If the cult of ramen still mystifies you, you could do worse than to grab a counter seat at the new Little Tokyo branch of Shin-Sen-Gumi, a small restaurant chain that introduced high-quality ramen from Japan's Hakata region to Los Angeles. Most ramen shops offer a limited set of possibilities, but at Shin-Sen-Gumi, you tick off your order on a paper card, which forces you to choose between thick noodles and thin, between noodles cooked soft or hard and between pork-bone tonkotsu broths enhanced with a little, some or quite a lot of the rich pork oil that elevates the texture and the caloric jolt to something approaching thick cream.
When you order shoyu ramen, you see the noodle chef spoon soy sauce into the bowl before he ladles in the bone broth; when you specify that you want your noodles al dente, you see him check their status a couple of times before swishing them out of the boiling water. If you ask for green-chile butter, the restaurant's equivalent of what some other noodle shops call a "flavor bomb," you are served it on the side, to mix in as you like. Sitting at the counter is kind of a demystifying process, in the way that being able to see a sushi chef flash his knife through a half-dozen kinds of silvery fish helps you to understand what the difference might be between mackerel and gizzard shad.
Los Angeles, it is fair to say, is still in the throes of its ramen frenzy, a swelling orgy of bamboo shoots, tree-ear mushrooms and soft-boiled eggs; noodles manufactured with precise attention paid to tactility; prime Kurobuta pork bones boiled until they collapse into wet mountains of calcium. Waits for tables at Daikokuya and Tsujita approach infinity. Little Tokyo, Little Osaka and the South Bay sprout ramen shops the way they used to breed sushi bars.
Not long ago, ramen meant the gray noodles you could get at aging Mid-Wilshire lunch counters, before it was superseded by the generically delicious ramen in Japanese expat neighborhoods and then by the pork-intensive ramen at places like Little Tokyo's Daikokuya.
Regionally specific ramen parlors opened, serving styles associated with Hakata, Sapporo and Tokushima, among other areas; so did the Mannerist school of noodle shops, dosing their broth with tomatoes, garlic and Parmesan cheese. In Little Tokyo now, whose noodle scene until quite recently consisted of Daikokuya and a host of places that weren't even close, you can hop between Shin-Sen-Gumi, Men Oh Tokushima and a brand-new branch of the controversial Hollywood restaurant Ikemen, which specializes in an odd take on the dip ramen called tsukemen.
A couple of years ago, it would have been difficult to come up with 10 ramen shops in the Los Angeles area good enough to be considered for a top 10 list. In 2013, the agony is in deciding which of the places don't quite make the cut.
Like Ginza Sushiko in the early 1990s or Rex among Italian restaurants a decade before that, Tsujita, a spinoff of a revered Tokyo ramen restaurant, is so far ahead of its competition that the others may as well not exist. The broth is a complex composition of chicken, fish and Kurobuta pork. The diaphanous noodles — order them cooked hard — act more as texture than as substance; they add little weight to the thick, milky brew. If anything, the tsukemen, chewy noodles served plain with a dipping sauce of greatly reduced broth, are even better, the essence of wheat, pig and smoke. Even the simmered egg, its yolk a vivid, reddish-yellow custard, is superb. Tsujita's only flaw? Ramen is served only at lunch.
2057 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 231-7373, tsujita-la.com.
If you worship at the altar of pig, you almost can't ask for more than the kakuni ramen at this Kyushu-style noodle shop: ramen with triple-strength broth made in a 20-hour process and all but overwhelmed by a massive slab of long-simmered pork belly that would be thick enough to stop bullets if it weren't also soft enough to spoon up like ice cream.
11172 Washington Blvd., Culver City, (310) 815-8776 and multiple locations, http://www.ramen-yamadaya.com.
Men Oh Tokushima
The first Los Angeles branch of a small Tokushima-based chain specializing in the area's style of ramen, Men Oh serves what is almost certainly the best ramen in Little Tokyo at the moment, or at least the most refined. It is made with a medium-strength pork-bone broth lightened with a fragrant soy sauce blend, mellow and complex, with the region's characteristic garnish of both long-cooked chashu and stir-fried strips of marinated pork belly. The subdued, almost elegant dining room also happens to serve an excellent version of karaage, the Japanese fried chicken served at almost all ramen shops.
456 E. 2nd St., Los Angeles, (213) 687-8485, http://www.menohusa.com.
Black as tar, black as night, the signature ramen at Iroha, a Tokyo transit-hub favorite transplanted into a Gardena supermarket food court, involves dense, chewy noodles in a chicken broth dyed with soy, fermented black beans and a slug of black pepper — the best of everything black. The bowl looks sludgy as motor oil, but the broth is much subtler than it looks, edged with a slight bitterness that you realize is probably one of the dominant flavors in soy sauce.
In the Marukai Market, 1740 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena, http://www.menya-iroha.com/us