Bay Area Ramen: Six Lunch Options in San Francisco & Berkeley

Tonkotsu Garlic Ramen, with Pork Belly @ Miki Restaurant, San Francisco.

Tonkotsu Garlic Ramen, with Pork Belly @ Miki Restaurant, San Francisco.

Ramen is terribly misunderstood by most Americans, and it’s not really our fault. For the majority of us, myself included, our introduction to ramen occurred via the Asian aisle of our local chain supermarket. Those ubiquitous packets of Nissin Top Ramen, embraced by college students everywhere, have comprised the complete ramen experience for most Americans. What a shame. A brick of dried noodles, accompanied by a silver packet of MSG-fueled seasonings. But the infamous 19¢ dinner, always located on very the bottom shelf at the market, far below the soy sauce and the canned water chestnuts, is all that’s ever been available to most of us (and if you consumed as much Top Ramen as I did in college, you may still even remember which “flavor” corresponds with each colored packet). Who would’ve ever known that ramen, in its true form, was actually a robust comfort food (with many diverse flavor options beyond orange, red, blue, or pink)?

I had my ramen epiphany maybe four or five years ago, through a friend who grew up in San Mateo. Although it may seem shocking, San Mateo boasts some of the best ramen in the country, although San Jose is not far behind. Many might assume that San Francisco, being an eater’s metropolis, would have the superior soup, but I haven’t found anything in the city that can match San Mateo’s Ramen Dojo. I will say, however, that there are a growing number of really great ramen options within San Francisco city limits. So many, in fact, that it’s becoming more and more difficult to keep up. For the purpose of this article, I limited myself to ramen houses that offered lunch service, just to narrow the field a bit. Ramen is well-suited for lunch, being quick and relatively inexpensive, but even among lunch spots, this list is not at all comprehensive.

Therefore, I offer only a Bay Area ramen primer, covering only San Francisco and Berkeley. It’s just a little something to get the mind thinking about noodles and broth, along with pork belly, fried chicken, or whatever add-ons are available. Hopefully, it might even redefine what “ramen” means to you. If you live in the Bay Area, and you have still never stepped outside the bounds of Top Ramen, you now have no excuse (poor college kids excepted).

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Perhaps the best bowl of ramen that I’ve tasted within San Francisco city limits, the Tonkotsu Garlic Ramen at Miki Restaurant (pictured above) delivers terrific depth of flavor from a pork-bone broth that features fantastic body and richness. A generous dollop of minced garlic garnishes the soup, along with several toes of deep-fried garlic, ensuring that the flavors of the dish will linger long after the bill has been settled. It’s a potent affair that’s well worth seeking out, and quite frankly, Miki’s location in the Outer Richmond is a bit remote, so this is definitely “destination” ramen. Still, a drive down Balboa is much easier than a drive to San Mateo, and the tonkotsu at Miki as almost as delicious as the tonkotsu at Ramen Dojo. Almost.

• • •

The Fried Chicken Ramen @ Katana-ya, San Francisco.

Fried chicken is a unique add-on for ramen, and the Fried Chicken Ramen at Katana-Ya has long been a personal favorite of mine. The chicken is boneless dark meat, always fried to order, and the excess grease imparts a distinct fried chicken essence to the broth, which I enjoy. I typically order the soy-based broth at Katana-Ya, although salt- and miso-based broths are also offered. In terms of its locale within the Financial District, Katana-Ya is the type of place that would be easy to miss, except for the lines that can form out front late at night. Somehow, I feel like Katana-Ya would win San Francisco’s popular vote for ramen, and I can’t say that it wouldn’t deserve such an accolade.

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Tonkotsu Ramen with Extra Pork @ Kirimachi Ramen, San Francisco.

Although Katana-Ya’s location is subtle, Kirimachi Ramen can be even easier to miss, located on the fringe of North Beach, inside a hole-in-the-wall storefront that opens up to a quaint little dining area. Typically, many ramen houses will offer either pork belly or slices of pork tenderloin as add-ons, but Kirimachi remains unique for its shredded pork. Kirimachi is cash only.

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Shoyu Ramen @ Norikonoko, Berkeley.

Without a doubt, Norikonoko features more mom-and-pop charm than any other ramen house that I’ve visited in the Bay Area. But to be fair, the restaurant isn’t really a ramen house per se — Norikonoko just happens to offer ramen on its menu. However, Norikonoko’s ramen does remain satisfying in its own right, and I’d say that it’s nearly equal to its Berkeley counterpart on University Avenue, Ryowa. More than that, the ramen at Norikonoko certainly proves tasty enough to warrant further exploration of the menu: I’ve had the opportunity to see quite a few dishes as they left the restaurant’s tiny, open kitchen. Everything looked delicious.

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Pork Ramen with Dumplings @ Ramen Underground, San Francisco.

Much like Katana-Ya, Ramen Underground is another restaurant that can gather long lines, although Ramen Underground’s lines tend to form at lunch, thanks mostly to its convenient location on Kearny in the Financial District. If the lines at Ramen Underground are too prohibitive, the Japanese curry at Muracci’s, just a couple of doors down, is an excellent fall-back plan. Ramen Underground is cash only.

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Shoyu Ramen @ Ryowa Ramen, Berkeley.

Ryowa’s Lunch Special “B” offers a good bargain (the ramen is a decently-sized lunch portion, and is accompanied by fried rice and three gyoza). Their “shoyu” style of ramen features a soy-flavored broth, though Ryowa also offers the other standard ramen options, such as a simple salt broth or a miso-based broth. The shoyu broth remains my favorite variation, and Ryowa’s version of shoyu boasts terrific depth of flavor. The pork cutlets were also a highlight of the dish, and I found that they were tender enough to exceed my expectations. I love when that happens.

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2 comments to Bay Area Ramen: Six Lunch Options in San Francisco & Berkeley

  • Jacob

    I’m sorry I love the city and all of the ranges of food it offers but I feel the best ramen is in San Jose. Kahoo, Orenchi, and the more traditional santuka.

  • The Accidental Wino

    It’s tough to admit that San Jose can trump San Francisco, but you are correct. Have you tried the ramen spots in San Mateo?

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