Denver isn't known as a ramen town, primarily because there aren't many joints that specialize in nothing but the Japanese noodle soup. In Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle you'll find dozens of Japanese restaurants that have "ramen" or "noodle" in their names -- but not so here in Denver. Still, our city does have a good number of Japanese eateries and Asian-inspired menus that feature ramen -- in many different styles -- if you know where to look.
See also: Denver's Ten Best Spots for Pho
Ramen varies greatly in its home country due to climate, local ingredients and regional preferences. For general classification purposes, ramen can be found in three basic broth types: shoyu (soy sauce), miso (fermented soy bean paste) and shio (salt). Other common styles are tonkotsu, which derives its richness from pork bones, and tantanmen, also pork-based but with the addition Chinese-inflected ground pork and chile oil. The noodles vary in thickness, elasticity and curl, but the key is that they're cooked in an alkaline solution to give them bounce and a basic (as opposed to acidic) mouthfeel.
With this week's blast of single-digit temperatures, it's the perfect time to explore Denver's steamy ramen dens and brimming bowls. To provide a taste of Denver's ramen scene, we visited five local restaurants to try their special noodle dishes.
5) Sakura House Tonkotsu Sakura House took over the Yoko's Express space in Sakura Square two years ago and began serving ramen. The kitchen offers a long list of ramen types and toppings, including tonkotsu ramen. The spartan but tidy restaurant serves a fairly light but flavorful tonkotsu with a tangle of thin, wavy noodles, a couple of slices of tender pork and a hard-boiled egg. Avid ramen slurpers will note the sticky feeling the broth leaves on your lips; that's the collagen drawn out from hours of simmering pork bones. Strands of seaweed, slices of mushroom and a raft of scallions round out the deep-flavored but not overwhelmingly rich bowl. The ramen here is a bargain: The tonkotsu will set you back just $8.50.
4) Bones Lobster Ramen Frank Bonanno has proven his affinity for lobster with his lobster macaroni and cheese at Mizuna, just down the street from Bones. So it's not surprising that the ramen at his take on a pan-Asian noodle house would also feature big chunks of the succulent, pink seafood. He didn't invent lobster ramen, but his version -- with miso broth and edamame -- is certainly a Denver rarity. At $20, it's not a cheap, ramen-shop slurper, but if you're in the mood for a spurge, this noodle soup delivers with enough flavor and complexity to stand up to tradition. And if you really want a deep dive into Japanese noodles, Bones is offering a ramen class later this month.
Keep reading for more ramen samples.
3) Tokio Vegetarian "ramen air" Tokio opened earlier this year in the warren of condos and apartments behind Coors Field known as the Prospect neighborhood. Owner and chef Miki Hashimoto (who previously owned Japon and Japango) calls his vegetarian version of the Japanese noodle soup "ramen air" because it is lighter than standard meaty ramen. It's still a rich and creamy soup, though, getting its body from boiled, pureed and strained pumpkin and sweet potato as well as soy milk and miso. Creamy planks of fried tofu add heft amid pendants of seaweed and decidely thick, al dente noodles. A big bowl will set you back $12.
2) Sushi Den Tantanmen Sushi Den's namesake attraction needs no explanation, but the ramen menu is an unexpected bonus, offering several varieties at $13 for a small bowl and $16 for a large; the small is plenty big enough for a hearty lunch. Tantanmen is Japan's version of Chinese dan dan noodles; it's spicy and warming with a broth that's porky and unctuous (but not as porkorific as Sushi Den's tonkostu). The flavors come from ground pork and chile oil, giving the soup a red-orange hue. If you like ramen that packs a searing punch, this is the way to go.
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1) Domo Spicy dashi miso ramen with salmon Domo is well-known for its stunning Japanese country decor and adherence to traditional cooking. The miso-based broth in Domo's ramen gets added umami from kombu (kelp) and dried tuna flakes. A fat wedge of salmon flakes apart nicely to soak up broth, while slightly thick and chewy noodles lurk below the surface. A thin slice of tender fish cake (kamaboko) adds a touch of color and texture to the bowl. Spicy is relative here; this ramen gives a pleasant buzz without the need to reach for the water glass. For just under $10, the lunchtime ramen also comes with three petite side dishes.