PORTLAND’S latest dining revolution is brought to you by the unlikely trio of a country club chef, a pilot, and an events promoter brandishing bowls of ramen. In short: three white guys in their 40s, armed with Facebook alerts and fresh ideas about Japan’s famously addictive noodle soup. Since September, they’ve been attracting mini flash mobs to a dining adventure far removed from the traditional ramen shop, not to mention that dorm-room classic—the instant supermarket packet. Boke Bowl, their monthly experiment in food and community, is suddenly the place to be: a pop-up noodle party shaped by serious cooking, social media, and blog buzz.
Behind the makeshift stove is Patrick Fleming, an obsessive cook who tackles side projects like a dog with a sock in between shifts as executive chef at the Oregon Golf Club in West Linn. He taught himself the art of smoked meats, having brined, dry-rubbed, and perfumed enough haunches to frighten an Eastern Oregon cattle rancher. During a marathon session spent mastering the perfect Asian dumpling, he crimped hundreds in a day. His passion for meat craft and homemade noodles led to a ramen immersion, and then a brainstorm to serve playful versions of the Asian fast food in changing locations posted on the Internet. Fleming imagined Portland’s first Big Tent food democracy, bringing pork-lovers, vegetarians, vegans, and even the gluten-free crowd to the same table, with artistic choices for all. If things went well, he’d have a ready-made audience for a future restaurant. It could be like American Idol—without the bad singing.
Two college friends jumped on board: flight instructor Brannon Riceci as front man and food-connected idea factory Tim Parsons as consigliere. In the first move, Parsons posted a sneak peek of Fleming’s eye-popping ramen on his Facebook page, quickly eliciting upturned thumbs and cries from the curious: “What’s that? I want it now!”
Boke Bowl was born. Night one, 65 friends waited at the tiny Globe Bar on SE Belmont Street as Fleming boiled six vats of ramen in a guerrilla kitchen worthy of a MASH unit while a DJ spun old 45s. In month two, 200 eaters waited in the rain outside the Cruz-room on NE Alberta Street for a taste. In the overwrought, teen-age crush language of Facebook, exclamation points abounded (awesome!!). Boke Bowl’s website now draws 20,000 page views a month, and the events—held on the last Monday of each month—are packed. In one swoop, Fleming and company tapped Portland’s triple love of the wired, the compulsively hand-made, and, yes, the endless waits in line for a meal.
For newbies, your first step is to get on Boke’s e-mail list. Then just show up. Fleming’s à la carte playbook includes a small collection of worthy starters, a trio of ramens, Asian-sparked Twinkies for dessert, and plenty of techniques borrowed from David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook, where taste fixations from the back alleys of Japan have been elevated to an art.
Boke’s taco-shaped steamed buns are a must, full of righteous barbecued pork and homemade Sriracha hot sauce or grilled eggplant packaged with pickled mustard seed sauce. Japanese pickles arrive like colorful gems—six seasonal varieties recently, each tangy, crisp, and individually nuanced. Nibble away—or roll them into three-bite flavor bombs with the side kit of toasted seaweed paper, homemade kim-chi, and gingered green onion rice. Even a lumpy salad of brussels sprouts can surprise. Fleming crisps the leaves, caramelizes the cores, adds blood oranges, and for good measure, tosses in tofu as you’ve never seen it: cubed, brined, smoked, and deep-fried into crazy croutons breathing fish sauce, lime, and chile pickles.
In Japan, where noodle fanatics make the soccer nuts look pale and withdrawn, dozens of variations and regional versions thrive in an estimated 80,000 outposts. Still, standards are understood.
For ramenistas, it’s about the depth of the broth and how it balances with the springy noodles and the “tare”—the final seasoning sauce that some call the soul of ramen.
Fleming has studied the form, taken the elements apart, and rebuilt them as a kind one-man carnival of handmade noodles, elaborate stocks requiring days of roasting and spicing, and complex meats transformed, often during five-day operations, by herbaceous oils, chile-infused fats, unexpected marinades, and plenty of smoke. Even the vegan ramen, with its just-made butternut squash rice cakes, sweet freshwater chestnuts, and deep caramel notes, gets the full three-ring treatment.
For all his exuberance and intense flavors, it should be noted that Fleming tends to overcrowd his bowls with ingredients and ideas—a ramen wall of sound. As he rallies larger audiences to his cause, he could dial back a little and steal more hearts. But the critique quickly pales against the frenzy of a Boke Bowl fest.
At a recent one held in the Bijou Café in downtown Portland, a jazz pianist seemed tuned by 20 cups of coffee, plates were flying, and everyone in sight was forking madly into brimming bowls of one Fleming concoction in particular: a broth teeming with slow-cooked pork and a mountain of chewy-soft noodles topped by a teetering, double-floured, super-crispy chunk of buttermilk-fried chicken, glazed in aioli crunchy with pickled cucumbers and fat mustard seeds. This is the Boke’s moment of glory: pork, soul food, and extreme passion in one slurp.