Now reading The State of Ramen: Peter Meehan

The State of Ramen: Peter Meehan

Long live ramen.

OH MY GOD. Ramen is dead! It is over, off-trend, unhip.

Vogue said so! Steve Cuozzo at the New York Post said so! Two famous American ramen chefs who I like—David Chang and Ivan Orkin—have even said as much.

So it’s time we pour the stock out of the kettle and set sail for new soup shores, right?

Not so fast.

Let’s pop a couple balloons: the Vogue thing was a phoned-in (but very cute!) trend piece, and listening to Cuozzo is like getting your weather forecast from a green puppet who lives in a garbage can (everything’s crummy).

As for Chang and Orkin, they can credibly make the argument that the opportunity for guys like them to come along and make a name doing new things with an old soup is almost dried up. They got in early and are now scrawling PUNK IS DEAD across the cover of their spiral-bound notebooks.

Is there less room for acclaim, distinction, and innovation now that that so many shops and so many cooks have pushed the Clintonian limits of what ramen “is,” of what that soup name means? Sure. But for the rest of us, ramen, especially in America, is in the best place it’s ever been.

This is true in a broad, hard-to-quantify way because ramen has begun to evolve past being synonymous with Momofuku Ando’s instant-meal invention. It is now recognized as a fresh-noodle soup made in a variety of styles. Every time a restaurant review opens with a “not your dorm-room ramen!” lede, it’s helping to move us past the Styrofoam cup.

And then there’s the soup itself. I reviewed restaurants from 2004 to 2008, meaning I was there to critically slurp down the first wave of real Japanese ramen specialists opening in New York. They brought focus and practices that the oldest guard of the city’s ramen shops didn’t have—Rai Rai Ken, the original ramen-ya and once the standard bearer, was easily eclipsed. Ippudo, despite being a global chain, dominated with its pornographically porky ramen.

In the years that followed, I went deeper down the ramen hole—visiting Tokyo to make the first issue of Lucky Peach and the first season of Mind of a Chef, and later traveling to Hokkaido for Bon Appétit and digging into the history of miso ramen. I got jaded about ramen in the States; it wasn’t as good as Japan, I’d tell people.

But as I began poking around in anticipation of launching this site, I was surprised to find myself disagreeing with myself. Tamashii, a ramen shop in Astoria, Queens, slings a bowl of shio that I wouldn’t be surprised to slurp down on my way to catch a train in Japan. (I’ll spare mention of the arrival of Mr. Orkin’s soups on these shores, since he’s a villain in this screed, and a contributor to this site and our magazine. You’ll hear from him soon enough.) I have not eaten at Oakland’s Ramen Shop, but smart people I know say good things about it, and the local response to a pop-up they did in Niseko, Japan’s ski mecca, was impressive. Shigetoshi Nakamura is serving a bowl of impeccable chicken shoyu at Ramen Lab, a new Manhattan ramen-ya that’s being opened by Sun Noodle, the company that makes most of the good, fresh ramen noodles in the United States and the entity that I’d point to as more or less responsible for the elevation of ramen here.

The list doesn’t stop there, not by a stretch. (Editor Brette Warshaw will file an eat-around on ramen in New York later this week.) But it leads me to my last jab in defense of ramen’s continued rise, or at least my rejection of the idea that it’s headed for the chute instead of the ladder: ramen is now trend-proof. Ramen—the stuff from behind the counter, not from a factory—is part of what and how we eat in America now. Think about how significant that is! Fifteen years ago there was ramen around for Japanese expats who needed it. Now it’s cool to go out for noodle soup for dinner; now it’s possible to get great bowls of soup one previously had to fly halfway around the world to find. And while we can be as snide as we want about the coolness of soup (or any food that’s popular), or lament that we’ll never have the quality or deep ramen culture of its homeland, or complain that we’re tired of it, or that it’s “over” (whatever the hell that means)—I’m gonna say this:

Ramen is better than it’s ever been. We know more about it, we have greater access to it, and for every mind that’s opened to it as a possibility, the chances for it to spread in popularity and improve are exponentially improved.