Ladies and gentlemen, Minneapolis finally has an honest-to-god ramen shop. Praise be!
Ramen Kazama recently sprang to life on the corner of 34th and Nicollet Avenue South, and within weeks of its birth, it already feels like an institution. On our three visits, the lines snaking away from the register came in three different flavors: long, longer, and longest. The people have spoken — and the people want their ramen.
The latest in a string of excellent establishments on Nicollet Avenue (see: Hola Arepa, Five Watt Coffee, Kyatchi, Nighthawks, etc.) south of the Lake Street Kmart — which looms over an impassable section of Eat Street like a stubborn boss at the end of a Nintendo game — Ramen Kazama brings real-deal, A-game ramen to South Minneapolis. The owner and chef, Matthew Kazama, migrated from a long stint cheffing and developing his ramen at Fuji-Ya (once upon a time, we greatly enjoyed one of his creations), and with Ramen Kazama, he’s realized his dream of opening a dedicated ramen shop.
And the ramen is good. Really good. We can say with confidence that the ramen here stands confidently next to or above some of the best in town, such as the bowls on offer at Zen Box Izakaya or Masu. And the word is getting out: Ramen Kazama has been absolutely slammed in its first weeks — so much so that many nights, they’ve simply run out. They’ve been busily adjusting their prep quantities as a result of the initial slurping hordes, and thankfully, their staff has been adept at managing the long lines and churning out the food quickly. On our visits, after a lengthy wait in line, our food came out promptly and with all of its deliciousness intact.
There’s a funky, loose, lively communal vibe that we totally dig, and which feels sorely missing in the sterility of many new restaurants that open with a name-brand interior designer attached. Ramen Kazama feels lived-in. A big open room with homemade design touches (think snowboard benches, mismatched chairs, handmade light fixtures and woodwork) holds a large communal table at the center surrounded by a few booths and some tables for two. There are a few counter spots, near the open kitchen, from which you can watch the ramen wizards at work, and happily, near the entrance, there’s a stand-up counter for those of who want to slurp their noodles on the fly without a lot of fuss. (Incidentally, if you’re looking for ramen to go, you’re out of luck: a sign by the door says “SORRY NO TAKEOUT! Noodle & broth best here.”)
The restaurant is clearly a labor of love. Kazama is known for his ferocity behind a drum kit as well as a stock pot (his bands include The Birthday Suits and Kid Dakota). Near the entrance, there’s a hanging chandelier fashioned from a kick drum, and pendant lights crafted from crash cymbals cast warm light onto the counter. The wall-mounted menu, hand painted with near-photographic verisimilitude by local artist Josh Journey-Heinz, has three intricate portraits of Kazama’s classic ramen styles. We’re happy to report that the soulfulness of the space translates clearly to the food.
We tried all five varieties of ramen and came away impressed with most of them. The common thread throughout was the broth — oh my, the broth. Rich and glossy with collagen, each flavor had clearly been the product of a long and patient stock-making process. Our favorite was Kazama’s rendition of the classic Tonkotsu ramen (“Southside,” $12.50), with its creamy pork bone marrow broth, spot-on tender chashu (pork belly), lovely soft-boiled egg, wood-ear mushrooms, pickled ginger, and bamboo shoots. This stuff is soul in a bowl. We paired this up with a Spicy Cucumber Salad ($3.50), which perfectly cut the richness of the bone marrow broth with a cool crunch, some acid, and a touch of heat. This is eating well.
For something with a kick that hits harder than John Bonham’s right foot, we loved the Karamiso ramen (“Magma,” $12.50) — the deeply blood-red miso broth is laced with the heat of red chili peppers and chili bean sauce, and topped with a fistful of ground pork and scallions. Kazama is not holding back on the heat for northern palates — this stuff carried a deep, rolling heat that almost overwhelmed at the start, but backed off as the ramen cooled, letting the other umami-rich flavors fade up on the palate.
The Vegan Curry Ramen ($14) is no token menu item for those who want something meat free; our vegetarian dining companion was duly impressed, and so were we. A thicker curry broth is used here, and with the addition of carrots and pickled shiitake mushrooms (which are so good we wished they were available as a side on their own), it veered toward excellence — which is saying a lot about a dish stationed on a menu dominated by top-flight bone broths.
If you’re after an absolutely classic ramen, order the Shoyu (“Old School,” a steal at $9.50). The finely tuned pork broth carries a deep ginger flavor, rich and floral, simple and life-affirming. The Torishio ramen ($12.50) is a deceptively simple bowl that has undercurrents of complex flavor. It’s chicken-broth based, topped with fried chicken and radish sprouts along with a flavorful shiso leaf. This is the lightest bowl of the bunch, and though it’s not the finest chicken soup on Nicollet Avenue — we reserve spot number one for the stuff at Jasmine Deli, followed by the bowl at Nighthawks — it’s delicious in its humbleness, and the unique, can’t-quite-place-it herbaceousness lent by the shiso leaf elevates it to something beyond a simple chicken noodle soup.
While the main attraction here is the ramen, you’d do well not to ignore the other menu items, among which we found some seriously delightful surprises. The Gyoza ($6.50, five to an order) are deeply browned on their pan-fried sides, with thin skins that are by turns wonderfully crispy and chewy. The rice bowls (half and full sizes, ranging from $4.50-$12) take on a couple of the ramen styles, and are balanced and comforting. The Chahan (Japanese fried rice) is available in a small or large portion ($4.50 and $8.50, respectively) and is excellent. The half size makes a generous appetizer for two. The Kara-age ($6.50) is spot-on: a generous portion of the classic Japanese fried chicken, with a lemon wedge garnish and a side of seasoned mayo. We found that it usurped the similar rendition at nearby Kyatchi ($8) both in value and execution. The shattering, bubbly-crisp fried exterior gives way to perfectly moist dark meat. These are McNuggets elevated into art, pairing up perfectly with a mug of cold draft beer (currently Sapporo, Ichiban, and Surly Hell, also available in pitchers).
A very lovely Gomadare Gyu ($5.25) came out almost like a tasting menu course from a (most likely hurtling toward imminent doom) fine-dining establishment. It was a beautiful, dainty plate of thinly sliced, barely-seared beef tenderloin under a thin velvety blanket of sesame sauce, topped with finely chopped scallion and served with lemon — three bites of bliss. The meltingly tender beef with the slightly sweet, nutty, tahini-like sauce recalled some Thai influence, balanced with the acid of the lemon and sharp grassy scallion. This is a must-try small plate, and a steal at just over five bucks.
A variety of small sides are offered as well, making it easy to balance out a rich bowl of broth with some bright, sharp, palate-cleansing counterpoints: we liked both the Spicy Cucumber Salad and the Seaweed Cucumber Salad ($3.50 each) for their simple freshness, and the side of kimchi ($1.50) generated a blast of heat and acidic fermented funk, great for matching up with the mellower Shoyu or Torishio ramens. The thoughtful execution and attention paid to what could easily be throwaway sides was very much appreciated.
In a neighborhood bursting with excellent, focused establishments, Ramen Kazama fits in perfectly, and its counter-service casualness is a welcome addition to the city. Even with a long line, you can get in, have a great bowl of ramen, and get out with a minimal amount of friction — and if you want to linger over a pitcher of cold beer with friends and enjoy the scene, so much the merrier. This is food worth driving across town for.
Ramen specialists in South Minneapolis
3400 Nicollet Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55408
Tue-Thu 5-10 p.m.
Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m.
Sun 5-9 p.m.