Click here for Laura Reiley's reviews of three restaurants in the bay area that are specializing in ramen, including the new Ichicoro in Seminole Heights.
First, there is the broth: This is the most important part of ramen — all the bells and whistles in the bowl can't cover up so-so broth. There are four styles you'll see most often: shoyu (soy sauce), miso (fermented bean paste), shio (salt) and tonkotsu (pork-bone soup). Shoyu is probably the most common, shio is a little more delicate, miso is often cloudy and very savory (in Sapporo, Japan, which is ramen central, you'll find this style topped with corn and butter), and tonkotsu tends to be rich and fatty. You'll often find combinations of these (miso tonkotsu, say) and sometimes you'll see a spicy version, a brothless style and hiyashi chuka, which is cold ramen.
Next, the noodles: Fresh ramen are made of wheat flour, salt, water and kansui (an alkaline mineral water that makes the finished noodles yellowish and springy-firm). Not all ramen places use fresh noodles, so ask. (Jikasei means homemade.) They come in a number of widths, lengths and shapes (they can be curly or straight). If you like your noodles firm, say katame; for regular, say futsu (or, well, don't say anything); and if you like your noodles soft, the word is yawarakame.
And then there are the toppings: These things are fairly standard sights bobbing atop the noodles: nori (dried seaweed sheets), chashu (thick, fatty pork belly or shoulder slices), kamaboko (slices of a funny-looking cured surimi that often has a pink decorative edge), bean sprouts, scallion and/or white onion, bamboo shoots, wood ear or other mushrooms, red pickled ginger and creamy-yolked boiled egg halves that are sometimes marinated in soy.
How to eat it: You get a wide, often wooden spoon and a pair of chopsticks. These work in tandem: For a right-handed person, put the chopsticks in your right and the spoon in your left. You can pick up a few strands of noodles with the chopsticks and hold them from below with the spoon so they don't make big plops of broth everywhere as you suck them in using lung power (a little slurping noise is acceptable and serves to cool the noodles). Then take a spoonful of broth alone. It shouldn't just taste salty — there should be hints of sweetness and assertive "umami" flavors. If you want to tinker with it, there are often tabletop condiments like garlic, ginger, spices and sauces, but don't get crazy. It's insulting to the ramen chef to do a ton of doctoring.
There's a lot of bad posture in a ramen house, everyone hunching to more effectively suck in noodles. It's also a speedy affair, maybe 10 minutes, with everyone diving in as soon as the bowl is set in front of them. As an etiquette thing, don't mix in all the toppers, eat them individually, and it's fine to put a bitten piece of pork back in the bowl (push it down into the hot broth so the fatty parts get more molten). Once you're near the end, pick up the bowl and drink the dregs.