Although Bay Area Japanese noodle connoisseurs have long insisted you need to go to the South Bay for great ramen, the popular comfort food is beginning to develop a legion of followers here in San Francisco. Identified by a rich broth—milky with emulsified fat—and long, springy alkaline noodles, there are textbook bowls of ramen to be found from the Marina to the Outer Sunset. Here's where to go when the craving hits.
1) Nombe, (2491 Mission St.)
This two-year-old Mission izakaya recently brought in a ramen master as executive chef. Bucking the trend in pork-based broth, Nori Sugie uses beef bones and less fat than is customary, creating a remarkably light, yet flavorful broth. Each bowl's meaty flavor is cut with briny pillows of emulsified uni. We order falling-from-the-bone oxtail or velvety beef tongue and always add a willowy soy-steeped egg.
2) Izakaya Sozai (1500 Irving St.)
Some say the pork-based tonkotsu ramen here is the city's best. Done in the traditional style, the creamy rich broth hides a half egg, a slab of pork belly and a few sheets of seaweed. There are no frills, but the addictively umami-laced soup continues to be a must-order.
3) Chotto (3317 Steiner St.)
Another addition to the fancy ramen camp, Chotto's chef Armando Justo gets his own proprietary noodles made with a touch of egg in San Jose. The broth is a tonkotsu-miso blend, which gains interest from two slices of house-marinated chasu (pork loin), nuggets of ground pork, chives, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots and sheets of nori.
4) Ken Ken (3378 18th St.)
One of the most vegetarian and vegan friendly ramen options in town, former pop-up shop gone permanent, Ken Ken offers miso, soy, salt or vegan broths with bok choy and baby corn in every bowl. It's all served in a bare-bones Mission room with a live-edge reclaimed wood bar and Boba Guys artisan sippers.
5) Saiwaii (2240 Irving @ 23rd)
The tonkotsu ramen with spicy garlic and stewed pork belly is what keeps aficionados coming to the Outer Sunset to Saiwaii—not to mention the gloomier chill to 23rd and Irving Streets, which always sets the tone for a warming noodle bowl.
6) Kirimachi, (450 Broadway @ Kearny)
This two-month-old North Beach pop-up is already being compared to Saiwaii, although the general consensus is that the broth here is a bit on the lighter side. Owner Leonardi Gondoputro offers tonkotsu, chicken miso and plain miso broths with custom-made noodles and quality meats from Marin Sun Farms.
7) Katana-ya (430 Geary St. @ Mason)
This Union Square outpost comes with all the masochism people expect from a cult-followed hole-in-the-wall. Brave long lines and surly service to be rewarded with staggering ramen permutations: specify density (rich or light), flavor (soy, miso or salt), and spiciness before diving into all the possible toppings. Steer clear of the seductive deep fried chicken ramen and stick with the standard BBQ pork. Hot tip: the tourists have caught on to this one, so it's best to go before the lunch rush, or for late night noodles until 1 a.m.
Where's your favorite bowl of ramen? Tell us in the comments.