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First Look at Tokyo's Cult Afuri Ramen, Opening Soon in Southeast Portland

In mid-October, Afuri unveils an ambitious showcase for Japanese cooking in SE Industrial—noodles to sake and skewers—anchored by a key Oregon-only ingredient and major international chef talent.

By Kelly Clarke October 3, 2016

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Afuri's signature yuzu ramen. 

Afuri Ramen was being wooed by cities across the globe. London. New York. Dubai. They all wanted the first outpost of the Tokyo-based chain, which has gathered legions of followers for its light, citrus-spiked broths and clean, springy noodles since 2003. But when Afuri opens its first outpost outside of Japan in mid-October, it won’t be in one of those marquee metropolises. It’ll be in a sprawling former warehouse in inner southeast Portland. 

Because we’ve got the water.

Bull Run Watershed spring water to be exact, with a pH level around 7.5.

“New York. Boston. Seattle. San Francisco. L.A. I went on a trip across the U.S. just looking for waters,” explains Afuri’s U.S. CEO Taichi Ishizuki. “Our broth is super-sensitive chicken soup, with delicate seasonings. Portland water makes our broth the best. Afuri cannot exist without the water.”

This is no twee branding angle. Back in Japan, Afuri’s broth and noodles are made exclusively with spring water from Mt. Afuri in Kanagawa Prefecture. City crowds wait in Salt & Straw-sized lines for a taste of the goods, which are decidedly lighter than most other ramen shops. As the Japanese Times explained: “Afuri does wafu ramen for the new generation who prefer quality, flavor and a certain finesse.” Ishizuki, a chic man with a heavy Japanese accent who casually sports a suit nicer than what many Portlanders would wear to their own wedding, considers that water—and now, our water—the heart of this everything-from-scratch restaurant.   

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Afuri's open kitchen; a small portion of Taichi Ishizuki's sake cup collection; Afuri's humble entrance on SE 7th Avenue; fish skewers sizzling on the restaurant's unique Irori grill (last photo courtesy Afuri sous chef Braeann Bartlett).

Image: Kelly Clarke

He explains in detail the need for pH neutral (not too acidic, not too base), "soft" water for Afuri’s noodle bowls (mineral-laden "hard" water “takes the flavor out” during the cooking process) while fast-walking through the construction-dusty restaurant’s dining room back to its broth simmering station. He tosses out details about Afuri’s staunch no-MSG policy, fastidious in-house cooking strictures, boiling points, flavor ethos, and chicken fat skimming as he goes. He points out the long white oak tables set for around 90 diners, uncovers trays of tiny, one-of-a-kind sake cups he’s collected for Afuri’s sake service, directs attention to the lights that hang above the sushi counter—the same big, oblong bulbs Japanese fisherman use for night fishing. Just across the counter, binchotan charcoal smolders in a pot, ready to be laid inside a unique vertical Irori grill surrounded by fish and meat skewers jammed into a pit of sand; a setup Ishizuki remembers his grandma using to cook as a child.

The takeaway from this whirlwind tour is that Ishizuki and his crew aren’t simply content to bring another Japanese ramen chain to Portland, a migration that’s introduced locals to Shigezo, Kizuki (formerly Kukai Ramen), and most recently, the great Marukin Ramen in the past five years. Instead, Afuri is building a stateside shrine to Japanese food culture in total—ramen and sushi to grilled meats, tea, and sake—the scope of which Portland has not yet seen.

That starts with the design, lead by Annabelle Lee of local design and construction firm Orange, who has dreamed up an island kitchen ringed with seats in the middle of a vast barrel-ceilinged dining room. All the venting from the cooking theater’s stoves and grills is directed straight up, 10, 15, 20 feet, in a series of gleaming silver tubes that make Afuri look like a giant’s industrial pipe organ or a monochromatic city of Oz. Even as construction still finishes up, it’s already stunning.

Ishizuki moved to Portland a year ago to oversee the construction of the restaurant, as well as to lure a dream team of Japanese cooking talent to the project. He points to Afuri’s gleaming open kitchen, where a man is focused intently on a piece of raw fish. (The restaurant is holding a series of friends and family events leading up to a slow public rollout in mid-October.) “That’s Yoji Harada. He’s our sushi master,” he explains, casually dropping the fact that Harada was most recently the executive chef at Michael Mina’s Pabu in San Francisco. Afuri Japan’s own corporate chef Takeshi Kumazawa is back there too, training staffers. Afuri founder Hiroto Nakamura will be in and out of the kitchen. As will Shigetoshi Nakamura, who owns Manhattan and Japan’s buzzy Ramen Nakamuraand also happens to be Hiroto's younger brother. “Everybody in the kitchen faces to the customers. We don’t have anything to hide,” says Ishizuki. “We are proud to show Japanese cuisine.”

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Afuri staff testing recipes; handmade gyoza dumplings; Afuri veggie prep;  binchotan charcoal ready for the Irori grill.

Image: Kelly Clarke

When it opens later this month, that will include four signature Afuri ramen bowls: citrusy yuzu shio (salt broth) and yuzu shoyu (soy sauce broth) bobbing with grilled pork belly and seasoned egg, as well as rich, cloudy pork tonkotsu ramen and a vegan miso bowl, priced $12–$16. Skewers and meat plates grilled both Irori and Robata-style abound—crisp skinned black cod to steak and chicken wings slathered in Oregon pinot yakitori sauce. There’s salads, oysters, and a half-dozen house sushi rolls. And signature dishes from tataki and sashimi creations to Japanese-style karaage fried chicken, house-made gyoza, and that fluffy egg custard chawanmushi topped with salmon roe. Dinner is up first, with plans for lunch service and a weekend brunch once the kitchen finds its groove.

The Japanese whiskey list is 10 strong with a whole menu page devoted to sake flights, tastes, and bottles. Local bar pro Ryan Magarian is crafting a list of cocktails to pair with the Asian plates, while Ishizuki hopes to feature a yuzu beer from neighboring brewery the Commons as well local coffees—other cultures, he notes, that have sprung from Portland’s very special water.

Ishizuki cannot wait to share it all with Portland, a city he says he walked from one end to the other, in search of the perfect spot for this American Afuri. Now, appropriately enough, he lives about a five-minute walk away from the restaurant. And what does he drink at home? “Tap water,” he says, with a smile. Of course.

Afuri Ramen
923 SE 7th Ave
Afuri Ramen is slated to open to the public in mid-October.

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