Noodling Around: Nine Tasty Asian Spots

Kathleen Squires

Say the word "ramen," and many people are instantly transported back to a college dorm, when Cup Noodles was the cheapest way to sustain students through final exams. But ramen, which originated in China, is more than "just add hot water." The Japanese even use their noodles as an art form, with two dozen regional styles and an entire museum devoted to the dish. The painstaking recipes for authentic ramen combine fresh noodles and layered broths that cook for hours, sometimes even days. One taste of the real thing and you'll never even consider the packaged stuff again. Here's where you can score the most slurp-worthy bowls around the boroughs.

Photo: Zagat Buzz (via Flickr)

If you like some style with your soup, this is the place for you. The first American outpost of a vast Japanese chain, high design distinguishes it from the average noodle shop, with a sprawling bamboo tree, arty depictions of warriors, soup bowls affixed to the walls and Plexiglas-encased noodles at the bar. Tantalizing aromas waft from the open kitchen, which turns out ramen as inspired as the decor. The pleasantly pliant noodles are made in-house, and from the five ramen varieties. The Akamaru Modern is the standout for its intense, layered, extremely porky broth laced with red miso, garlic oil, wood ear mushrooms, scallions, cabbage and pork slices. There are a host of other Japanese dishes offered, but they're almost beside the point here.

Photo: Tallasiandude (via Flickr)

Momofuku Noodle Bar
This simple noodle bar started the cult of David Chang, the renowned chef who has gone on to open multiple outposts (including Ssäm Bar, Milk Bar, Má Pêche and the ultra-high-end Ko). Chang raised the ramen bar with his silken noodles and soulful broth, a mingling of unendingly simmered chicken, pork bones and bacon. The meat in the bowl—pork belly and pork shoulder—is exceedingly tender, while a poached egg gives the entire dish a satiny dimension. The rightfully exalted pork buns make a terrific, if dense, starter, so come with a sharing spirit. With its slatted-wood walls, slim counter seating and a smattering of tables, the restaurant has made its mark for its reservation-only fried chicken dinners, too.

Photo: Young Yun (via Flickr)

Menchanko Tei
In Japanese, "men" means noodles, and chanko is a hearty stew eaten by sumo wrestlers. Put them together, and it's not just soup—it's a meal. The restaurant's namesake recipe celebrates a 400-year-old tradition with meat, veggies and seafood cooked and served in a red-hot cast-iron pot. And if that doesn't stretch the tummy quite enough, à la carte add-ons, such as yuba and kimchi, come for a buck or two more. A national Japanese chain with two Midtown branches, this recently renovated east side stop has cleaned up with light wood tones and paper globe lanterns, all the better for the United Nations types who slip in for bites between sessions.

Photo: wEnDy (via Flickr)

Men Kui Tei
Tucked amid soaring office towers, Midtown office jockeys are happy for this easy-on-the-expense-account option. Suits and the business-casual crowd line the wooden bar, and those who don't heed the lunch whistle promptly may end up with a significant wait. Nearly 20 choices featuring everything from spicy tofu and ground pork to sautéed vegetables serve tastes for all moods, while the house specialty is marked by seaweed broth and springy noodles with the obligatory roast pork slices, bamboo shoots, scallion and bean sprouts. The tonkatsu variety, heavy with pork in a soothing, slightly creamy broth, is a great restorative option when a formidable workload awaits back at the office. An East Village branch has won just as many loyalists.

Photo: Rafael CH (via Flickr)

As is the model in Japan, this space is small, inexpensive and efficient, and no one seems to appreciate that more than Gramercy-area workers and locals. Checkerboard flooring, leftover from the space's previous incarnation, livens up the usual blond wood and kanji scrawl doubling as decor, but no one seems to lift their faces above the bowl here. They are entranced by the signature dish—the Terakawa—with pickled ginger and a two-day–simmered pork bone broth awakening the usual mix of bamboo shoots, scallions, egg and pork slices. Though the patrons may seem in-and-out, the succulent slurps linger with them well into the world outside.

Photo: Will Steacy

Ramen Setagaya
After saturating the East Village with three branches, this Japanese chain took over a cheery Flushing corner, which locals find to be a fitting alternative to the area's dumpling houses. Its toothsome noodles are made exclusively in California, with ingredients imported from Japan. Also brought in from the homeland: shouted greetings upon entry and a flat-screen TV broadcasting bizarrely fascinating Tokyo game shows. Those not interested in the TV take stools lining the sunny windows to face passersby outside. The menu is small, but regulars know what to get—the shio ramen, salty broth with pork, egg, seaweed, scallion and scallop powder.

Photo: Will Steacy

This underrated, unassuming Upper East Sider has a lock on the neighborhood. Narrow and tiny with counter seating only, the restaurant has attracted a proliferation of area youngsters who love to watch cooks toiling over bubbling vats of broth. Though the thick curry and miso varieties are among the local favorites, the signature Naruto ramen featuring fish cakes, scallion, egg, bamboo shoots and pork in a soy-based soup is an especially substantial bowl. The pork-stuffed gyoza also get high marks from regulars, while Monday and Wednesday specials ($2 off ramen or gyoza) offer great value.

Photo: Julie (via Flickr)

Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle
The Chinese lay claim to inventing the ramen noodle, and this Chinatown spot is where to see the art in action, as noodle makers pull, slap, pound and stretch oodles of them. Despite the dreary digs—rickety wood tables, a makeshift counter and cheaply tiled walls—you can't beat the live entertainment. The "beef stew" bowls are a popular order, though aficionados will find everything from pig's ear to "miscellaneous ox parts" on the menu. No matter what, the elastic noodles are the stars, as they mix with hale brown broth and bok choy. The house dumplings also earn praise for their delicate skins.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

Zuzu Ramen
The tight ramen menu here offers four choices: a bracing hot-and-sour soup marked by lemongrass and Thai basil; a green curry miso with pork, egg and vegetables; a garlic soy with egg, bok choy and bamboo shoots in a vegetable broth; and the Zuzu, a smoky dashi broth supporting the usual pork, egg and vegetable accoutrements. The noodles are tender enough to stand up to the varying flavors, while the glassed-in kitchen provides a place to rest the eyes. Sake is served in wooden boxes, and the atmosphere hits all the cleanly comfortable aesthetics that this Brooklyn neighborhood has grown accustomed to. The proprietors, after all, also own the nearby pub Sheep Station.