Ahhhh, ramen. How could something so simple be so delicious? After all, it's just noodles and broth, right? Noodles cooked to the exact level of softness requested by the diner, that is. And broths varying from the light and salty kind to one made by slow-cooking pork bones for hours to create a rich, creamy, intensely porky soup base. Oh, and toppings that usually include pork that's been braised in soy sauce, sake and sugar until it's meltingly tender, plus soft-boiled eggs marinated in a mix of ingredients that are often a closely guarded secret...
OK, ramen's not so simple after all. But it is simply delicious. Here are some of our favourite places that are putting the 'ooh' into oodles of noodles. Grab a spoon and work your way through the best ramen in Melbourne.
Shyun Ramen Bar
From the cheerful Japanese greeting called out by every staff member when you walk in the door, to the open kitchen facing ramen lovers in the long, narrow dining area, Shyun Ramen Bar is a slice of Japan transported to suburbia. It's the sister restaurant to the popular, original Shyun just up the road, but it's not hiding in its sibling's shadow. A simple industrial fitout – wood panelled and exposed brick walls, oversized lightbulbs – puts the focus on the food; piping hot bowls of some of Melbourne’s best ramen, soba and udon, with a handful of Japas (Japanese tapas) for good measure. The karaage ramen is a marriage of Japas and ramen – bite-sized pieces of deep-fried chicken sit atop a mound of tender noodles in a shoyu- or miso-based broth, and a handful of corn kernels and spring onions add colour and texture to the dish. Sure, it seems odd to let the crispy chicken batter go soggy in the soup, but it's actually a great way to infuse fried chicken flavour into the broth. You’ll have to try it to understand, as descriptions of the taste tend to get lost in translation.
Order a bowl of ramen at this cool, concrete-bunker-like restaurant and you'll receive two. What the? Don't fret – follow the instructions on the manga-style menu and you'll soon work out how to dip the noodles and slow-cooked pork from one bowl into the deep, rich broth in the other bowl. It's hard to say what's better: the complex yet clean-tasting broth, made from pork, chicken and dried fish; the slippery, chewy, housemade noodles; or the combination of both. And just when you think it's not going to get any better, after you've eaten all the noodles some dashi broth is added to your soup bowl and you can slurp up every last drop – straight from the bowl. This is tsukemen ramen, and it's an absolute delight, as is everything else on Mensousai Mugen's menu. If you're in a hurry go straight for the ramen, but if you've got time snack your way through the Japas (the foil-wrapped grilled salmon is divine) en route to ramen heaven.
Little Ramen Bar
According to the crew at Little Ramen Bar, the traditional accompaniment to ramen is – apart from the sound of slurping – a plateful of gyoza. We're not going to argue with them (partly because they're so busy serving the hungry hordes that queue up for a feed here, they haven't got time to argue), and neither should you; the gyoza are good, so don't miss ‘em. The juicy, porky dumplings go as well with a crisp Sapporo as they do with a bowl of the best ramen in town, whether that's the classic ramen (with a slice of tender pork, seaweed, and a choice of broths) or the spicy tan tan men. The latter is a hearty, rich version of ramen, with loads of noodles in a chilli-infused broth that's so full of minced pork it's more like a stew than a noodle soup – perfect for dunking a gyoza into!
Think Victoria Street's all about cheap Vietnamese restaurants and Asian grocery stores? Think again. The northside is slowly being colonised by hip eateries that wouldn't look out of place, well, northside, such as Shizuku. It's all charcoal walls, big blondewood lightshades and terrariums at this modern outfit, which specialises in ramen and craft beer. The drinks list runs from the usual Asahi right through to the less common bacon maple ale and delicious rum-infused umeshu (plum wine), and the ramen menu's just as diverse. For ramen newbies, the classic shoyu ramen – wheat noodles and pork in a slightly salty soup – is a good place to start. But for ramen diehards, we recommend the tonkotsu shio ramen, with melt-in-mouth pork belly and noodles that start out springy but become more tender and flavoursome the longer you let them swim in the moreish, almost milky, gelatinous pork bone broth. Slurpalicious.
What's better than ramen? Ramen followed by pie. Especially if that's the drool-worthy peanut butter, banana and chocolate pie Shop Ramen do so well...sorry, were we talking about ramen? We were? Oh, well then this joint bowls up some of the best ramen in Melbourne, folks. While the chicken miso ramen is a favourite, and it's hard to go past the gooey soft-boiled egg and luscious pork in the classic ramen, it's the clever vego version that's winning hearts and tastebuds here. A cashew milk broth is as tasty as its porky counterpart; broccoli and zucchini add crunch and flavour, and a handful of nuts and seeds add textural interest. It leaves you feeling satisfied and super healthy – and surely, since you ate all those greens, you deserve a slice of pie...
Melbourne CBD and Hawthorn
Melburnians love queuing for food and wearing black, preferably at the same time, which can make the long line outside Hakata Gensuke in the Melbourne CBD and Hawthorn look something like a ninja convention. It's appropriate enough, given Hakata Gensuke seems to have been uprooted from Japan and plonked down in Melbourne, complete with a Japanese chef, tick-sheet ordering system and customisable noodles. Yes, here you can choose not only your ramen's toppings and level of spiciness, but also just how al dente you'd like your noodles. It's worth coming back and experimenting until you find your perfect mixture, but if you're not sure where to start, go with something that will match your outfit: the black tonkotsu ramen. Hakata's tonkotsu broth (a collagen-rich, creamy broth made from slow-cooked pork bones) is already the stuff of legend; the black version includes black sesame and garlic for an extra layer of intense, almost smoky flavour. Tip: ask your dining companions to order the excellent chicken karaage, then practise your best ninja stealth moves so you can sample some when they're not looking.
Image credit: Half Baked Harvest.