810 Marietta St., Atlanta
339 14th St., Atlanta
The bowl of ramen has experienced a radical transformation of public opinion in America like few dishes ever have. Once considered to be dorm room poverty food, ramen now inspires the cult-like devotion of noodle-slurping throngs.
In Atlanta, devotees of the ramen cult will drive many miles to Umaido in Suwanee or queue up for hours for the latest ramen pop-up event, whether it be from Guy Wong (Miso), Allen Suh (formerly of Gato Arigato) or Mihoko Obunai (Ramen Freak). They are rewarded with rich, milky broths, noodles carrying decadent sheens of rendered gelatin, and bowls so carefully composed with colorful toppings that they resemble the bloom of a flower.
Anything less — for members of the ramen cult, at least — is simply unacceptable.
On the contrary, the spectacular expectations of the ramen cult obscure a salient fact: pretty good ramen is, in fact, still pretty good.
Midtown Atlanta is now home to two restaurants, Wagaya and Raku, that I’d say serve pretty good tonkotsu ramen. Tonkotsu is a pork-based ramen that serves as a standard-bearer for the dish, much like a double cheeseburger represents the best greasy indulgence of the burger world. (Tonkotsu’s status is a matter of regional debate in Japan, where it originated on Kyushu Island, but it is clearly enamored by Americans.)
Neither Wagaya nor Raku serves “drive an hour across town” ramen, nor “wait in line for an hour” ramen. They serve what you need when you’re in the neighborhood and in the mood for some porky noodles. When you slurp up the last of the bowl, you’ll think, “Yeah, pretty good.”
Wagaya is a newcomer to Midtown and has the kind of low, long benches and light wood interior that immediately put one in mind of Japan. The sushi offerings include an expected mix of sashimi and rolls. The izakaya offerings include classics like okonomiyaki (savory pancake), shumai (pork dumplings), hamachi kama (yellowtail collar) and so on. And buried somewhere in the four- or five-page menu are a few noodle bowls, including tonkotsu ramen.
I wouldn’t say that this is a menu that rewards exploring. They have a tofu salad that is arranged with a tangle of fried gobo root and a box of tofu topped with bonito flakes. The dish looks Instagram-ready and, unfortunately, tastes about as bland as a photo, too. The hitsumabushi, a traditional broiled eel dish that involves an elaborate stone bowl presentation, is unpleasantly chewy and doused in a sweet sauce that renders any nuance of flavor irrelevant.
The tonkotsu ramen, on the other hand, is not bad. The broth is thick with porky goodness and the noodles are a wavy, slightly thicker style that soaks up the flavor well. (Traditionally, tonkotsu is served with straight noodles.) The bowl comes topped with some chashu pork belly, an egg and a few chunks of bamboo. The broth is a touch too salty and there isn’t much fuss with the presentation, but it is a greasy, satisfying lunch.
A few blocks to the south is Raku, a westside outpost from the Honey Pig proprietors that opened last year. Raku offers fine donburi rice bowls and some yakitori skewers for dinner, but the menu puts ramen front and center. Rightly so. On my recent visits, in fact, I’ve yet to see a customer order anything but a bowl of ramen.
Raku’s interior is a little rough around the edges. Kegs of Asahi are stored in front of, rather than behind, the bar. The furniture is not as stylish as Wagaya, but the place is casual and comfortable in a way that seems to please Georgia Tech students and westside businessmen alike.
The tonkotsu broth at Raku has less greasy, gelatin thickness and the noodles are the traditional thin, straight style that don’t absorb as much as thicker styles do. (Some report that the broth is sometimes richer, but my experiences were uniformly lean.) The chashu pork belly is marinated with a soy punch and the composition of the bowl is crafted to keep a bevy of crisp toppings above the broth line: wood ear mushrooms, vinegary bamboo, bean sprouts, nori and so on. Even better, ask for the ramen spicy and you’ll get a big scoop of funky chiles in the mix that perfectly balances the richness.
Wagaya is the kind of full-service Japanese restaurant that I tend to avoid — too many lackluster options — but the ramen still hits the spot. On the other hand, Raku is a ramen joint that might not get raves from the cult, but still serves one of the better cheap, satisfying lunches in the neighborhood. Pretty good, indeed.
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