Top Ramen Picks in Columbus and Meshikou’s Mike Shek Talks Ramen’s Secret Weapon: Tare

Meshikou’s Mike Shek talks about ramen’s secret weapon: tare. Plus, our picks for getting your slurp on.

Erin Edwards and Jill Moorhead
Mike Shek, owner of Meshikou Ramen

A great bowl of ramen is made up of five elements: broth, tare (meaning “sauce” in Japanese), noodles, toppings and aroma oils. And the greatest of these is tare, says Mike Shek, owner and head chef at Meshikou Ramen. Shek researched ramen shops on the East and West coasts before opening his Bethel Road eatery in October 2014. He trained under a New York City ramen chef (who required a nondisclosure agreement) to learn about the art of ramen, and most importantly, tare.  

Designed to bring seasoning to ramen broth (usually made with chicken or pork), tare (pronounced “tar-reh”) is a vehicle for umami, saltiness and spiciness. The three primary tares are shoyu, shio and miso, though there are others. Without tare, says Shek, the soup would have no flavor. “It’s the key ingredient to ramen.”  

All bowls of ramen are made to order at Meshikou, meaning the tare is not added to one of the shop’s three types of soup bases until it’s ordered. “The texture and feel of broth has more to do with broth and less to do with the tare,” Shek explains. While Meshikou’s chintan (meaning “clear soup”) and vegetarian broths are translucent, its paitan (meaning “white soup”) broth is thicker and cloudier.  

While each tare has a base recipe, Shek shares that no tare is the same. “Every ramen chef is going to have their own flavoring,” he says. “Even in Japan, [where] there are 30,000 different ramen shops, each tare is different.”  

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Meshikou’s most popular ramen is shoyu paitan, followed closely by spicy miso paitan (amended with an oil that adds heat to the dish). But Shek doesn’t stick with the trends. “My favorite,” he says, “is the mala [ramen]. I’m a spicy lover.”  

What is Tare? 

Shoyu

Soy sauce and sake form the base for this tare, which starts in liquid form. The soy sauce is meant to be the primary component and adds complex flavor to a broth.  

Shio

Sea salt is the central ingredient for shio, another liquid tare, in which sake, kombu seaweed and sea salt are slowly cooked. Shio is a clear, less intrusive tare, making way for the taste of the broth.  

Miso

Miso—a fermented soybean paste—is the key ingredient for miso tare, which also includes sake. Miso elicits an almost earthy, somewhat sweet flavor.  

Mala

Though not one of the three most common tares, mala is a Sichuan-based paste, made with fermented beans, sake, Sichuan peppercorns and cinnamon. Mala is known for its spiciness and migrated to Japan with Chinese expats.

Shoyu paitan ramen at Meshikou Ramen

Meshikou Ramen: Shoyu Paitan Ramen ($12)  

1506 Bethel Road, Northwest Side, 614-457-1689

Meshikou’s shoyu paitan ramen is autumn in a bowl. Its rich and silky chicken broth (enhanced with soy sauce) provides the sustenance we crave in colder months. And its colors showcase a turn of season, with the green of thinly sliced scallions giving way to the deep purple of kikurage (wood ear) mushrooms in a sea of brown. These rich umami flavors are balanced with the cool tang of bamboo shoots that serve as a lingering memory of summer. The generous portion of soft pork belly (chashu) may be the star of the soup. All of the above join a fish cake and soft-boiled egg. These curated toppings are held afloat—just barely—by a pile of wavy noodles. It’s a filling bowl can easily lead to an autumn nap.   

Side suggestion: Meshikou Ramen’s crispy chicken wings (such as the K.F.C. Wings tossed in sweet garlic soy sauce) proved so popular that Mike Shek decided to open an entire business next door, Meshikou Chikin, dedicated to the bird.  

Fukuryu Ramen: Shio Ramen ($12)  

4540 Bridge Park Ave., Dublin; 1600 W. Lane Ave., Upper Arlington

Shio, the brightest of the tare varieties, makes for a broth that is typically lighter in color than shoyu and less cloudy than tonkatsu. (One could argue it’s the closet cousin to packaged Top Ramen—but better.) Fukuryu’s shio ramen employs a combination of chicken and smoked fish broth seasoned with sea salt, resulting in a delicate soup that tastes of the ocean. Chashu adds some fat, while ample wakame (seaweed), thinly sliced green onions and seasoned bamboo shoots add texture and a vegetal note. The obligatory soft-boiled egg is there, and the noodles are square-cut and al dente. It’s the foil to Fukuryu’s rich tonkatsu or uber-spicy Red Dragon ramen.

Side suggestion: Don’t skip the tofu appetizer that’s been marinated in a soy sauce blend and fried until crispy on the outside, soft in the middle.    

Satori Ramen Bar: Tonkatsu Ramen ($13)  

59 Spruce St. (inside North Market), Short North, 614-914-8799

One of the most common ramens found on menus, tonkatsu’s signature is its rich, pork-based broth. To build Satori’s comforting tonkatsu broth, pork bones are cooked in pressure cookers; the marrow is removed, and it cooks another six hours with vegetables to add more depth. The whole process takes about 10 hours. Vegetable and dashi broth are added as well. “We [use] imported fish flakes from Kyoto, Japan, to get the authentic depth of flavor that I love from back home [in Japan],” says chef/owner Seigo Nishimura. Satori’s springy noodles are sourced locally and made to the eatery’s specifications. “We worked with the supplier to get just the right al dente [doneness] for an authentic texture. The feel of the noodles in the mouth and throat is a crucial part of the ramen experience,” Nishimura says. The noodles are finished with chashu, kikurage mushrooms, green onions, garlic, sesame seeds, pickled ginger, marinated soft-boiled egg and nori.

Side suggestion: Japanese karaage, fried chicken that’s been marinated in soy sauce, has proliferated on Central Ohio menus of late. Satori sells some of the most flavorful karaage in town. 

Ampersand Asian Supper Club

Ampersand Asian Supper Club: Miso Ramen with Shrimp ($17)  

940 N. High St., Short North, 614-928-3333

For those looking for a lighter take on ramen, Ampersand Asian Supper Club in the Short North provides an option. The sister restaurant to Westerville’s Asterisk Supper Club serves many ramens, but the miso ramen with shrimp, with its heavy reliance on vegetables, brings a fresh take to the sometimes-heavy soup. The broth exhibits tang and smokiness, while remaining light in texture. Large kernels of show-stealing roasted sweet corn join micro cilantro, bok choy, a pile of 20-or-so small shrimp, and a slightly cool soft-bodied egg that gives an interesting temperature contrast to the soup’s hot broth. Artfully displayed red chile threads and sprinkles of black and white sesame seeds provide elegance.

Side suggestion: For something sweet to end your meal, Ampersand offers adorable almond-sugar cookies shaped like ramen bowls. The cookies are custom-made for the restaurant by Westerville’s Biscotti Cookies & Cakes.  

Tom Yum Ramen from Tiger + Lily

Tiger + Lily: Tom Yum Ramen ($12)  

19 E. Gay St., Downtown, 614-928-9989

Tiger + Lily’s fusion of Japanese ramen and Thai hot-and-sour tom yum soup is one of the most aromatic bowls on our list. Tiger + Lily’s version uses a chicken-based broth simmered for nine hours with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, galangal, tomato, onion, garlic, lime and spices. Key to the flavor is nam prik pao, a Thai chile paste that’s integral to tom yum soup. The wavy noodles are a traditional Japanese wheat flour variety made with kansui (alkalinized water used in real ramen noodles) and cooked at a specific temperature to ensure the right consistency. The ramen comes topped with chicken breast, lemongrass, enoki mushrooms, green onions, cilantro, lime, sesame seeds, nori (dried seaweed) and the restaurant’s fiery house-made chile oil. “We also have an inferno chile oil that uses five different peppers for more intense heat,” says owner Tom Chang. 

Side suggestion: Who can resist T+L’s decadent Pop Fries: waffle fries loaded with Korean barbecue, kimchi, green onion, Sriracha, aioli and Parmesan? They are one of the café’s best-selling items.

TanTan Men at Kirin Noodle Bar

Kirin Noodle Bar: TanTan Men ($13.50)  

4227 N. High St., Clintonville, 614-867-5356

Having recently morphed from a Taiwanese eatery/bubble tea spot into a ramen shop, Kirin’s new noodle soup offerings are actually only new to Ohio. The restaurant’s ramen recipes come from the owner of the longtime Los Angeles ramen shop Ramenya, who consulted on Kirin’s new menu. One of Kirin’s most popular bowls is TanTan Men, in which almost-buttery, round noodles swim in a slightly spicy, cloudy-orange chicken broth. The key to a proper TanTan, a Japanese riff on Chinese dan dan noodles, is the addition of a sesame-paste tare, which Kirin makes in-house. It all comes topped with wilted spinach and ground beef, which adds texture and sweetness from mirin.

Side suggestion: A happy surprise is Kirin’s excellent Japanese whisky and gin selection. A refreshing Japanese highball will help cut through the richness of the TanTan.  

Two Ramen Newcomers to Watch in Columbus  

Slurping Turtle  

Easton’s dining scene has exploded with new options lately, including this 4,000-square-foot restaurant that has one other location in Ann Arbor. The restaurant offers traditional shoyu and shio ramens but also takes departures such as duck-fat-fried chicken ramen, red curry ramen and hamachi tacos.

Red Rabbit Ramen 

Married couple Mike and Terry Ramsey launched Red Rabbit Ramen from their Brooklyn apartment before bringing the business to Columbus. In fall 2020, Red Rabbit began slinging its ramen soups from a local ghost kitchen. That kitchen has since closed, but the ramen shop is set to pop up again from Oct. 25–Nov. 21 inside Budd Dairy Food Hall. A brick-and-mortar ramen shop is in the works for next year.

This story is from the October 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.