Magic City Passport: Japanese Ramen

MAGIC CITY PASSPORT JAPANAt the top of every list of reasons to travel is the word culture – and where there’s culture, there’s cuisine.  Around the world, what people eat and how they eat it, is a direct reflection on their everyday lives.  Fortunately for us, the Magic City is diverse and the Weekend is our passport.  Follow us as we explore different flavors from the across the globe – right here in the Magic City.  This is your Magic City Passport!

Our journey today takes us to Japan as we explore…

RAMEN

Ramen is the classic Japanese street dish that originated from China.  The term “ramen” is a slur on the Chinese word for stretchy egg noodles, “la-mien.”  It was first served in the Chinatowns of Japan in the early 1900’s.  The basic recipe for ramen is simple.  Take a hot broth or soup base and boil in some egg noodles.  Boom.  That’s it!  Anyone can make it, but not everyone makes it the same way.  It’s cheap and cheerful, and for that reason, as anyone who’s ever lived in the dorms can attest, ramen is the ultimate peasant dish.  Over the decades, in typical Japanese fashion, the process of ramen has been meticulously refined into an art.  The cost of that art can vary, as street prices for ramen in Japan can range anywhere from $3 USD (¥330) to $79 (¥8690) for a bowl.  Thankfully, here in the Birmingham area, prices tend to float around the more affordable $11 dollar range – and with each establishment giving it their own unique spin, every bowl is alike only in name.

6 Essential Places: Birmingham Area Ramen

Birmingham Ramen
IKKO Hot and Sour Ramen

Ikko Japanese Ramen and Sushi

2603, 1909 11th Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35205
205-203-4833

IKKO is a relatively new offering that recently opened up shop in 5 points Birmingham.  Self-described, they’re a Japanese fusion restaurant, but when it comes to ramen, they mean business.  Their menu boasts a range of different dishes worth trying, but the sheer variety of ramen being offered, obviously steals the show here.  Of all the restaurants on this list, Ikko stands most notable for its abundance of choice; but don’t get overwhelmed – we’ve included a handy Survival Guide at the bottom of this article for just such an occasion.

Editor’s Pick: If you’re a fan of hot and sour soup, try the Hot and Sour Ramen.

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Birmingham Ramen
Photo Credit: shushopbham.com

Shu Shop

1820 3rd Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35203
205-291-6660

The Japanese term, Izakaya, means “informal bar.”  It’s a laid-back place where people go after work to hang out, have a few drinks, and enjoy casual conversation over a steaming bowl of hot ramen.  In Birmingham, we have just the sort of place at Shu Shop.  It features a warmly lit, cozy, and open setting that encourages communal gathering.  That said, smaller tables are available for a more intimate dining option.  To get the full Izakaya effect, grab one of the many seats along the full service bar, which runs invitingly down the length of the venue, for the perfect ambiance of social relaxation after a long day at work.

Editor’s Pick: Try the Shoyu Ramen over a beer and a side of edamame (salted soy bean snack).

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Birmingham Ramen
Photo Credit: bambooon2nd.com - Instagram

Bamboo on 2nd

2212 2nd Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35203
205-703-0551

A different take on the Izakaya concept, Bamboo on 2nd boasts a slightly upscale, modern, and airy twist to an otherwise classic setting.  The atmosphere is a steady and lively bustle.  Seemingly well curated artwork from local talent hang prominently along its walls, available for sale.  Reruns of old kung-fu movie classics provide for hilarious conversation starters and repeat endlessly on the big screens.  One piece of advice, though – get here early.  This place can get busy quick.

Editor’s Pick: The classic Ramen Bowl with a side order of their beautifully crafted Vulcan Roll.

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Birmingham Ramen
Ichicoro Imoto's Tonkotsu Ramen

Ichicoro Imoto

The Pizitz Food Hall
1821 2nd Ave N Suite 184, Birmingham, AL 35203
813-517-9989

Tucked off to the side and easily missed, at an often-packed lunchtime hotspot, is the quaint little ramen shop at Pizitz known as, Ichicoro Imoto – emphasis on Imoto, which appropriately means, “little sister.”  Don’t let the small venue fool you.  This “little sister” screams RAMEN in all caps.  Theirs is a 5-grain ramen noodle recipe that’s factory made, unique only to Ichicoro restaurants; and when you pour on what’s arguably one of the most flavourful ramen broths outside of Japan, you’ve got a very bold statement in a bowl.   It may not have the comfy atmosphere of a casual pub, but that’s not what you’re here for at Ichicoro Imoto.

Editor’s Pick: The Tonkotsu.   We dare you not to order seconds.

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Birmingham Ramen
O Sushi's Beef Ramen w/ Gyoza

O Sushi

5519 Grove Blvd 101, Hoover, AL 35226
205-733-3736

Head just a bit south, into Hoover, and you’ll find a little unsuspecting family-owned Japanese eatery where everything they do is, simply put, deliberate.  That includes their ramen, which managed to hit just about every savoury note of what we’d simply describe as “the spot.”  Arrive hungry because you will get fed – and they won’t stop there.  Instead of a typical cheesy fortune cookie at the end of service, prepare to be surprised by a final course on the house, as their way of saying, “thanks for coming.”  We won’t ruin the surprise, but whatever the “O” stands for in O Sushi, it could very well be Owesome.

Editor’s Pick: Try the Beef Ramen with a side of gyoza (stuffed pork dumplings).

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Birmingham Ramen
Abhi's Ramen bowl w/ a side of Zen

Abhi

300 Summit Blvd, Birmingham, AL 35243
205-969-6858

Situated at a lovely plaza corner within The Summit, surrounded by tall windows and not a bad seat in the house, Abhi is a restaurant that deserves a lot more attention than it currently gets.  The vibe here feels modern and classy without any of the pretentiousness.  The dining experience here was so relaxing, we’re pretty sure it’s the closest thing to actually dining at a spa.  The menu is surprisingly affordable, considering its location, and the presentation is a beautifully garnished bowl of more comfort than can be afforded by a snuggie.  Abhi is the perfect casual date night spot for all of the impress and none of the distress – to your wallet.

Editor’s Pick: The Ramen Bowl with Pork Belly or their signature Iron Bowl (rice noodles).

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Survival Guide: Ordering Ramen

Ramen varieties come in many shapes and sizes.  It really can be overwhelming to try to learn everything at once.  So for the sake of sanity and length of reading material, we’re going to focus mainly on the most typical “Hot Ramen.”  Here’s three basic things you need to know to order a ramen like a pro:

Soup Base.  The most classic soup bases are either miso (bean paste soup base), shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), or tonkotsu (pork broth).  Some restaurants will include more extravagant offerings, but these are the basics.

Noodle.  The classic ramen noodle is the stretchy egg noodles that resemble the same noodles of the instant variety.  Again, some places will offer different things, but 9 times out of 10 when you order a ramen, you’re getting ramen noodles.

Toppings.  Sometimes on the menu, the toppings will be referred to by the Japanese names, but don’t worry – you won’t have to break out the google translate.  Most of the time, the English translation will be provided in the menu.  You can also just ask for it in English.  I promise you – your servers speak English.  Still, to get you started, here’s a few of the more common toppings: Chasu = Pork slices.  Tamago = Egg.  Seaweed = same seaweed that wraps around sushi.  Negi = chopped Green Onions.

 

If you’re feeling adventurous, here’s a bonus pick –

Birmingham Ramen
Carrigan's Pub Ramen

Carrigan's Public House

2430 Morris Ave, Birmingham, AL 35203
205-440-2430

With ample exclusive parking, and a casual lunch atmosphere that’s not crowded, Carrigan’s is the perfect iconic lunch spot for ramen on the rooftop.  The style of ramen on the menu is a “cold ramen,” which is served without broth on a plate, and the trimmings are added to the top and then nicely garnished.  It’s unique, it’s delicious, and for less than $10 bucks, it’s really affordable.

Editor’s Pick: The Pub Ramen with anything from the tap.

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