Hello friends, and welcome. Thank you for watching our new online series, “Off Menu” (you’ve been watching, right?) and subscribing to our brand-new baby bird YouTube channel. I don’t have anything new to say about the terrible things happening in our country right now, so let’s get right to it, shall we?
I am happy — elated, even — to present to you the totally inarguable, airtight and utterly incontrovertible L.A. Times Instant Ramen Power Rankings. For the purposes of this rankings, I have eaten every variety of ramen in the known universe [Author’s note: I have not done this] and have come up with an infallible ratings system to rank the 31 types listed below. I could not, obviously, include all ramens in this piece. But I endeavored to cover a broad swath of the noodle spectrum and keep it to no more than three (3) varieties per brand.
I’ve ranked the ramens based on two metrics: taste and something I call Truth in Advertising, or T.I.A. Does it taste like the thing it purports to taste like? Does the shrimp ramen taste like shrimp? Does the chicken taste like chicken? For this rankings, I have suffered and my extremities have swelled; my blood pressure has approximately trebled. But I do this for you, dear reader. And for capital-J Journalism.
Indomie (Barbecue Chicken)
I suppose you could say putting Indomie in the top slot is technically cheating — it falls more under the category of “instant noodle” as opposed to “ramen,” as the preparation instructions specifically say to drain the water before eating. But I’m going to allow it, because as Martha Stewart would say, it’s a good thing.
The five distinct flavor packages that come with the noodles are exciting in and of themselves. There are three liquids (some oniony oil, a sweet kecap manis, a little chile sauce) and two dry sachets (the MSG-rich chicken powder and some fried shallots). They all mix together to become, how do you say, totally and utterly heavenly? The smoky chicken flavor balances out what could be perceived as one possible weakness of Indomie noodles, namely that they’re a little too sweet. The chile sauce gives a tiny bit of heat, and the texture of the crunchy onions really puts it over the top. Could and would eat daily.
If you need further instruction in Indomie’s eminence, watch this homage from rapper J2O and let’s have a chat later.
MyKuali (Penang White Curry)
Finding a packet labeled “nondairy creamer” in with your instant noodle meal might alarm some, but not me, especially when it’s from MyKuali, a Malaysian company that makes a number of excellent noodle products. Its Penang white curry is one of the best — it has a deep seafood flavor, slightly sweet and almost coconutty. This curry isn’t white at all; it’s actually a very deep, Melisandre red. The spice of the soup will elicit the odd bead of sweat and the funk is heavy with this one — funkier than the tweeters of any mosquitos you’ve ever come across.
Nongshim Shin (Black)
Shin Black is a solid workhorse ramen, solid like legendary character actor Stephen Root (“Barry,” “NewsRadio”), whose day-in, day-out effort is so consistent and understated, it can easily go unappreciated. There’s the spicy, creamy broth. There’s the generous veggie packet that contains vegetables — garlic slivers, green onion pieces — that are, like, identifiable. There’s a notable fermented funk that initially slaps you with an open palm before the mellow heat immediately backhands you. It’s on the shelf of nearly every respectable grocery store and for good reason.
Sapporo Ichiban (Tokyo Chicken Momosan)
This particular brand of ramen features the beaming, bespectacled face of Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. And while I’m usually suspicious of so blatantly cashing in your image, I have to say — Momosan came through, big time. The soup is thick, rich and almost schmaltzy. There’s a great bite to the noodles themselves, not typically a hallmark of Sapporo Ichiban. Instructions dictate the soup be mixed separately, and then the noodles added (just like real ramen!) The slick broth, like a shoyu-shio hybrid, has a gratifying, fatty soy sauce quality. I really liked it!
Ibumie Mi Goreng (Curry Kapitan)
Another fine Malaysian brand, Ibumie has brought another solid contender to the instant noodle game. The Curry Kapitan flavor brings a strong, distinct profile — cumin, coriander and chile — to create a very satisfying dry noodle. The sweet-spicy combo is done exceedingly well here; the sweetness is deep and caramelly, like brown sugar.
More 100% correct power rankings:
Myojo Chukazanmai (Soy Sauce)
A good shoyu ramen is a thing of beauty — light, sweet, earthy, not too heavy — and it’s not always easy to find. Myojo Chukazanmai comes through with an impressive shoyu that balances saltiness and satisfying, fermented beaniness. Liquid seasoning produces nice fat blobs that happily dot the top of the soup. The dense block of noodles requires a bit more cooking time but produces ramen with good texture and a bouncy chew.
MyKuali (Penang Spicy Prawn)
Entomb me in a giant prawn and bury me at sea. A prawncophagus, if you will. Every swallow of soup from the Penang Spicy Prawn is deep and briny and tastes like sucking the goopy marrow from the head of a shrimp. The crustacean carnival begins the moment you open the seasoning packet — it gets into your nose immediately. The spice is strong, too, and imparts a rusty red color to the soup. Crunchy fried shallots on top are a welcome touch.
This one tops, by far, the Truth in Advertising ranking. Your mouth will taste like the lining of a shrimp boat captain’s gloves — in a good way, of course.
Mama (Shrimp Creamy Tom Yum)
I’m not sure what exactly is happening in this commercial for Mama noodles, but it appears that a kindly old woman has brought some ramen into a DJ booth and the quality of the noodles is so excellent that it causes some kind of equipment malfunction. Our hero DJ eventually gets to eat the noodles, and everyone basks in the glow of Mama noodles and the kindly mama herself who prepared them.
Mama is the instant noodle of choice in Thailand, and it’s not hard to understand why. The shrimp creamy tom yum flavor gives you what you expect in any good tom yum — a vegetal herbiness and a strong, sour bite. The shrimp flavor could be stronger but there’s a notable lemongrass component and an Exxon Valdez-like oily sheen resting on the top. It’s sharp, tangy and craveable.
Maggi (Masala Spicy)
Sometimes you just have a hard day, OK? Like the kid in this Maggi noodles commercial, walking home from school friendless and kicking stones in the road, in a scene that closely resembles my life from ages 6 to 12. But whereas this kid’s spirits were lifted by a maternal figure preparing delicious Maggi noodles, I used to ameliorate my feelings by ordering an entire Domino’s pizza, eating it alone, then hiding the box in the neighbor’s trash.
The masala-flavored Maggi noodles are simple but very satisfying. There’s no bells and whistles, no fancy sachets of seasoned oil or paste, just the masala mixture and a block of wheat-based noods. It tastes of cardamom, cumin and fennel; there’s a bit of sharpness like you’d get from cloves or nutmeg, and a tiny bit of heat to prick your tongue. It’s straightforward but very good. Not make-you-popular-at-school good, but enough to take the sting out of those preteen years.
Indomie (Mi Goreng)
The story of how Indomie, an Indonesian noodle brand, came to become a household name in Nigeria is pretty interesting. It was introduced into the West African nation in the ’80s and became so popular that it opened a production plant there in 1995. Today the word “indomie” is essentially interchangeable with “noodle” in Nigeria. While there are more than a dozen instant noodle brands in Nigeria, Indomie dominates with an astounding 74% of the market, producing 8 million packets per day.
Like the Indomie in our No. 1 slot, the brand’s standard-bearer, a classic mi goreng flavor, has a great balance of spice, saltiness and texture. I’m being picky here, but I find this version to be slightly too sweet. As far as Truth in Advertising goes, a middle-of-the-pack rating is warranted. There are so many different types of the fried noodle dish — Indonesian? Malaysian? Singaporean? — that it’s tough to say if this accurately represents the mean.
Nissin Cup Noodles (Black Pepper Crab)
Generally speaking, cup noodles sacrifice quality for convenience. There are no messy dishes to schlep out and wash later, but the noodles and accoutrements tend to be a bit spongier and less tasty. This black pepper crab Cup Noodles is quite good, though, with a powerfully peppery broth and a decent crab flavor. The little nubs of dehydrated crab stick (dried pollock) that dot these noodles are surprisingly satisfying to chew, almost like a seafood bubble gum. The noodles aren’t particularly strong, but it can be forgiven.
Nissin Top Ramen (Soy Sauce)
The packaging on this soy sauce-flavored ramen reads “same Oriental flavor.” It wasn’t that long ago that it was sold as Oriental-flavored Top Ramen, which got me thinking that at some point in the near recent past, some Nissin execs all got around a conference table and said, “So, Yoshi, what about about that word ‘Oriental?’ Problem?” “I dunno, Tomoyo, what do you think?” In the end, it appears that they officially got rid of the word to describe the ramen, but … also kept the word on the packaging. Win win?
Regardless, the ramen does taste just like I remember it: It’s salty with a hint of sweetness and just a tinge of spice to make it interesting, with notes of soy sauce and ginger. The flavor is one that transports some of us back to after-school snacks and first cooking experiences or late-night college dorm hangouts. “Oriental,” incidentally, is used to describe rugs, not people, so I’ll chalk this name change up to some sort of progress. Does this ramen taste like an Asian person, or a carpet? I’ll lick my arm later and get back to you.
Samyang (Mala Hot Chicken)
Whoa! This is extremely sparky. It has a pretty involved preparation, asking you to pour out all but 8 tablespoons of water from the cooked noodles (how exactly do we easily measure that? And why not just say a half-cup, which would be so much easier to measure?) and mix in the sauce packet. As far as flavor goes, this skews far more la than ma — it’s spicy, almost overwhelmingly so, but there isn’t much of a numbing factor. The noodles have a great chew, though, a throughline that recurs in all the Samyang brand of products.
Pulmuone (Crab Jjamppong)
It seems like Pulmuone is trying to market these as some kind of health-food ramen — making a point to note that the noodles are air-dried, as opposed to fried, and that a serving contains a mere 2 grams of fat, significantly less than the 14-plus grams your average noodle cup can contain.
So my expectations weren’t particularly high: How much can one earnestly rely on a gluten-free cookie or vegan cake to be delicious? I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised. Dried veggies and crab bits leaned sweet but worked along with the salty broth. The soup, while not possessing an overly convincing crab flavor, nevertheless had good heat to it. And the noodles were … pretty decent, actually. The addition of tapioca starch to the flour mixture gives the noodles a satisfying, chewy spring. For healthy, or “healthy,” you could do a lot worse. The soup’s T.I.A. rating suffers slightly because the jjamppong message is muddled: There just isn’t that signature flavor of gochugaru, the ground red pepper powder that makes jjamppong red, and while crab is detectable, it’s not assertive in what should be a (facsimile of) seafood soup.
Nongshim (Budae Jjigae)
I was psyched to see this option at the store — budae jjigae, or Korean army stew, is a phenomenal kitchen-sink hodgepodge of a meal, ideal after a night of karaoke and swilling tall bottles of Hite.
But you can’t fake the funk, though this one almost kinda sorta passes muster. There’s a nice fermented smell to it, courtesy of the reconstituted spicy kimchi bits. I would have liked it to be a bit meatier, however — something to replace the spam and hot dog slices you’ll find in a real army stew. But the cabbage- and fish-forward broth certainly isn’t bad, if not entirely militaristic.
Hikari Miso (Sichuan-Inspired Spicy Sesame)
The best part of this ramen, which comes with its own bowl, is the lid. After cooking the noodles with hot water, there’s a separate slotted opening on the lid’s opposite side to pour out the hot water before adding the seasoning. Ingenious!
This is another dry noodle, like Indomie. I’m not sure exactly what makes it Sichuan-inspired — it’s creamy with some mild sesame flavor and fairly heavy on the soybean taste. Little fake meat bits are a nice touch but don’t make up for the fact that there’s virtually no heat in this “spicy” offering.
For me, the slick chew of chicken Maruchan is one steeped in childhood memory, like tee-ball games, and crying. The strong bouillon-flavored soup and slurp of a few squiggled noodles is not great cuisine in any sense but appeals strongly to the heart, if not the stomach. The soup is too one-note and salty. The noodles easily become too flaccid in the broth. No matter.
“RAMEN NOODLES ARE VERSATILE,” read the all-caps letters on the package — and it’s true! This is the most accepting of noodle varieties. Add your egg, your veggies, your slice of American cheese; all are welcome. Like Emma Lazarus’ New Colossus, this ramen lifts its lamp beside the golden door.
Sapporo Ichiban (Shio)
These taste weirdly like nothing at all but certainly aren’t bad. I’m not sure what I expected; it’s shio, or salt flavor, after all. This tastes largely of onion powder and MSG, which certainly isn’t a bad thing, but there’s little else of note. It comes with a sachet full of pure sesame seeds. This, like the Maruchan chicken, is an excellent blank canvas for those who like to put stuff in their instant noodles.
Samyang (Seafood Party)
Again, Samyang has come correct with its noodle game. These are some nice bouncy noodles, very satisfying to chew. Flavor-wise, I wouldn’t spurn the invitation to the seafood party but might show up fashionably late. It is quite seaweed heavy, which throws off the balance, but you can definitely get a hint of the downtown Arts District aqua-rave happening in an abandoned warehouse. With ingredients like squid seasoning powder, lobster powder, anchovy extract powder and crab extract, you’d expect nothing less.
Paldo (Volcano Chicken Noodle)
Yow! Volcano chicken noodle isn’t messing around with the heat — it’s very spicy. It’s also very specific with instructions, like the hot chicken Samyang, asking you to boil the ramen before pouring out all but 7 tablespoons of the starchy water and stirring in the thick, peppery sauce, dried sesame seeds and seaweed. There’s a great chew to the thick noodles, which bounce like a sweet potato noodle. The overall flavor is … spicy. It really hits you over the head. There’s not much more nuance than that, but maybe you don’t need more?
Ve Wong Kung-Fu (Soybean Paste)
There’s no meat in this, but it’s so thick and beany that it tastes like there is. This variety from Ve Wong, a Taiwanese company, is interesting because it’s treated more like a tsukemen or dipping noodle. You’re supposed to consume the thin, light broth separately from the noodles, which have a rich, very intense soybean flavor. The overall pairing works: salty noodles and mellow soup. But you really need to love huang jiang/doenjang/miso — like eat-it-with-your-fingers-out-of-the-jar love — if you’re going to get down with these.
Fashion Foods (XO Sauce)
The good: This comes in a cute little bowl with its own fork and individually wrapped ramen block. The bad: It does not taste discernibly like XO. It’s peppery and sweet, and not terrible, but it needs more shrimp, ham, depth, fashion sense, something.
Again — what Samyang lacks in compelling soup flavor it makes up for with the best noodle in the game. Modified potato starch puts a spring in their step, making them a pleasure to chew and slurp down.
And while I’ve previously decried the preposterousness of “Oriental” foods, Sutah comes across like a spicy Oriental-flavor ramen — soy sauce-heavy, slightly sweet and with a tiny, spicy kick. It’s not that interesting, but it’ll do in a pinch.
Ottogi Jin (Spicy)
This cup of Jin brings an adequate noodle — reasonably bouncy and chewy. But the broth tastes of mushrooms and unconvincing beef, like the “fight” between Cardi B and Nicki Minaj. There’s very little spiciness to the soup. I expected more from these Korean noodles.
Paldo (Bul Cheese)
Paldo gets a B for effort but ultimately doesn’t come through. The goal of this variety is to mimic the effect of melting a slice of American cheese into a hot bowl of ramen, providing some creaminess, texture and depth of flavor. To that end, there’s a sachet of powdered cheese mix, like you’d find in a package of Kraft macaroni and cheese, that gets added to the soup at the end.
It doesn’t quite work — the flavor is artificial and powdery and doesn’t grant the same satisfaction as actual industrial cheese. But it’s a nice thought, and the noodles are pretty good. Still, if you can manage to make a bowl of instant ramen — and, spoiler alert, you can — you can also unwrap a piece of American cheese and put it on top, without resorting to this lazy attempt to eliminate even that minimal act of volition from your kitchen life.
Nongshim Bowl Noodle Soup (Spicy Kimchi)
There’s a hint of beef and cabbage but there’s none of the pungency, spice or funk of kimchi. The most interesting aspect of eating Bowl Noodle Soup comes courtesy of Dami Lee, cartoonist and Food section contributor, via text message. Lee says many Koreans will use the lids of their ramen cooking pots to cool off the searing noodles before eating them — that the metal lid acts as a plate.
Lee says she uses the Bowl Noodle Soup lid to create a paper cone and places the noodles inside, cooling off the noods and eating out of the cone as one would eat frites in Belgium. This is the best possible end for this otherwise bland ramen.
Sapporo Ichiban (Beef)
I like how the little freeze-dried corn and peas migrate to the top of the ramen block after you’ve added hot water, but this isn’t a very good ramen. The taste is acceptable, like a bland beef bullion. Noodles are springy, bordering on spongy. But with so many better options so easily available, it tastes mostly of “why?”
Nissin Demae (Tonkotsu with Black Garlic Oil)
This should probably be a little bit higher, but I expected more flavor from something advertising the words “tonkotsu” along with “black garlic oil,” a very exciting prospect. The sachet of black oil didn’t bring the promised flavor, just a bit of a sesame tinge. The porkiness is underwhelming, as in 1985’s raunchy teen comedy “Porky’s Revenge,” as are the flaccid noodles. It tastes fine, I guess, but fails hard on the T.I.A. scale.
Wu-Mu (Artificial Pork Flavor)
This needed to be significantly better. I was psyched, initially, to see the clear plastic sachet of thick, lard-white oil, but it didn’t deliver on the flavor. Maybe they should have — and I’m not a professional flavor consultant or anything — used nonartificial pork? The noodles are decent, if a little slack, and the overwhelming scent is one of cabbage, like your old babysitter’s house.
Unif Tung-I ramen (Chinese Onion)
Woo boy, does this bring the onions. I’m reminded of the 1959 YA book “Onion John,” about a hermit-like man who lives in a hut and grows really good onions and befriends a young boy in a small town. The people of the town build him a fancy new house, the house burns down, and then Onion John, who never really wanted the fancy new house, leaves forever.
Anyway, this comes with an oniony sachet of oil and an oniony sachet of dried soup base. It smells oniony. It emits onion essence. And while it is triple-X extremely oniony, it somehow manages also to be bland. I was reminded of the time I went to the Italian restaurant down the street from me and had to pour the calamari sauce into the minestrone soup I was having to give it some flavor. Like Onion John, I will not return.
Dr. McDougall’s Right Foods (Vegan Miso)
Does the Hippocratic oath mean nothing? The phrase “do no harm” has been blatantly disregarded in the creation of Dr. McDougall’s vegan miso ramen, a mystifying concoction I found at my local Gelson’s, a.k.a. the grocery store that manages to make Whole Foods look cheap.
I’m not sure why Dr. McDougall decided to start making instant noodles, but he’s not very good at it. A gnarled hand of a noodle clump greets the eater upon opening the container, and the addition of water is complicated by the fact that the water fill line is on the outside of the cup. On the OUTSIDE.
Hot water barely separates the noodle strands, and after several minutes you’re left with a warm, starchy log lolling in what looks like laundry water after a particularly heavy gym week. The soup tastes like sour socks and has an unpleasant grainy quality that hints at miso but doesn’t quite get there. Dr. McDougall, I implore you to stick to the practice of medicine! Your talents lie elsewhere!