A ramen craze is building steam in Alabama, where restaurants specializing in the noodle soup are opening or expanding in several cities.
Most have come onto the scene since 2020. Greater Birmingham is closing in on a dozen restaurants, including the ultra-hip Shu Shop in downtown Birmingham, which has been serving its Japanese-inspired fare for six years.
Along U.S. 280 in Hoover, Fuku Ramen in the Village at Lee Branch recently premiered, and media reports say the worldwide ramen chain, Kyuramen, plans to open at Inverness Corners in 2024.
Of course, for many the word “ramen” conjures images of those inexpensive packages of dried noodles with powdered flavorings that are a staple for poor college students, young adults on tight budgets, and partiers with late-night munchies.
But the restaurants that feed today’s ramen fans are more upscale. Sometimes called ramen-ya, their bowls are artistic compositions, with ingredients carefully chosen for their color and visual appeal, as well as flavor and texture.
Noodles, which are freshly made, are only part of the point at a ramen-ya. Various broths – some of which require 18 or more hours to prepare – are the attention-grabbing co-stars.
Although associated with Japan, ramen traces its roots to China. Soups with noodles, yellow-hued from the alkaline used to make the dough extra stretchy, migrated to Yokohama in the late 1800s.
Restaurants serving noodle soups began popping up around Japan in the early 1900s. Those packages of dried ramen noodles? Japanese food magnate Momofuku Ando introduced them in 1958, following up with instant ramen in a cup in 1971. He is credited with popularizing ramen, setting the table for today’s gourmet ramen-ya phenomenon.
If you’re new to ramen or maybe bewildered by all of the choices, here’s a primer. Ramen bowls have three basic elements:
Broth: Dashi broth made with kelp is long-simmered and generally enriched with pork bones (tonkotsu) or chicken bones (torigara), with fat added for flavor and further complexity. Seafood and vegetarian broths also can be found. Tonkatsu is the classic; commonly found regional variations feature shoyu (soy sauce), miso (fermented bean paste), or shio (salt). It’s OK to drink the broth from the bowl; tradition calls for leaving a little bit behind.
Noodles: They are made from three ingredients: wheat flour, salt, and alkaline (lye) water (kansui), which imparts a yellowish tint. The noodles are pulled and stretched. Some restaurants offer noodles cut to different thicknesses (like angel hair pasta versus fettucine). Slurping the noodles is encouraged.
Toppings: Personalize your bowl, choosing among sliced pork, colorful decorative fish cakes, dried seaweed sheets, soft-boiled egg, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, green onion, and green leafy vegetables.
Here is a representative roundup of restaurants around the Yellowhammer State that serve well-crafted ramen bowls. The list is far from exhaustive, but they’re great places to start.
Kamado Ramen (Huntsville)
Try this: Tonkotsu ($13.95; spicy version is $14.95) – Slow-cooked pork broth, braised pork belly (chashu), wood ear mushroom, bamboo shoot, fish cake, green onion, and soft-boiled egg.
Address: 3414 Governors Drive SW (Stove House); 1022 Mid City Drive (Mid City)
Hours: Monday – Thursday 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 4 p.m.–9 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m.–3 p.m., 4 p.m.–10 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sunday noon–8 p.m.
Shu Shop (Birmingham)
Try this: Seafood Ramen ($15) – Seaweed broth (dashi kombu) seasoned with soy tare (a thick, salty sauce), served with fried shrimp and squid, bok choy, and menma (bamboo shoot).
Address: 1830 Third Avenue North.
Hours: Open for dinner until 11 p.m. Tuesday – Thursday, 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Fuku Ramen (Hoover, Tuscaloosa)
Try this: Black Garlic Ramen ($14) – Pork broth, pork chashu (braised pork belly), egg, marinated bamboo shoot, scallions, garlic.
Addresses: Hoover: 210 Doug Baker Boulevard (Village at Lee Branch); Tuscaloosa: 1800 McFarland Boulevard E.
Hours: Hoover is open Tuesday – Thursday 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.–8:30 p.m. Closed Monday. Tuscaloosa is open Monday – Thursday 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 4:30 p.m.-9 p.m.; Friday 11 a.m..-3 p.m., 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday noon-9 p.m.
Try this: Ramen Bowl ($13) – Build your own by choosing among five Japanese and Korean bases, and nine toppings.
Address: 2701 Frederick Road.
Hours: Monday – Saturday 11 a.m.–7:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Mizu Ramen Bar (Auburn)
Try this: Karaage Ramen ($13.95) – Fried chicken, chicken broth, bamboo shoots, shredded green onion, soft-boiled egg, and dried seaweed.
Address: 1463 Opelika Road. The original is in Columbus, Georgia, at 6073 Veterans Parkway.
Hours: Sunday – Thursday 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Closed Monday.
Slurp Society Ramen Shop (Mobile)
Try this: Spicy Red Miso Ramen ($17) – House “society” broth, red miso tare, roasted pork belly, pickled onion, kimchi, soft-boiled egg, green onion, black garlic oil.
Address: 69 Saint Michael Street.
Hours: Monday – Thursday 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Closed Sunday.