The ramen rage is out of control. Two-hour waits for the noodle soup plagued Japantown’s J-Pop Festival in July; Oakland’s Ramen Shop is expanding to accommodate demand; and even Michael Mina has followed suit with his recent opening of Ramen Bar. And the mania is gaining momentum: Two new Mission spots are vying for the heavy-bowl championship.
Chef-owner Richie Nakano’s beloved SF kiosk Hapa Ramen is bringing its punk rock noodle bowls (think seared duck and fried chicken toppings) to the corner of 19th and Mission after four years of pop-ups and farmers market appearances. “I wanted to quit being a nomad and plant some roots,” says Nakano. While he’s shaking things up in the kitchen, adding steamed buns and Polynesian-influenced cocktails to the menu, Lauren Geremia of Geremia Design keeps the front of house classy, with a combination of woods, pottery, slatted surfaces inspired by shoji screens, and custom murals that recall vintage Japanese matchbook covers. Expect an underground hip-hop soundtrack and a lively late-night scene.
Meanwhile, up the street near Valencia and 14th, purists may find their happy place in Orenchi Ramen, with its southern Japanese–style tonkotsu ramen that has drawn throngs to Santa Clara since 2010. Here, a former Converse showroom has been transformed by architect Craig Steely, with an exhibition kitchen displaying 10 massive ramen pots simultaneously brewing broth for 18 to 24 hours; a shelf full of traditional Japanese ceramics; and a chill outdoor lobby to ease the wait. A massive graffiti mural, a DJ booth (spinning everything from R&B to bluegrass), and a hand-painted dragon by famed inker Takahiro Horitaka reference the urban surroundings. Owner and Tokyo native Kuniko Ozawa says, “We’re bringing the best of Tokyo’s flavors and Japanese culture to the Mission.”
Consider the chopstick-gauntlet thrown down, but remember that when ramen rivals wrangle, we all win.
This article was published in 7x7's December/January 2014 issue. Click here to subscribe.