It’s Pittsburgh. The cold gray days are inevitable and it’s going to start doing that thing where it rains and drizzles and snows, all at the same time—the dreaded snizzling. Maybe it’s time to fortify yourself before the winter blues kick in. Here’s the answer: dive into a piping hot bowl of ramen. “Soul in a bowl” as they say at Ki Ramen. It’s the chicken soup solution but so much more. Ramen doesn’t have to be just one thing. It’s really more of an endless combination of possibilities. There are so many different broth and seasonings choices, noodle and topping options, and meat preferences, that finally finding the “just right” bowl can be a long, but enjoyable process.
Obviously ramen isn’t a new thing. It’s everywhere in town. But with the seasons changing, it’s a perfect time to celebrate this amazing culinary creation for all of its delicious goodness. Some ramen lovers will attest to its healing powers and its ability to fortify against the common cold. Others swear it’s a great hangover cure. But it’s the complex depth of flavors magically mixing with noodles and meat that keep people coming back bowl after bowl.
A lot of work goes into making a good ramen broth and it’s worth drilling down a bit to learn what’s really involved. The process for some chefs can take up to two to three days depending on the method used. Often, the exact methods are closely guarded secrets. Broths are simmered for long periods of time to draw out marrow and flavor from the bones and to release impurities which are carefully skimmed from the surface. Different broth bases, pork or miso for example, are then combined with a variation of seasoning broths or Tare (pronounced ta-re) to create different types of ramen bowls.
On a ramen menu in a restaurant, you might typically see these different types of tare described as “shio” (salt), shoyu (soy sauce) and miso (fermented soy bean).
Noodles vary considerably with some chefs creating their own and others using prepackaged versions from noodle makers. Some makers use an alkaline component when making their noodles which makes them a little stronger. It’s all personal preference, but I like my ramen noodles to be a little firmer. Toppings add even more variation to noodle bowls: dried nori (seaweed), green onions, mushrooms, fish cakes and sometimes chili oil are most common and a perfectly cooked egg (preferably with a mildly runny yoke) can make or break a bowl for some ramen lovers.
While there are a lot of places in Pittsburgh where you can find ramen on the menu, there’s no place dedicated exclusively to ramen like you might find in other cities. But that will change soon when Ki Ramen opens up its ramen house in Lawrenceville sometime near the start of the new year. (We’ll keep you updated!)
Here’s a list of a few places where you can find great ramen options in Pittsburgh right now: (let us know more of your favorites in the comments section)
G & G Noodle Bar
535 Liberty Ave. – Downtown
There are three types of ramen on the menu: Roasted Pork Ramen with smoked pork broth and a “5-minute egg” and Vegetable Ramen made with a hot & sour mushroom broth, crispy tofu, bon chop and udon noodles. The Beef Shank ramen, a real standout here, is made with pickled Chinese cabbage, leeks and toasted garlic chips, served with a soft egg (pictured above). The pickled greens go really well with beef shank and the garlic chips add a nice crunch. G & G Noodle Bar also offers a selection of curries, potstickers and other noodle dishes.
5860 Forbes Ave. – Squirrel Hill
Ramen Bar offers a big variety of ramen bowls on their menu. A house favorite here is the Tan Tan Men, a deliciously spicy sesame broth with fresh spinach and seasoned ground beef. The spice of the broth is what really works best here. It packs a nice amount of heat with great flavor, but it’s not anything I would call overly spicy. I’m always mixed on whether you even need the beef and I’m tempted to ask for it without it, but once I find something I like, I tend to stick with it just the way it is. Another popular choice is the Vegetable Ramen with fresh vegetables, shiitake mushrooms and onions. Ramen Bar’s menu also features a Kim Chi Ramen and a Wonton Men that has roast pork and pork dumplings. The Ramen Bar has a lot of different ramen bowls to choose from, but it also offers dry and cold noodles, gyozas and rice bowls.
Smallman Galley, 2016 Smallman Street – The Strip District
Chef Rafael Vencio offers two kinds of ramen at his incubator shop in the Smallman Galley: a Pork Belly Ramen and a Shrimp Ramen. Both are made with wonton noodles, scallions, sprouts, shiitake, nori seaweed and sesame oil. I like the fresh taste of all the vegetables in this delicious broth. The creamy egg on the Pork Belly ramen here was perfect.
202 38th St. / Side Door – Lawrenceville
Umami features a Tonkotsu Ramen with pork shoulder, bamboo shoots, a perfectly-cooked 5-minute, 10-second egg, scallion and nori. They also serve a Miso Ramen and a selection of umami-inspired add-ons and that is definitely my favorite thing about the ramen here. You can ramp up the umami taste just the way you want it. Most of the menu at Umami is focused on robatayaki, sushi and other street foods dedicated to umami flavors.
815 S. Aiken Ave. – Shadyside
The recently opened izakaya from Mike Chen of Everyday Noodles features four different kinds of ramen on the menu with the choice of either Udon or Soba noodles. This is where your noodle preference really comes in. I’m not used to those noodle options for ramen so it seemed a little different for me, but other people might like it. Tan Miso Ramen and Tan Shoyu Ramen feature seaweed, corn, BBQ pork, egg, tofu skin and green onion. Santouka Ramen is served with house special hot sauce and Los Angeles Ramen features crispy chicken.
Opening sometime around the start of the new year.
4402 Butler St. – Lawrenceville
The chefs from Ki Ramen, Domenic Branduzzi and Roger Li, recently held their first pop-up event for the restaurant on October 24th in a space above the Market St. Grocery in Market Square. You can read more about the plans for their upcoming Ramen house restaurant that will feature house-made noodles here. The patient people lining up for ramen at this event made me realize what an appetite there is for it here in Pittsburgh.
Chef Li has a history of putting together pop-up events prior to opening his restaurants as a way of honing his menu (as he did with Umami). Both chefs plan to use the same formula here engaging social media to get the word out about each event. Chef Li seemed very happy with the recent “Ramen at the Market” event: “The pop-up went really well. The space was awesome and the turnout was great. We’ll be announcing our next pop-up scheduled for mid-November in a location to be announced.” (Update: The second pop-up will be “Ramen at the Livermore” on November 21st from 6-10pm – The Livermore is located at 124 S. Highland Ave in East Liberty.) On a personal note, I’ll be continuing my ramen quest and lining up again for the next pop-up. It’s been two weeks and I’m still dreaming about the porcini-chili butter mixed in with the pork broth. Delicious—and I would happily stand in line for a big bowl again.