Orange County is ramen paradise. We have it good here. Really, really good.
No two bowls of ramen noodle soup are alike. Even when two competing restaurants claim lineage to the exact same Japanese village known for a specific type of tonkotsu or shoyu or shio or whatever, each kitchen ultimately prides itself on its own unique marriage of broth, noodles and fillings (namely pork).
While one restaurant’s pork-bone soup is as light and clear as a French consommé, another’s will be thick, creamy and viscous. One restaurant’s noodles might be thin and straight while others are thick and squiggly. The possibilities are genuinely infinite.
To be clear, this article is not meant to serve as a primer to the wide variety of regional vernaculars of ramen. It is simply an opinionated guide to the best bowls of Japanese soup that I’ve found after eating dozens of variations across the county.
You won’t go wrong with any one of these, but you will have to wait in line at all of them. None costs more than $12.
1. HiroNori Ramen
Opened last year by one of the original chefs from Silverlake Ramen in Los Angeles, this place has rocked the local ramen scene. The dining room is small, with seating for only about 35 people crammed in like sardines. The wait for a table can sometimes be untenable, but if you stick it out your patience will be rewarded. You can slurp a pork-bone tonkotsu or a soy-based shoyu broth here (or even a vegan version), but the true star is the former. This is an ultra-fatty broth infused with so much pork knuckle collagen that the soup is almost white, like cream. And the chashu (slow-roasted pork belly) is incredible. The pork is heavily charred around the edges, as if it caught fire and smoldered for a few minutes before coming out of the oven. 2222 Michelson Drive, Irvine, 949-536-5800, hironoricraftramen.com
2. Yoshiharu Ramen
This indy noodle shop opened in January and serves an ultra-creamy tonkotsu (pork-bone) broth that is boiled for 10 hours. My favorite selection here is the tonkotsu black, which gets its color and intense flavor from a heavy glug of black garlic oil. The chashu (braised pork belly) is superb, so you might want to order extra meat. 1891 N. Tustin St., Orange; 714-998-1940.
3. Kopan Ramen
You’ll need to prepare yourself mentally for this one. The 16-hour tonkotsu broth is the thickest, fattiest, most collagen-rich soup you will ever find. You don’t need a bunch of fillings in your soup when the broth is this good. That said, the chashu is also among the best. 141 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton; 714-447-9926, kopan ramen.com
4. Kashiwa Ramen
This newcomer is also a game-changer of sorts. There’s nothing else quite like it in this extremely competitive ramen scene. This 34-seat cafe is an offshoot of Hide-Chan Ramen in Hakata, Japan, which also operates six restaurants in New York. But this one’s different. While those others focus on tonkotsu ramen made with pork-bone broth and braised pork belly chashu, this new spot specializes instead on tori paitan, a chicken broth that’s made in the style of tonkotsu. 1420 Baker St., Costa Mesa, 657-232-0223, thekashiwaramen.com
5. Ramen Yamadaya
Yamadaya (a Torrance-based chain) still dominates Costa Mesa’s fiercely competitive ramen belt. It’s signature soup is a tonkotsu shoyu (pork-bone broth, soy seasoned), cooked more than 20 hours. This is easily the most complex, intricately layered base of any Japanese soup in O.C. The chashu is very good, but not quite the best. What’s better is the kakuni, an inch-thick slab of bacon braised in soy, marin and little bit of sugar. 1175 Baker St., Costa Mesa; 714-556-0091, ramen-yamadaya.com.
6. Hokkaido Ramen Santouka
Santouka is a prolific chain based in Asahikawa, on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. It’s got dozens of units around the world, with eight California branches partnered with Mitsuwa Markets. My favorite bowl here is the spicy miso ramen, which is a white (aka clear) tonkotsu shio (salt-based) broth blended with miso paste and three types of dried chilies. The chashu is fantastic. The noodles are semi-thick, semi-soft and heavily crimped. Don’t wear white when you slurp these; the exaggerated crimp causes juice to fly all over the place. 665 Paularino Ave., Costa Mesa; 714-434-1101. 14230 Culver Drive, Irvine; 949-733-1101, santouka.co.jp/en
7. Kitakata Ramen Ban Nai
The original Ban Nai opened in Kitakata, Japan, in 1958. It now has about 60 locations, including two in O.C. The Costa Mesa branch has the longest lines, day or night, of any noodle shop in the county. The highly refined pork broth is uniquely light and refreshing. It also serves a green chili shio version that gets a boost from fresh green peppers, giving it a wonderfully floral yet tongue-searing kick. The noodles are extra thick, hand-crimped and slightly softer than usual. 891 Baker St., Costa Mesa; 714-557-2947. 7550 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park; 714-752-6878, ramenbannai.com
8. Ramain 39
The ace up the sleeve at this izakaya (Japanese small plates) is their inventive take on tsukemen, a sort of “dipping ramen” where the noodles and toppings are served alongside — not already soaking in — the broth. The idea is to give the diner more control over how the soup is assembled and eaten. You can dump everything into the bowl or you can attack it more like shabu, dipping only a mouthful of noodles at a time into the broth, which is served over a tabletop stove. The broth is thick and rich, a classic tonkotsu base that’s been thickened with finely shredded chashu (slow-roasted pork belly) and corn, which creates a texture almost like chili. 18583 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, 657-329-1189, ramain39.com
The owners of a nearby shabu restaurant opened this ramen shop in March. Their tonkotsu broth is straightforward and simple, but when mixed with their spicy miso paste, it becomes special. The real reason you’re here, though, is for the chashu, which is cut thicker than anyone else’s. They sear it with a blowtorch right before serving. The noodles are extra thin and perfectly toothsome. 10130 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove; 714-537-7098.
10. Aoki No Chukka
This quirky cafe serves more than a dozen ramen (some a bit wacky), plus all sorts of Japanese comfort food. The ramen that stands out is the yuzu koshu shio. It’s a salt-based broth made with a mix of pork and chicken bones. Poultry gives it a lighter, softer profile than normal, and the yuzu koshu infuses it with a spicy, citrusy zing. The chashu here is admirable, too. 1525 Mesa Verde Drive, Costa Mesa; 714-545-0600.
11. Shin Sen Gumi Hakata Ramen
Founded in Los Angeles, this chain has two ramen shops in O.C. The gritty Fountain Valley branch feels more like vintage Japan, while the sparkling new Irvine branch comes across rather sterile. The soup is delicious either way. The Hakata-style tonkotsu is made from Berkshire pork, cooked more than 15 hours. They let you control the firmness of the noodles as well as the thickness of the soup. The chashu is fine but upstaged every time by uniquely thin noodles. Consider adding a Thai chili butter bomb. 18315 Brookhurst St., Fountain Valley; 714-962-8971. 6404 Irvine Blvd., Irvine; 949-596-7036, shinsengumigroup.com.
A reader from Japan tipped me off to this hidden gem. I love the funky, family-run atmosphere. For traditional ramen, this is admittedly not my favorite. However, the kitchen serves a fantastic tantan ramen filled with seasoned ground pork. You can almost think of it as sloppy-joe ramen, with baby bok choy thrown in for color. 17292 McFadden Ave., Tustin; 714-368-0233, kairakutei.web44.net
13. Ramen Zetton
The original Zetton opened in 2012 in the heart of Costa Mesa’s ramen row. A second location opened in April in Cypress. They’re both tiny and charmingly atmospheric, like something you might stumble into in the wee hours in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward. The signature broth is made with chicken bones, and it has a distinct undercurrent of seaweed, or maybe even bonita flakes. The star of the menu is the spicy miso tantan, filled with ground pork and a fistful of sesame seeds. It’s totally different than the tantan at Kairakutei, naturally. If you want it spicy, ask for a ramekin of habanero paste on the side. 735 Baker St., Costa Mesa; 714-241-1625. 5721 Lincoln Ave., Cypress; 714-236-5474
A version of this article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives (and subscribe if you can!). Meanwhile for more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.