Ramen Freaks and Geeks
What’s that slurping sound you hear? It’s the joyful noise of ramen freaks lapping up noodles and broth, hoping for a heavenly taste of Japan’s ultimate fast-food comfort.
A mini Ramen Craze has seized Portland: At the just-opened Mirakutei on E Burnside Street, lines—and debates over its place in the ramen firmament—have started forming. Meanwhile, Bokebowl, a monthly ramen “pop-up” restaurant launched last fall, has built an army of followers with big buzz on the blogosphere.
Ramen fanatics are right up there with espresso geeks and pizza purists on the wacky food-obsessive scale. LA Weekly’s Jonathan Gold, the country’s premier food writer and ethnic-food hound, notes that some of his noodle-loving friends don’t even bother to eat ramen in California—arguably one of the top strongholds outside of Japan.
There’s no one defining preparation—dozens of variations and regional versions exist—but standards are understood, and for ramanistas, its all about the depth and quality of the broth and its dance of balance with the other ingredients. In Japan, more than 80,000 restaurants and soup shops feed a countrywide fix with bowls of Chinese-style wheat noodles knee-deep in a meaty, miso-y or oceanic broth full of floating debris—perhaps sliced pork, a bushel of green onions, and dried seaweed.
Portland is not yet ready for Ramen Prime Time. The scene here is young and new, but in typical Portland fashion, it’s passionate. Here are a few places chiming in.
Mirakutei: The anticipated wait for a ramen joint from Hiro Ikegaya, whose beautiful knife work makes his Hiroshi a Pearl District destination, is over. Mirakutei (524 E Burnside) barely opened its bare-bones door last week when every elbow-to-elbow seat was spoken for.
The menu boasts a small collection of Asian fusion tapas and handrolls, but most of the crowd is here for the ramen, available in three super-minimal versions: the straight-up “original,” miso butter, and spicy miso yuzu. Expect to be more filled and satisfied than transported or surprised. The broths are nice and smooth, deep and clean and comforting, with some penetrating savor, and the factory-made noodles are cooked just fine. But the toppings are too skimpy and unvaried, and visual appeal is missing altogether—the best ramens tend to showcase extras in colorful little clusters, like little TV trays of flavor.
Meanwhile, the fusion menu has a long way to go, with dishes either too standard or too bland. The sushi rolls are solid—but nothing you can’t find elsewhere (the rice is perfect, though, with no grains sticking to fingers—a real plus). Other experiments aren’t working well so far. The tempura Japanese scallops inlaid with monkfish liver were a belly-flop, right down to the one-dimensional pear sauce on the side. The only evidence of its existence was the temperature (hot) and visibility (there it is). It’s very early, of course, but we expect more from the exquisite palate behind Hiroshi. Still, Mirakutei is a fun little place buzzing with a curious, multicultural crowd. I’ll definitely be back.
Boke Bowl: For a pure ramen adventure in flavor and setting, put this monthly “pop up” on your calendar. On the last Monday of every month, Boke Bowl sets up a camp in a different restaurant and unleashes Portland’s most radical ramen experiment: three changing bowls boasting homemade noodles, inventive broths, and playful additions, including fantastic fried chicken. Unlike the fixed menus and passed plates at most supper clubs, you receive a menu for ordering. The mix includes vegetarian options and gluten-free yam noodles, not to mention beautiful pork belly buns, homemade pickles, and a lot of inspiration from David Chang’s celebrated Momofuku cookbook.
Boke Bowl’s first ramen lunch will take place on February 28, 11:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m. at Oba! (555 NW 12th Ave). No reservations; just show up. (Word to the wise: be sure to check Boke Bowl’s website for updates, as things pop up in the unpredictable world of “pop-ups.”)
Biwa: If hanging out is a priority, look no further than this Southeast Portland gem. Come for a credible taste of ramen, not to mention an accessible menu of Japanese drinking foods, good wines and sakes, and a towering burger with BBQ pork and kimchee. Two ramens are available, and you’ll want to pile on the extras: a custardy soft-cooked egg (split open and floating on its back), Chinese barbecued pork (also featured on that terrific burger), and a sheet of crackling seaweed, for an oceanic perfume.
Yuzu: Most local ramen fans swear allegiance to this little barely marked storefront in a Beaverton strip mall (4130 SW 117th Ave at Canyon Road)—and count me among them. Yuzu keeps a super low profile, catering to an Asian clientele who come to this slice of Tokyo for authenticity, an appealing izakaya menu, and arguably the best old-school, pork-bone-scented ramen around.