Before I went to college, I had no idea white people ate ramen. In my hometown in upstate New York, noodles were too exotic. If you were broke, you ate spaghetti with sauce from a jar, potatoes or bologna sandwiches. Ramen was either the dreamy bowl we traveled to sigh over in a restaurant or the crinkly NASA packet of instant noodles we boiled, strained and dressed with an egg, cooked spinach, scallions and sliced meat. Just like the picture.
Since first recoiling at the sight of a classmate slicing a hot dog into a cloudy pot of Top Ramen, I've come to appreciate its virtues beyond my family's version. For most, ramen is the staple of the strapped, a 29-cent meal that fills the belly and (with the magic of MSG) hits all the flavor notes, hammering on the salt and umami with its soft, fatty, comforting coils and brown broth. It allows the young and improvident, yet unburdened by thoughts of nutrition and mortality, to put more in the beer budget than the vegetable crisper. It takes but a few minutes to boil, mix and eat over the sink straight from the pot, making room in the student's schedule for other things — sometimes even studying.
And — even if you've subsisted on shrink-wrapped cases of chicken, beef, shrimp or Oriental (what the hell is Oriental flavor exactly?) until in a moment of financial frustration you shook your fist and swore to the skies, like Scarlett O'Hara, that you'd never eat instant ramen again — it still kind of tastes good.
Hey, no judgment.
In fact, if you're prepared to splash out, say, anywhere from a buck to a high-rolling $2.99 a package, it tastes even better. We went to Little Japan Market (2848 F St., Eureka), where shelf after shelf of instant noodle options — udon, soba, cellophane — threaten to overwhelm, and dug our chopsticks into 10 contenders in the ramen category, sticking to the basic soy sauce-based soup with a tonkotsu bone broth, as well as a couple of popular Korean kimchi wild cards. We sipped, slurped and scored each entry on soup flavor, quality of noodles and whether or not we would eat them outside of a poverty scenario for an overall 10-point scale. Finally, once the salt swelling and the MSG hallucinations receded, we changed out of our splattered shirts and tallied up the numbers for the ranking here.
A couple of pro tips: With packaged noodles, straining and rinsing the noodles makes a difference, as does whipping up the soup separately. And if you're eating at the office but don't want the guilt and shame of Styrofoam, stick to the paper bowls or invest $3.49 in the microwaveable noodle bowl and lid to cook your favorite flat-package variety in about three minutes. Maybe toss on a handful of mung bean sprouts so your mother won't worry. And don't eat over the sink. OK, now we're kind of judging.