Not long ago ramen was something only poor university students ate to get by on a study night. How things have changed, with several restaurants in Barcelona wholly dedicated to the delicious noodle-based soup. But ramen bars aren't likely to start sprouting up daily like the rate of burger joints around town. That's because, unlike the pre-packaged noodles you remember from your uni days, ramen is actually a dish that requires more skill and dedication than just slapping together some ingredients and whacking them onto the grill. While it is a humble dish served and eaten quickly, it's simmered slowly and can be enjoyed as a delicacy. So what's in the bowl? Home-made broth – often with chicken or pork, but it can also be made with different kinds of seafood or dried fish (and there are vegetarian options) – seasoned with 'tares' (sauces or flavours that define the type of ramen you're getting and can include soy, miso, etc.), wheat noodles, and toppings, among which you might find bacon, marinated boiled egg or bamboo. Ramen is a starter, a soup, and a main course all in one.
The kitchen at Ramen-Ya Hiro is a steam engine, with constant triple boiling going on. And the other side of the bar bubbles with customers slurping and gobbling up concoctions that simmered overnight for ten hours. Hiroki makes it clear that they only cook up three kinds of ramen because they want to specialise in quality and speed. Here you'll find classic recipes: soy (with a broth made with chicken and pork, and soy sauce), miso (the same thing as the soy recipe but with miso instead of soy), or seafood. The noodles, home-made onsite (you can spot the noodle-making machine at the end of the bar), are a knockout: you can put them on your plate and smoosh them to see how the broth comes out yet they don't break. As I inhaled the soy one, amazed by the density and the mixture of the two types of broth as well as the tenderness of the bit of pork, I noticed the subtle aftertaste of seafood and immediately was reminded of my mother's famous 'mar i muntanya'.
It’s a guarantee of quality when you know that behind this Asian restaurant is the British owner of Mosquito and Red Ant, Gilles Brown. His approach to south-east Asian cuisine is methodical and he's obsessive about quality. Grasshopper is even smaller than Ramen Ya-Hiro, with a bar that seats just 15 diners. Brown tells me that the broths simmer for 18 hours, and he talks about the tares, explaining how these sauces act as the bases that distinguish one ramen from another. 'This is haute cuisine that needs to be served quickly, but it's not a fast food to be laughed at,' he says. They also make their own noodles, and they add an alkaline solution called 'kansui' to the mix so that the water has a property like that of Japan's (and it makes the noodles more flexible and absorbent). They have the usual three tares (miso, soy and seafood) as well as a vegetarian option. Their soy ramen is delicious, and I had a tough time choosing from among their army of craft beers to go with it, among them BeerCat, Catalan-made brews from English and Irish owners.
Koku Kitchen is one of Barcelona's veteran ramen bars. The owners are two Irishmen, Mark Liston and Ross O’Doherty, and the chef, Robert Johansson, is Swedish. 'We don't want to confuse people. We serve Japanese food, but we aren't Japanese,' they say. Don't worry, their excellent ramen is indisputably a Japanese recipe – the chef studied for a year at the renowned Oraga Noodles in Tokyo, and ensures that everything is home-made, except the marine algae of course. (Rice noodles are also available for those avoiding wheat.) Their Irish touch gives the place a pub feeling, and their dessert menu even includes banoffee (a combination of 'banana' and 'toffee', which must be tasted at least once in your life). To help you out, instructions are written on a chalkboard so you know just how to eat your ramen: 'Slurp loudly: don't be shy! If you love the soup, show your appreciation with an empty bowl.' 'I just got my entire face wet!' says a young woman next to us, laughing, as she puts the instructions into practice.
Tonkotsu is unique in its class for one very clear reason: according to its owners – who are the only Catalans I've come across dedicated to ramen – they serve ramen with a 'tonkotsu' broth made exclusively with pork bones. 'It's much more complicated than just boiling a pork bone; the broth needs to come out emulsified, thick and creamy,' explains co-owner and cook Albert Mata, who went to Hakata, the birthplace of this variety of ramen, to master the craft. The hardest part is finding suppliers of pork bones: they need that coveted piece of ham. The tare sauces add hints of different flavours, so it’s easy to distinguish the broths; the taste is very strong but measured out, and has an excellent, sweet pork taste. For a real party for your taste buds, you can add extra bacon – they can even add it to the broth.
A small and delectable surprise in Hostafrancs, Ramen Suita is a bit neighbourhood bar and a bit Japanese tavern, with a small menu offering two kinds of ramen (miso and soy) and four types of tapas. This place is reliable: the chef is Japanese, and you can even see their authentic noodle machine at work. It's also cheap and cheerful, and the food is good: the set lunch menu costs €9.90, and comes with dumplings, ramen, rice, and a drink. Though the dumplings were quite bland, the hot bowl full of tasty broth and consistent noodles with nearly every imaginable topping made the set menu more than worth it.
Although the sign on the door says Ramen Can, the official name of the place is Samurai Ramen. It's advertised as a ramen bar with an emphasis on healthy recipes (though that's a given with this kind of food). It's not the best noodle bar in the city – they need to refine their toppings and presentation – but their set lunch menu comes with ramen, a drink and a tapa for €11 (or €9 without a tapa), giving you good value for money. The broth and noodles, however, do rate right up there.
No doubt about it: Kai Xuan is a real Chinese restaurant. The son of the family business, Kai Zhou, makes it clear that this isn't a place with just pork-fried rice on the menu. Instead, they specialise in a menu of 'lamian', the Chinese noodles that begat ramen. They're not very different from ramen: the broth is made from pork rib and chicken, but these noodles are a bit saltier than ramen noodles, and perhaps not as delicate.
Known as 'the Chinese on C/Trafalgar', the servings of lamian are abundant and exceptional: in fact, on a busy day, you can hear conversations in both Chinese and Catalan over the bowls full of thick noodles and pork ribs floating in the broth. What you'll slurp up here is a healthy portion of tastiness with touches of flavours. Don't worry about stains – they're so common here that there's an entire package of napkins on each table.