There’s a distinct paradigm shift that’s taken hold among food obsessives in recent years: Now, when someone says they’re going out for Japanese food, they tend to mean ramen, not sushi. A couple decades ago a few imports like Sapporo could be found in New York, but it was the buzz of the Momofuku empire, as well as the arrival of major Japanese players like Ippudo, that really kicked the craze for noodle-laced soups into high gear—all while the game continued to evolve in its own ways across the country in L.A.
Now, ramen mania has swept the nation, with buzzy ramenya taking hold everywhere from Oakland to Boston. For chefs, it seems as though ramen is the new tacos: an endlessly adaptable canvas to play around with, deploying hot dogs in place of chashu (Mission Chinese), spaghettini instead of traditional alkaline noodles (Pastaria), and smaltz-laced broth inspired by the Jewish deli (Dassara). You could say ramen is in its third-wave, when gonzo adaptations are becoming the new norm, and you’re just as likely to find a bowl inspired by a banh mi as a classic Tokyo-style shio broth.
And before you start crying “foul” about authenticity, think again: Unlike sushi, which certainly has its traditionalists in Japan, ramen is a 20th-century phenomenon there (instant ramen was invented by Momofuku Ando in 1958, though the dish has its roots in China). This means that while there’s certainly a hierarchy of styles—tonkotsu, miso, and the like—ramen hasn’t been strictly codified, and noodle masters in Tokyo and beyond have free reign to unleash their creative impulses. Granted, some of the iterations that have popped up stateside may stretch the definition of ramen a little too far, but tinkering is certainly accepted in the genre.
To get a sense of the new age of ramen in America, we’ve rounded up some particularly intriguing bowls from around the country. Click through the gallery above to see some of the craziest ramen riffs, from Paul Qui’s chicken tortilla ramen to Danny Bowien’s pesto noodles.