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The real top ramen

Ramen is undoubtedly one of the best-known college food staples. It's easy to make, costs next to nothing and lasts forever. When we think of ramen, we usually think of $.10 packets of instant noodles in pork, chicken or oriental flavor -- but there's more to ramen than a brick of dried noodles and a packet of glorified MSG.

Freshly made ramen noodles with homemade stock are almost a completely different food than what we find on supermarket shelves. In Japan, where ramen originated, the obsession is similar to United States' quest for the perfect barbecue. There is even a ramen museum in Yokohama, Japan.

It was this ramen mania that led me to Takohachi, a Japanese restaurant in the International District. It's one of the few restaurants in Seattle where authentic ramen can be found.

Takohachi is a small, eight-table restaurant tucked behind a wooden facade, adorned with a sign picturing a bandana-clad octopus (Takohachi in Japanese means "octopus eight"). The interior, with faux-bamboo ceiling and frantically shouted greeting of "irasshaimase" suggests a scene from Japanese ramen-themed movie Tampopo.

The menu focuses mainly on homestyle Japanese dishes like ramen and other noodle soups, Japanese-style croquettes (breaded balls of potato and other filling), hamburgers and tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets). The restaurant offers several variations on ramen, most of which come in a chicken-based stock, topped with pieces of pork.

We had the hanchan ramen ($7.50), which came with a bowl of bacon-laden fried rice, the tempura udon soup ($7.50), saba shioyaki ($7.99) and salt-grilled mackerel.

The ramen came topped with corn, seaweed, green onions, a hard-boiled egg and two slices of pork. Hidden underneath the toppings was a mound of fresh ramen noodles swimming in a rich broth. The ramen noodles were surprising at first, completely different than the prepackaged kind. Rather than having a sort of mushy, overcooked texture, they were chewy and had a firm bite.

The corn and seaweed seemed like a strange combination, but they melded together to create a unique, delicious flavor. The egg lost most of it's distinctive flavor, acting more as a thickener that created a richer broth. The corn added a sweet counterpoint to the saltiness of the soup, and the seaweed gave it a subtle underlying Japanese flavor.

The accompanying fried rice was also different from its stereotypical Cantonese cousin. This version came loaded with pieces of bacon, onion and carrot and some black pepper, which gave a spicy hint. It was also devoid of soy sauce and the cheap oil; instead, it had a buttery sheen that complemented the richness of the bacon.

Though the ramen was the main attraction, the grilled mackerel was also outstanding. A single piece of mackerel, seasoned only with salt, then grilled to perfection, it was a tribute to fish. The grilling technique produced a crispy, almost-fried tasting skin, while the salt helped the meat inside stay juicy and succulent.

Though it may be more expensive than the instant stuff, Takohachi offers a peak into the strange and fascinating world of authentic ramen.

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