Eat Here Now

Why Did Cult Tokyo Ramen Shop Afuri Come to Portland? Because We’ve Got the Water.

“Portland water makes our broth the best,” says the CEO. “Afuri cannot exist without the water.”

By Kelly Clarke November 14, 2016 Published in the December 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Afuri’s vertical Irori grill

Afuri Ramen was being wooed by cities across the globe. London. New York. Dubai. They all wanted the first foreign outpost of the Tokyo-based chain, which opened in 2003 and soon attracted a legion of followers with its light, citrus-spiked broths and clean, springy noodles. But instead of settling in a brand-name world city, Afuri opened in mid-October in a sprawling former warehouse in inner Southeast Portland.

Why here? Because we’ve got the water—Bull Run Watershed water, to be exact, with a pH level around 7.5. “I went on a trip across the US just looking for waters,” explains Afuri’s US 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.”

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Yuzo shio ramen

One slurp of Afuri’s signature yuzu shio broth and you get what the fuss is about: the flavors of gently simmered chicken and dried seafood mingle in a subtle soup steeped with Japanese citrus, which lends each mouthful of noodles a lingering grapefruit tang. Adorned with tender chashu pork belly, seasoned egg, a bit of nori, and a huddle of teeny mushrooms, the dish is layered, light, and soulful—it’s the Astrud Gilberto of the ramen world.

Fanatical technique and elegant seasoning extend to the rest of the all-from-scratch menu, which includes four more broths and counting. Aside from soup, skewers and meat plates grilled on Afuri’s vertical Irori grill abound: stellar plates of crisp-skinned, sweet-fleshed black cod paired with meltingly tender dashi-braised bok choy, or gingery tsukune minced chicken and yam balls slathered in Oregon pinot yakitori sauce. There are oysters nestled in ramen spoons and artfully topped with house-cured salmon roe and microherbs as well as a half-dozen great sushi rolls and thin-skinned house-made gyoza, their edges crisped like savory lace.

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Lacy house-made gyoza

The restaurant’s design ups the drama: an island kitchen ringed with seats in the middle of a vast barrel-ceilinged dining room streaming with light by day, dusky and sexy by night. The venting from the cooking theater’s stoves and grills is directed straight up in a series of gleaming silver tubes that make Afuri look like a giant’s industrial pipe organ or a still from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

The long bar is tailor-made for lounging with a Japanese whiskey, whimsical sake flight, or light shochu cocktail.

In short, this isn’t just another Japanese ramen chain putting down roots in our town (like Shigezo, Kizuki. and the great Marukin). Instead, Afuri is aiming to create a stateside shrine to Japanese food culture in total—ramen and sushi to skewers and sake—the scope of which Portland has not yet seen.

Must be something in the water.

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