The Herbivore’s (Ramen) Dilemma
One Woman’s Search for the Best Vegan Ramen in Portland
Other than my childhood obsession with Top Ramen, I’ve only recently become a ramen person. Back in college, when friends would ask me to go to some noodle house for lunch, my reaction was always something akin to, “What am I, sick? I don’t need to hover over a bowl of noodle soup, thank you very much.” But after visiting Japan a couple of summers ago and discovering some seriously hearty, authentic plant-based ramen at T’s TanTan in Tokyo Station, my ignorance was lifted: Ramen is amazing, and the perfect lunch option as we close out the cold-and-rainy season. Since Portland has such a rich food scene, I set out to find the city’s best bowls of vegan ramen for these soggy days (and to practice my still-developing chopstick skills).
Ichiza Kitchen, Pompoko Ramen
I wanted so badly to like this Pompoko ramen ($17) from Ichiza Kitchen and Tea House, a completely vegan restaurant in Goose Hollow serving pan-Asian cuisine, sake, and lots of tea. And it wasn’t bad. Made with Umi Organic wheat and barley noodles in a shiitake dashi broth, the noodles and soup were tasty enough (though I thought the pungent broth relied a little too heavily on mushrooms), but the pork-like seasoning treatment they gave their tofu was a little too on-the-nose. I’d like more delicious veggies, and less meat imitations. They get an A for effort, mainly because of the adorability level of the space and hospitable service, but this ramen was doing a bit too much.
Kayo’s Ramen Bar, TanTan
This one is hard to pin down, since Kayo's got lots of ramen specials, and all their bowls (except one) can be made vegan. I haven't had a vegan ramen at Kayo's that I didn’t like. Their vegan broth is made from kombu (kelp), shiitake mushroom, and other fresh vegetables. The spicy TanTan ramen ($14) is my current favorite; seasoned with sesame paste and topped with seasoned ground tofu, it sort of reminds me of the vegan TanTan ramen I had in Tokyo - because it's also deep tantan-style soup, incorporating chili-pepper heat. Among Kayo's more obscure noodle soups is the curry ramen ($14), which is delicious, though maybe I overshot when I specified my spice level, because I was exhausted after getting through my noodles and couldn't quite finish slurping the soup.
Boxer Ramen, Curry Ramen
2032 NE Alberta; 2605 E Burnside; 2309 NW Kearney; 1025 SW Stark
Boxer Ramen’s cool little space on Alberta has purposely exposed-but-glossed-over plywood walls, some pleasant mural art, and an only slightly alarming taxidermy racoon riding in a canoe. Boxer Ramen’s one true vegan option is the veggie curry ramen ($13)—although the shiitake-shoyu bowl can be made vegan by ordering it without the soft poached egg—and it comes out in a literal jiffy. The yellow curry ramen has a coconut-y broth that’s slightly spicy but by no means hot. In fact, it’s almost sweet. Delicious tender mushrooms, corn, broccoli rabe, and scallions abound in a highly drinkable broth. They get extra points for bumping rap from the likes of Big K.R.I.T. and 2Pac, because yes, hip-hop does make my plant-based ramen more enjoyable.
Afuri, Hazelnut Tantanmen
50 SW 3rd; 923 SE 7th
It’s no secret that acclaimed Tokyo ramen chain Afuri chose to open a noodle house in Portland for its “soft” water that can absorb more flavor. What many might not know is that Afuri quite possibly has the tastiest vegan ramen in town. Watch with amusement as tourists pick up their Voodoo boxes and get excited for the delicacy that is Afuri’s vegan hazelnut tantanmen. It’s soft and nutty, with the perfect amount of shiitake mushroom, leeks, bok choy, miso crumbles, and, of course, hazelnuts. That lingering tingle on your lips serves as a reminder of the very fine bowl of ramen you just slurped, which was completely worth the $14.
Marukin, Shio Tonyu Red
Marukin always has two vegan ramens for $12, and they rotate throughout the week. (On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, it’s vegan shio tonyu in regular and “red.” On Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, it’s a shoyu ramen, also in regular and red.) I’ve had their shoyu (soy sauce-based broth) before, and it’s good. But a recent bowl of their shio tonyu red was exactly what I expect from a vegan ramen: on the spicy side and filled with a diverse and perfectly curated arrangement of vegetables. This hearty bowl gives Afuri a run for its money; it’s $2 cheaper, and will clear you up on a rainy day. The veggie mix is a balanced offering of spinach, napa cabbage, leeks, green onion, tomato, and mushroom. And their tofu—doused in a wonderfully salty, oily, and spicy soy-based broth that I didn’t want to end—has a lovely chewy texture. While their Southeast location might be impossibly busy during certain hours, getting served and finding a seat at the Pine Street Market location on a recent Saturday night was a quick endeavor.
Izakaya Kichinto, Spicy Miso Ramen and Abu-Ramen (with vegan noodles)
My Asian friend Michelle once dubbed this restaurant “a Japanese McMenamins,” presumably for its reliable happy hour and amusing historic decor—though I think this place has way more gems on its menu than McMenamins. But the most important thing here is that Izakaya Kichinto has ramen on their happy hour menu, and pretty much all of their noodle dishes can be made vegan (and/or gluten-free) by subbing rice or udon noodles and ordering tofu instead of animal protein. I recently ordered a bowl of the spicy miso ramen ($13)—their most popular bowl—with rice noodles, and found it to be tasty and light, with a pleasant hint of heat. I slurped the soup down pretty fast, but the real winner of the visit was the more obscure abu-ramen with substituted udon ($11). The delightfully thick and chewy noodles absorbed a good amount of the broth, leaving only a small puddle at the end. I had no idea brothless is sometimes the way to go! This bowl loses points because it technically isn’t vegan ramen, but the noodle dish had an excellent, hearty texture that’s worth experiencing more than once. However, in both of these vegan bowls, the small, breaded pieces of tofu were strangely bland, far too gooey, and added nothing to the otherwise flavorful dish. A little trickle of soy sauce and hot sauce are recommended here.
Mama San’s Soul Shack, Veggie Ramen
Crunch on lightly spiced popcorn and sip on a green/orange/purple/pink juice (all are delicious, and all except the orange are vegan) while you wait for your $14 veggie ramen. This ramen dish is NOT vegan (the noodles are made with egg), but the broth is, and everything going on here is absolutely delicious, though admittedly not cruelty-free. This devilishly delicious bowl’s got deep-fried black-eyed peas (SO PERFECTLY CRISPY), green onion, shiitake mushrooms, charred garlic oil, napa cabbage, and the option of adding a seven-minute egg.