“Those Fukuoka Hawks are having a helluva season, aren’t they?” the counter guy said cheerfully as he took my order at Neighborhood Ramen, then handed me a tabletop sign with the cartoon image of the Japanese baseball team’s mascot — a goofy, cross-eyed golden bird that looked to be flailing at a screwball.
“I actually have no idea, I’m not a sports fan. But that’s what you’re supposed to say, right?” he confessed, as reggae tunes pulsed in the background and the crowd around us leaned in for a deep communal slurp from their black box seats at this Queen Village ramen shop.
The exchange was not a bad metaphor for how ramen culture has evolved in Philadelphia — a brothy gush of general enthusiasm for a genre that’s satisfyingly delicious and obsession-worthy, not to mention a great value; but one that’s also been embraced with little real understanding of tradition and what’s going on in those bowls, even as trendy ramen stops proliferate at an unrelenting pace. What makes one cloudy pork brew of tonkotsu broth better than the other? Can you put too much chili spice in the tantan? What’s up with wavy noodles vs. straight ones? Is a “Whopper"-sized bowl always better?
The Fukuoka Hawks, it turns out, are a perennial Pacific League powerhouse who’ve won six Japan Series championships over the past eight years. So I could have done much worse for a table mascot (like those cellar-dwelling Nippon-Ham Fighters) to ensure I’d promptly receive my coveted bowl of shoyu ramen, which had haunted me since I first devoured one at this next-gen ramen shop a few weeks earlier.
Neighborhood Ramen owners Jesse Pryor and Lindsay Steigerwald estimate they’ve slurped through 50 ramen shops over the course of their various trips to Japan, including one just last month, when they also took in a ramen museum. Steigerwald, a former bartender at CoZara, also grew up in a family that’s half-Japanese, so she has the comforting memories of childhood meals to draw on for reference.
I’ve unfortunately never yet been to Japan. So my ramen knowledge, beyond the subsistence of my freeze-dried college noodle days, has grown incrementally through the better bowls in Philly’s nascent ramen scene: the spicy miso tantan filled with pork crumbles at Terakawa; the Black Pig at Hiro Ramen, whose lip-coating rich tonkotsu — steeped from the marrow of Berkshire pig bones — is swirled with inky black eddies of roasted garlic oil and topped with tender morsels of chashu pork belly; the homey comfort of the chicken ramen at Morimoto; the “toro” pork jowl upgrade to the tonkotsu at Nom Nom Ramen; and the flavorful curried chicken noodle ramen at Chinatown’s Yamitsuki.
My education has entered a new phase, though, since I’ve explored the distinctive and intricately layered soups at Neighborhood Ramen, which opened in Queen Village earlier this year. It’s a minimalist but lively little room on South Third Street with 20 seats, cartoon doodles by artist Kyle Confehr covering the walls, and an energetic soundtrack ranging from dub to rap (J Dilla, Anderson Paak, vintage De La Soul), with flavors that draw an industry-crowd stamp of approval. The frequent star-chef sightings there — I saw chefs from Barbuzzo, K’Far, Amis, and Cadence in mid-slurp — are as much a reflection of the quality of the soups as the couples’ deep restaurant connections.
A veteran on the line at Zahav, Morimoto, and Cheu Noodles, Pryor found his true calling in a random bowl of ramen two years ago (“It was like finding The One!"). This is the brick-and-mortar realization of pop-up house parties the couple hosted at Pryor’s West Philly apartment while he was plotting the next steps of his culinary career. They have maintained a laser focus since on refining each element — the broths, the noodles, the toppings, the various seasonings that define a ramen’s style (called tare). And they have crafted a series of finely tuned soups that Steigerwald describes as “ramens with intention.”
If typical American ramen shops typically lean toward a pile-it-on aesthetic and jumbled flavors that default to spice and heavy-handedness, these bowls seek a more deliberate elegance, where every element serves a purpose.
It’s most obvious here in the lighter shoyu and shio soups, which demand careful technique to maintain clarity and take remarkably different turns from the same chicken broth base.
The shoyu is perhaps the most flavorful, with a blend of three kinds of Japanese soy sauce (including a barrel-aged soy for woody richness) lending an amber tint and rounded umami. An almost invisible gloss of rendered chicken fat steeped with dried niboshi sardines adds assertive layers of tidal funk and schmaltzy richness. The coiled nest of fine straight noodles (popular in Tokyo right now, says Pryor) have a lithe slipperiness in the broth that shows off their perfect snap against meaty strips of chashu pork, shaved scallions, and spicy daikon.
The shio has a more golden hue, seasoned simply with a special imported salt, ginger, and garlic. But that lighter profile also allows the smoky fish notes of a dashi steeped with katsuobushi bonito to rise more prominently around the gentle crunch of baby bamboo (menma) and a soft-boiled egg marinated in sweet soy (ajitama).
Pryor even manages to draw this level of complexity from the vegetarian Yasai bowl. Anchored by a tangle of heartier wavy noodles, its kombu-and-dried mushroom broth is seasoned with a shoyu-style tare but shows other angles: deep sweetness from onions, a subtle herbaceous zing from shiso oil, and an extra layer of woodsy flavor from a handful of raw shiitake caps that are shaved into feathery ribbons and floated on top.
Ironically, the closest Neighborhood Ramen got to the popular tonkotsu style of cloudy broth on my visits was an Iekei bowl that was my least favorite. So much black garlic oil had been added to the broth, it almost tasted burnt.
On the other hand, boldness worked in the kitchen’s favor with the tantan, a blaze-orange bowl of pork and chicken broth enriched by sesame paste, Korean-spiced pork soboro crumbles, and a careful blend of chilies that resonated with spice that was deeply roasty rather than prickly with heat. It was like eating a soup version of Szechuan dandan noodles, in the very best way. It reflects ramen’s lineage in China’s influence on Japan, Steigerwald noted, following her recent trip to the museum.
Similarly, I adored Neighborhood Ramen’s full-throttle rendition of Taiwanese mazesoba, a brothless ramen typical for summer that relies instead on its toppings and sauce for flavor. Thicker noodles add extra rustic chew beneath a pinwheel of toppings — crumbled pork, scallions, seaweed, fresh garlic, and spice. Most importantly, a deep-orange raw Jidori egg yolk on top brought the whole bowl together and magnified its flavors once mixed into the hot noodles, like an Asian carbonara.
The mazesoba is so good, they’ve decided to break season protocol and keep it on the menu for now. It’s a good move — I endorse it! — in the name of variety for a menu that’s more limited than other ramen outlets in town.
Aside from soup, there are only some spare sides of spicy pickles (which I could devour by the bowl), a cabbage-carrot salad in sesame-miso dressing (for refreshing crunch), and pan-crisped bundles of fresh pork gyoza, which I’d love considerably more if the sauce weren’t consistently overdosed with vinegar. This casual spot is really a destination for ramen-lovers only.
But my primary gripe is that, except on weekends, Neighborhood Ramen is not open for lunch, which is when my noodle soup cravings are at their strongest. There are just not enough resources right now, Pryor says, to staff the shop all day as well during its popular late-night shift. That means I’m still going to have to satisfy my frequent daylight ramen urges in the city at large. And yes, there are plenty of destinations to consider, both new and old. Unfortunately for them all, the ramen standard has now been raised another notch.