Ramen revival hits the Twin Cities

The Japanese noodle dish isn't just for starving college students anymore.

STORY BY EMILY EVELAND | PHOTOS BY COURTNEY PERRY
Updated 11/19/2014

If you’re a food-porn fanatic with a thing for ramen, look no further than “Tampopo,” the 1985 Japanese “ramen western” by director Juzo Itami. At the start of the film, an elderly ramen master teaches his eager apprentice how to consume the sacred noodle soup in a traditional fashion.

“Master, soup or noodles first?” he asks. The ramen master tells him to begin by observing the bowl in its entirety, appreciating the jewels of fat on the surface and savoring the aromas.

“First, caress the surface,” he instructs, gently skimming the soup with his chopstick tips. This action, he explains, expresses affection for the ramen. He proceeds to poke the pork, pushing it gently into the soup.

“Apologize to the pork by saying, ‘See you soon,’ ” he tells the young man.

He takes a few bites of the noodles and three sips of the soup, then picks up a slice of pork as if “making a major decision in life,” and brings it to his mouth.

The ramen master’s method is extreme, sure, but his basic message is this: Ramen should be savored.

The art of ramen preparation and consumption was disrupted in 1958 with Momofuku Ando’s invention of instant noodles — dried, pre-seasoned ramen noodles that were initially considered a luxury based on their price and the ease of preparation. Most instant noodles are consumed in China, but America falls close behind with 4.8 billion servings sold per year. Though a few instant-noodle brands are comparable in quality and taste to handcrafted ramen, the majority are high in sodium, low in protein and vitamins, and occasionally contain Benzopyrene, a known carcinogen.

Fortunately, we’ve recently witnessed a revival of handmade ramen in the United States. Sure, college kids on minuscule budgets will continue to purchase bags of instant noodles by the dozens, but many have come to appreciate the fresh, detail-oriented variety.

Inspired by this re-emergence, we tracked down some of the best ramen dishes in the Twin Cities. But before you embark on your ramen-eating mission, remember these simple rules:

1. Slurp your noodles within five minutes, so they maintain their firm and chewy texture.

2. Do not mix ingredients together.

3. Drink directly from the bowl, and if it isn’t piping hot, send it back.

Oh, and don’t forget to caress the pork.

 

Zen Box Izakaya

602 Washington Av. S., Mpls. • 612-332-3936 • www.zenboxizakaya.com

An izakaya is a traditional Japanese bar that serves tapas, like skewers, edamame and tofu. Zen Box Izakaya goes above and beyond, offering stir fry, udon, onigiri and curry. Zen Box also specializes in three traditional ramen varieties, as well as three kinds of yakisoba — a fried dish made with ramen noodles.

We started with the Tonkotsu ‘Tonzen’ ($13), a variation of standard tonkotsu ramen (made with a pork bone-based broth and straight noodles) adding pickled ginger and wakame. The house-made heritage pork broth was scorching hot, but a traumatized tongue is the first sign of a quality ramen dish. A good broth should be borderline unbearable, only drinkable after a few minutes of slurping noodles from your chopsticks.

If you’re looking for an extra bite, opt for Zen Box’s kimchi ramen ($13), which substitutes the tonkotsu’s pickled ginger for kimchi. Both dishes include slices of chashu (melt-in-your-mouth pork belly), aji tamago (soft-boiled egg) and menma (fermented bamboo shoots).

Zen Box Izakaya offers limited quantities of ramen and tends to fill up fast. To beat the crowd, make an early reservation on the weekend or, better yet, satisfy your ramen craving on a weekday.

 

UniDeli

2015 E. 24th St., Mpls. • 612-721-6677

In Japan, it’s common to find restaurants serving just one dish that chefs spend years perfecting. In the States, restaurateurs strive to appease all taste buds with a wide variety. Both methods have pros and cons — a specialty restaurant makes it difficult for groups to compromise, while a restaurant that serves a variety can result in lower overall quality.

UniDeli, inside the United Noodles grocery in south Minneapolis, falls into the latter category, and its ramen could use a little more TLC. On our first visit, we ordered the tonkotsu ramen ($10). The broth was only warm, the pork and bok choy were slightly overcooked, and the soup was too murky to see the noodles. It tasted fine, but we were less than impressed with the execution.

We opted for the dramen — a combination of three separate UniDeli ramen dishes — on our return visit. UniDeli was packed for the third annual Autumn Luau, so we got it to go, brought it to a near-boil on the kitchen stove, and were taken to another ramen dimension. The mashup of tonkotsu black, tantanmen and tsukemen ramen is slightly over the top, but the combination of spice, sodium and a fat slice of pork irrevocably won our hearts. The $13 dish is enough for two meals.

Check out UniDeli on Ramen Mondays, when Sophear Ek and Jason Dorweiler direct their full attention to six changing varieties of ramen. They understand that crafting the perfect bowl of ramen requires years of experience, and have dedicated themselves to serving the best.

 

Tanpopo Noodle Shop

308 Prince St., St. Paul • 651-209-6527 • www.tanpoporestaurant.com

Lowertown St. Paul’s Tanpopo Noodle Shop is simultaneously the most elegant and least showy ramen shop of the bunch. The environment is warmed both by the interior design — think soft yellows and natural wooden tables — and the presence of sake, which can be purchased by the bottle or glass.

Tanpopo (no relation to the film “Tampopo” — the name is an homage to chef Koshiki Yonemura’s father's noodle shop in her hometown of Kyushu, Japan) only offers ramen on Monday nights. Try the shōyu ramen ($12), topped with pork, spinach, bamboo, scallions, a poached egg and nori. Unlike tonkotsu ramen's pork broth and straight noodles, shōyu features a soy sauce-based broth and curly yellow noodles.

If you’re craving ramen on the wrong night, opt for a dish with soba noodles, which are comparable in size and texture to ramen. To step outside the skinny-noodle box, try the nabeyaki udon ($13.75), made with wheat flour udon, shrimp tempura, chicken, shiitake mushrooms, fish cakes, wakame, scallions and a Japanese-style omelet.

 

Masu Sushi & Robata

330 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls. • 612-332-6278 • www.masusushiandrobata.com

University of Minnesota students, it’s time to put away the instant ramen, zip up your coats and make the snowy trek to Masu to try a bowl of tonkatsu curry ramen ($13), a spicy take on the well-loved classic. If you aren’t famished, prepare to take home leftovers, because this is one hearty dish. Its centerpiece is a breaded and fried pork tenderloin, which could be considered a meal in itself.

Ramen purists may find the curry soup base overpowering, but the commingling of spicy broth and succulent pork is sure to be soothing throughout the winter. The soup is topped with seaweed, bok choy and a perfectly poached egg, which lends the soup a complex creaminess.

If that sounds like too much, try one of Masu’s three additional ramen varieties, including the miso ramen ($12) — a miso soup topped with chicken, bamboo, grilled corn, poached egg and fish cakes

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