. The noodles were the star of the bowl: chewy and al dente with a distinctive flavor. The chashu felt like an afterthought; it was rubbery and not very flavorful. The egg was near perfect, and slightly runny. Menma was limp and overly cooked. The overall presentation looked like the bowl was prepared in a rush.

The “Americanized” karage chicken bun at Kizuki.

I had the karage chicken bun as an appetizer. It was OK, but seemed Americanized, as the sauce tasted like a topping for a fast food burger. Service was good and the restaurant interior is nicely modern.

Tsukemen bowl at Menya Musashi.

• Menya Musashi Tsukemen & Ramen (Capitol Hill): I was looking forward to a great tsukemen experience here. It was just fine. Broth had nice flavor. Noodles were OK, but no distinctiveness, key for a dish where the noodles are served chilled and bare. Chashu was good. All in all, it was an adequate bowl. Am I being too critical by comparing this to my experience at Tokyo’s legendary Rokurinsha and Taishoken? I will give props to the service which was super friendly and helpful. Plus the indoor-outdoor options make it a great fair-weather meal spot. It’s worth another try.

Porky goodness with garlic oil at Ooink

• Ooink (Harvard Ave): As you might deduce, at Ooink the pork is king. I really enjoyed their tonkotsu broth. It is deeply flavorful and rich. I ordered the Kotteri ramen which includes garlic oil. It was just enough of a blend to let the porky goodness shine through. Oddly, the chashu was disappointing. The slices were large and chunky, but I found mine to be lacking in richness and tenderness. Noodles were OK. Vibe is friendly but a little cramped.

My current overall favorite: Arashi Ramen.

• Arashi Ramen (Ballard): For me, this was the best of the bunch…for now at least. I’ll refer you to my previous review.

I’m not including the ramen shop where the chashu literally looked and tasted like a bland turkey slice. It has since closed.

I’ll close by saying that on a recent trip back “home” to Northern California I had some ramen at Menya Shono in San Rafael. The richness and execution of that bowl reinforced my perspective on what Seattle’s ramen lacks. I sincerely hope I get to change my mind after my next Seattle experience.

Momofuku Instant Noodles – The Best Instant?

Chef-marketer David Chang chooses wisely by outsourcing his instant noodles. 

One of my favorite U.S. ramen bowls was at the Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan’s East Village. Chef David Chang knows what he’s doing and the kitchen team executes with skill. A marketer as much as restauranteur, it made sense that Chang would hop on the instant ramen renaissance of the last decade.

Chang offers three instant Momofuku Noodles: Soy & Scallions, Spicy Soy, and Tingly Chili. I’ve tried both the Soy & Scallions and Spicy Soy. Each package, at a retail price of between $14 and $17, includes five individual packet portions. 

Rather than make his own instant noodles, modeled after the flavorful barley noodles at his restaurant (too expensive to mimic?), Chang uses noodles from A-SHA, a Taiwan-based food company. Unlike deep-fried, how most instant noodles are produced, A-SHA’s are air-dried over 18 hours. Noodles are made of wheat flour, water and salt.

Chang’s site says the noodles are “different from instant ramen” and have 25 percent fewer calories and more protein. Of note: the word “ramen” is nowhere to be seen on the product packaging. I appreciate the simplicity of just doing the noodles..

Momofuku air-dried noodles.

I’ve been unimpressed with the noodles in several of the elaborate instant ramen, so Momofuku instant noodles were a pleasant surprise. The noodles are flat and wavy. I’d call them medium width. They have a satisfying mouth feel, a good texture and a distinct flavor of their own. The many reviews on the Momofuku site seem to agree with my favorable opinion.

Does air drying allow the natural flavor of the wheat to come through, where deep frying might mask it? Does it mature that flavor in the same way air drying does with prosciutto ham? Hard to tell, but it had me wondering. 

A-SHA air-dried noodles: a slightly larger width noodle, available in multiple sizes.

One of my main criticisms of any ramen dish is when the noodles lack a distinct flavor or personality. The best restaurant ramen I’ve had threads that needle successfully. Many restaurants, unfortunately, do not. I’ve come to expect less from instant ramen, so it’s notable when someone gets it right.  I’m not comparing Momofuku Instant to the best restaurant noodles. I am saying these are the best instant noodles I’ve had.  

Given the care Chang put into finding better noodles, I wished he had put more attention into the accompanying sauce packets. I found both the Soy & Scallion and Spicy Soy sauces were pretty basic. I expected more of a premium product. 

Tip: If you want to save a few dollars, rather than buy Momofuku instant, just order A-SHA packages, which has several noodle types available on Amazon and elsewhere. My taste test confirmed that the noodles are identical. When you order A-SHA, you can specify thin, medium, wide or extra wide noodles. Even the flavor pack of dried onions is the same. The sauces were similar.

I’ve found that a topping of sauteed chopped sausage and vegetables, along with the flavor packs, makes for a nice bowl of noodles at home. Enjoy.