Has anyone else been watching the ramen trend in New York City and wondering if maybe this is the one — this is the national trend that’s just going to give the Twin Cities a pass and fly right on over?
Not full-on fretting about it. Just giving it a little thought every once in a while, like, “Hey. How come we don’t have our own ramen restaurant yet?” Maybe it’s just me? Probably not.
We’ve got ramen, of course. We’ve got ramen at Zen Box Izakaya, Masu Sushi & Robata, Moto-i, Tanpopo, even in the skyways. We’ve got enough ramen to get into some Internet-based chest-thumping about which chef makes the best and, of course, which diner best understands nuances of the noodle and slurping the aerated broth. (Side note: If you wanted to create something for foodies to argue about, you really couldn’t do better than ramen. It’s an accessible but complex dish with roots in a culture that takes the precision and ritual of food seriously.)
But now we’re one step closer to our own temple dedicated to noodles and broth. We’ve got Ramen Mondays at UniDeli, inside United Noodles.
Since March, Sophear Ek and Jason Dorweiler, who both work at UniDeli full-time, have been taking over the deli every Monday evening, when it had previously been closed. And they serve up six kinds of ramen, nothing else except for some chili-soaked, meaty Korean chicken wings — a little something to chew on in between slurps of soup and noodles.
On Monday nights, it’s just Ek behind the counter and Dorweiler in the kitchen, keeping the massive, steaming hot bowls coming. “We get a different crowd on Mondays than the rest of the week,” Ek said. “It’s more foodies and hipsters.”
If Ramen Mondays take off, Ek and Dorweiler have a business plan they’re ready to put into action to bring a dedicated ramen restaurant to the Twin Cities. Ek has some thoughts on why no one else has done that yet. “Ramen is an art form, and it’s really hard to do if you want to stay true to the tradition,” she says. “We’re perfectionists about it.”
Dorweiler, having gotten his start cooking in the Marines and then at True Thai and Tiger Sushi, recently took over the kitchen at UniDeli. He hasn’t made too many changes to the regular menu, yet, but his Ramen Monday creations indicate a little bit about the direction he might take things: a little more daring, with French techniques layered on top of Japanese tradition.
Take the tantanmen ramen ($11, above), fiery hot and beloved by ramen aficionados. Dorweiler starts with pork broth and a sesame-chile tare (the sauce that seasons ramen broth). He tops his chewy noodles with ground pork and a poached egg — all very traditional. Then he adds flash-fried enoki mushrooms — little crispy-chewy sticks that add even more texture and variety and soak up the broth just as well as the noodles.
All of Dorweiler’s ramens start with a house-made broth and are enhanced with components that take him all week to prepare, from caramelized onions to roasted pork cheek to his own kimchi.
Among the most popular bowls on Monday nights is the tonkotsu black ramen ($11, above). It starts with the traditional pork broth, but caramelized onions and black garlic oil — not a drizzle, but a slick floating on the surface — transform it into something hauntingly dark and rich. It has a strong charred, almost ashy, flavor that wavers between captivating and off-putting.
The spice level is high across the menu. (Go ahead, leave comments about how this is nothing compared to that ramen you had once in Sapporo. But the rest of you, you’ve been warned.) But it’s a deep flavorful spice that penetrates the whole of each dish. The shio yuzu kosho ramen ($12, top photo) is based on a hot, citrusy mix of peppers and yuzu peels, balanced by the rich, silky roasted pork cheek. And the kimchi ramen ($11, below) is a big bowl of comfortingly funky, tangy heat.
When we visited, the menu included a vegan shoyu ramen, relying on smoked onions to replace the smokiness of the fish stock, and mushrooms and seaweed to boost the umami flavor. Dorweiler said he hopes to continue to add more vegan and vegetarian options. The menu will change up more or less monthly to give the kitchen more room to experiment and grow and — fingers crossed — build up a repertoire and a following big enough to allow Ramen Mondays to expand to its own space, seven days a week.
We’ve got ramen, so do we really have an unfilled ramen niche in the Twin Cities?
“People aren’t creative enough,” Dorweiler said. “And that’s what I hope will separate us from other ramen chefs in the Twin Cities.”
Ramen Mondays at UniDeli
2015 E 24th St
Minneapolis, MN 55404
Chef: Jason Dorweiler
ENTREE RANGE: $11–12
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes (limited)