First Hill's Betsutenjin opened during one summer of yore when Seattle was still flirting with 80-degree weather. That didn’t stop the near-daily crowds. The ramen bar has scant seating, so better to belly up to the bar facing the kitchen, which issues Hakata-style ramen, here an opaque, ivory-white pork broth with thin wheat noodles, pork slices, nori, and seaweed. It’s so creamy that signage throughout the restaurant assures there’s not a drop of milk. But if you try asking what techniques are involved in making a ramen so permeated with pig and umami, the server might just press her finger over her lips and smile. Go back to slurping, and be satisfied that you were able to snag a spot where a ’60s-era samurai flick is just halfway through its epic runtime.
The Japanese chain’s first freestanding U.S. location excels at two things: managing crowds and making ramen. Every variation here contains tonkotsu-style broth—a creamy confluence of pound after pound of pork bones and hour after hour boiling in pots the size of beer kegs.
On Seventh Avenue, tech employees and construction workers alike pile into Kiki Ramen for all manner of the dish—shoyu, shio (sea salt) miso, brothless mazemen, and tonkotsu. The latter comes with straight noodles, ideal for the dense pork-bone broth with fatty chashu, shiitake mushrooms, menma, and a delicately poached egg. Some may still be lamenting the loss of Henderson’s ambitious taco bar at the start of 2017, but you wouldn’t know it from the sheer number of soup-sipping masses here.
America’s ramen obsession generally centers on the blow-it-out porky tonkotsu style. But when three locals sought a Japanese ramen chain they could franchise in Puget Sound, they wanted one equally fluent in the charms of clear, chicken broth ramen styles like shio (salt) or shoyu (soy). The chain (previously known as Kukai) now has three locations around town, all of them reliably crowded.
At Ooink chef-owner Chong Boon Ooi and his wife, Jiaxin Wang, dole out vessel after vessel of silky porcine soup above Broadway and Pike in their small balmy restaurant. Electronic music befitting a Fast and the Furious sequel gently booms as diners slurp up ramen, some of which buck tradition. Take the spicy mapo tofu ramen that reimagines a classic Chinese dish as noodle soup: A shoyu and pork broth base is topped with Szechuan-style, chili-oil-imbued ground pork and soft tofu, pickled mustard, and a nest of crispy buckwheat noodles.
One of the latest ramen shops to land on Capitol Hill, a neighborhood that's experienced a concentrated ramen boom in the last two years, still has us hyped on densely porky ramen. And there's usually a line to prove it. But the kitchen moves with a swiftness so that diners don't wait long for customizable bowls of their signature Fukuota-style tonkotsu (pork bone broth)—choose your noodle thickness, spice level, and soup strength up to "extra strength."
A clothes closet feels spacious by comparison, but this International District ramen-ya (along with its sibling on the Ave) is a near-perfect rendition of the tiny noodle shops of Japan. At lunch, lines inevitably trail out onto the sidewalk. About 20 diners touch knees under tiny tables. The steamy aroma of cooking noodles and savory broth is tantalizing. Offbeat ramen presentations, like soups flavored with chili-hot chicken stock or miso, are fun, but the star is unquestionably the tonkotsu ramen. A massive ceramic bowl of creamy, buttery soup sloowww-distilled from pork bones, swirls with braids of thick al dente ramen, slices of pork, and nibbles of green onion and mushrooms. Diners lean over to inhale the heady perfume, then dig in, slurping in ecstatic joy. On a chilly, drizzly day, there is simply no better lunch in Seattle.
The history of a transplanted culture is still evocatively fragrant in Chinatown–International District spots, or more specifically Japantown, like the low-key Tsukushinbo. While sushi’s solid here—fish expertly sliced, rice perfectly seasoned, prices an unfailing bargain—the homestyle Japanese fare is the reason to go. Bygone dishes such as the chicken gizzard kushiyaki, rice vinegar–marinated smelt, and whole grilled squid are still emblematic of the restaurant’s adept way with simple ingredients. But on Fridays, we slurp. Fridays at lunch is the only time Tsukushinbo blesses the neighborhood with a couple dozen bowl of ramen—that might be their super savory and rich pork with a broth so good it washes away the memory of a 30-minute wait.