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In Search of the Top Ramen in San Diego

How the 1980s predicted the boom of craft ramen, and where to find it locally

My biological parents deserve most of the credit for raising me and making sure I didn’t eat more than my share of house paint. But I also give honorary guardianship to Momofuku Ando. For us ’80s kids, Ando’s work was legendary, even if we didn’t know his name at the time.

Ando, of course, invented instant ramen noodles. The Japanese businessman and food savior came up with the idea of flash-frying noodles and packaging them dried. They were so shelf stable you could reincarnate and they’d be there to feed you when you returned in your new form. And they could easily be heated up by latchkey children of average intelligence in, say, the suburbs of San Diego. Or anywhere in the world. In a famous poll taken in 2000, Japanese citizens named instant ramen the country’s top invention of the century (and this is a country that invented karaoke, Pokémon, and methamphetamines).

Ando also invented Cup Noodles, an idea he got watching workers in company break rooms eat noodles out of styrofoam coffee cups. The genius of Cup Noodles is that we all looked at those two wrinkly peas floating next to that carrot shrapnel and thought, “Hell yeah, gettin’ my veggies.’” So it’s not an understatement to say that Ando was responsible for keeping a couple generations of terrible cooks alive.

Instant ramen hit the US market in 1972. Not sure when the plastic Nissin packages landed in our San Diego Price Club (the precursor to Costco), but it pretty much replaced cereal and bologna sandwiches as meals us mediocre children could make all by ourselves. Instant ramen is basically just hot, limp chicken cereal. All you have to do is boil water, dump in the noodles and “flavor packet,” and a couple minutes later you were sure to live at least one more day. Mac and cheese was also convenient and delicious, but eating ramen was like eating another language—an authentic pan-cultural experience on par with wearing a beret you bought at Ross.

So at about 4 p.m. every weekday after middle school, I’d dump not one, but two packages of ramen into a boiling pot of water. That way my single mom didn’t even have to bother feeding her kiddo when she came home tuckered a few hours later.

The crinkly, eggy noodles and saltwater broth made sure you wouldn’t be hungry for at least six, seven days. I later learned that’s because instant noodles don’t really break down in your stomach like fresh noodles do. They’re like a file too complicated for your GI tract to download. The good news was that one packet of Cup Noodles contains 48 percent of the recommended daily intake of sodium. Since I was having two at a time, I could pretty much cross “find sodium” off my to-do list.

Point is, instant ramen is to be respected—especially now that craft ramen has become a thing in the US. There has always been a deep culture of from-scratch ramen chefs all across the world—including dozens here in San Diego. And I’d hope none of them would ever speak askance about Ando and his legacy. Because they owe him. His highly processed, chicken-esque Franken-ramen brought the legendary dish to the international masses, and stitched a ramen hunger so deep into our subconscious lizard brains that we will never be able to fully eradicate that craving without at least some sort of lobotomy.

I don’t care if it’s the Velveeta of Japanese noodle cuisine. Instant ramen is why craft ramen—made with real bones simmering overnight, pork chashu freshly grilled, full ramen eggs brown and custardy—has a near-hypnotic hold on us. We kids of the ’80s are older now, and have discovered real food. But we still have that ramen nostalgia. When the two intersected, our admiration was inevitable.

That’s why I’m starting my epic quest to find my personal favorite ramen shops in the county. After all, it’s nigh October in San Diego and the temp has dropped below 68 degrees. A light chill in the air is the Fahrenheit bugle announcing the start of neck-beard season. And ramen season.

After extensive research, here is the short list of ramen shops I will be attending over the next few weeks. I urge you to join me. Order takeout, sit outside if you’re comfortable. I’ll share the stories of some of my favorites along the way.

Ajisen Ramen

multiple locations

BeShock Ramen & Sake Bar

multiple locations

Buta Japanese Ramen

5201 Linda Vista Road, Morena


multiple locations

HiroNori Craft Ramen

multiple locations

Izakaya Masa

928 Fort Stockton Drive, Mission Hills


3860 Convoy Street, Convoy

Menya Ultra

multiple locations

Nishiki Ramen

multiple locations

Ramen Ryoma

multiple locations


4240 Kearny Mesa Road, Convoy


multiple locations

The Whet Noodle

1813 South Coast Highway, Oceanside

Woukou Ramen

multiple locations


multiple locations

Yakotori Yakyudori

4898 Convoy Street, Convoy


If you’ve found delicious ramen that isn’t on this list, please email me and show me the light at [email protected].

Top Ramen San Diego

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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