LILITH LU

The hunt for good ramen in Sydney

Reviews

This self-described 'ramen expert' was told Sydney had no good ramen, so she set out to discover for herself if that was true.

I always tell my friends that I survive on ramen. Nothing revives me more than this bowl of rich, warm noodles with soup. The world knows it as a Japanese culinary staple, but it has distinctly Chinese origins, only arriving in Japan with Chinese tradesmen in the 19th century. When I was working as a food editor in Beijing three years ago, I tried every ramen restaurant I came across and fell in love with this food which takes away the cold and loneliness. Since then, I have hunted for ramen wherever I go and become an expert among my friends.

Eighteen months ago, I came to Sydney. In the first week, I asked everyone I met if there was good ramen here. To my surprise, almost all said no. There are two possible reasons for such an answer: that there is no good ramen in Sydney, or, that they have simply not looked hard enough to find it. With questions and expectations, I started my great search for good ramen in Sydney.

A ramen lover's guide to Sydney

Photos: LILITH LU

Wagyu yakuza ramen at Ramen Ichibandori, in Neutral Bay, comes with a hefty price tag.

From Hakata-Maru Ramen at Chatswood in the north to Manpuku, at Kingsford, close to UNSW, I taste-tested 22 ramen restaurants across Sydney. Most were concentrated in the busy inner Sydney neighbourhoods of the CBD, Surry Hills and Darlinghurst but some were hidden away in quiet hard-to-find streets further from the centre. Only by lifting the Japanese-style curtain on each one could you uncover the different lively tastes and scenes within.

The contrast of the bustle outside and silence within, the loneliness intertwined with the warmth of the ramen, created the best moment of the night.

Of all the ramen I tried, the cheapest was the Tokyo ramen ($12.90) at Ichi-ban Boshi in Bondi Junction. The most expensive was the wagyu yakuza ramen at Ramen Ichibandori, in Neutral Bay, with a price tag of $50 due to the fish roe and A5 Japanese wagyu ingredients. For most ramen dishes, the price hovered between $15 and $20. Generally speaking, the ramen was cheap but please remember, quite a few ramen restaurants only accept cash.

As a ramen lover, I do have my personal ranking. For me, the No.1 ramen restaurant in Sydney will always be Yasaka. It's a chain restaurant with three outlets in the CBD, Waterloo and Bondi Junction [the CBD outlet is cash only] and is suitable for ramen beginners. You can point at any ramen dish on the menu and won't be disappointed. My favourite is the spicy ramen. The tonkotsu (pork-bone) broth is thick and rich and the mix of sweetness and spiciness create a pleasing combo.

The restaurant is often busy, but the chefs, wearing shirts with "NO RAMEN NO LIFE" emblazoned across the back, are always chatting happily in Japanese, creating a joyful atmosphere.

My second place goes to Wok and Noodle Bar at Potts Point. This restaurant sits in a quiet laneway (Llankelly Place) off MacLeay Street that took me half an hour to find the first time. As I stepped into the laneway, the yellow light of the restaurant shone through the red curtain and caught my attention. It was so quiet and warm that it almost made me cry.

The signature ramen here is also tonkotsu, and it's heart-arresting. The soup was subtle, the noodle was bouncing, and the roast pork was so lovely. Everything was perfect, even sitting on the side of the lane was wonderful. The contrast of the bustle outside and silence within, the loneliness intertwined with the warmth of the ramen, created the best moment of the night.

To be honest, I hesitate to choose a third placegetter. There are two competitors, RaRa in Redfern and Chaco Ramen in Darlinghurst. Both are popular and you will often need to queue. I highly recommend the black garlic and chilli ramen at RaRa. You can taste the tutti of the garlic and chilli coming together in the creamy soup, combined with two pieces of smoky chashu (braised pork belly) and the firm home-made noodles.

Although it may be too spicy for some Aussie palates, it deserves a try.

Chaco Ramen's chilli coriander ramen is the chef's favourite. The soy broth blended with a special spicy oil, al dente noodles and tender poached chicken create layers of flavour. Although it may be too spicy for some Aussie palates, it deserves a try.

For me, the yuzu scallop ramen is a more interesting choice. The aroma of the yuzu citrus fruit and the seafood creates a surprising delicate freshness that is hard to describe: a little sour, a little sweet.

In addition to the my top three, there are many other ramen restaurants across Sydney worth trying. For example, Ryo's Noodles, which opened at Crows Nest on the Lower North Shore in 2003, has a hidden menu called Special Ramen, only known to old customers. Another is Tontaro Honten in the CBD, which provides private booths to avoid the social awkwardness of eating alone and allows diners to focus on the ramen rather than their surroundings.

Now, with eighteen months and countless bowls of ramen research behind me,

when someone new to Sydney asks "can I find good ramen here?" I know what I'll say. I can proudly name many restaurants and I am convinced that there are many more than the ones I have discovered. These ramen restaurants are all over Sydney, hidden away, just waiting for ramen lovers to take a bowl of warmth and comfort.

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