Bone broth is having a bit of a moment (although one could reasonably ask if there has ever been a time when bone broth wasn’t a critical part of cooking), with a nod not only toward better flavor but possibly toward better nutritional content. When bones are simmered slowly over a long period of time, the flavor of a broth deepens. Many also believe that bone broth has additional health benefits, although there isn’t currently any research to support those claims.
Into this moment comes Abrothecary, the brainchild of Andrew Ikeda. Ikeda is chef-owner at Lake & Irving and a butcher at Lowry Hill Meats. He’s formed this broth and soup venture, which is scheduled to be at the Mill City Farmers Market every other week throughout the season (the link lists the dates).
A recent visit to the Mill City Market found a selection of four broths as well as pesto. We opted to try the free-range chicken broth ($8) and the ramen broth ($10), sold in containers that held a little over two cups. The chicken broth was rich and golden and smooth in flavor. It would be excellent as a base for a vegetable soup or as a cooking liquid for pasta or veggies, or even as a poaching liquid for more chicken. This is not a broth that was prepared using shortcuts or cheats.
The ramen broth, we were told, was all you’d need to make a bowl of homemade ramen. Just add noodles and whatever protein and vegetables you choose. This turned out to be correct. The broth came out of the container as a solid, gelatinous lump that quickly melted down into a golden-brown aromatic broth with light touches of garlic and ginger. Combined with a few other ingredients, such as fresh ramen, mushrooms, pork belly, and a poached egg, it was hearty and comforting, if not as exciting as the offerings at places like Ramen Kazama.
But one thing that gave us pause was the price. A recipe on the Mill City Market’s website for a risotto that is said to feed eight to 10 people calls for five cups of broth. Assuming two cups or just slightly more per container, you’d need to buy three containers of chicken broth — that’s $24. Even assuming that you could store one cup for another use, you’ve spent $20 for broth for your risotto, and you still need to purchase the other ingredients.
Are these broths high quality? Absolutely. Are they worth the price? That depends. Some would argue that the time involved in creating a broth like this at home makes the Abrothecary product well worth the price. People who routinely do slow-simmered, long-cooking broths themselves may think harder about taking the plunge.
Tucked into a short strip of shops in the Nokomis neighborhood of Minneapolis, Sassy Spoon is a little hard to find. But once you enter, noticing large bright spoons painted on the wall, getting a warm welcome from the staff, and hearing blues coming from the speakers, you know you’re in the right place. Like its former incarnation as a food truck, Sassy Spoon is equal parts youthful exuberance and old soul. In another commonality, the stationary eatery is a winner.
Owner Tamara Brown permanently parked her food truck and opened the restaurant this past February in the space formerly occupied by 3 Tiers. Brown, a holistic dietician, serves up gluten-free fare featuring complex carbohydrates and lean, locally sourced, sustainable meats. Brown is on a mission to show that healthful, wholesome food can boast big, bold flavors and leave customers happy and full.
In general, Brown and her staff are making good on that promise. Sassy’s signature dish — Miso-Braised Pork ($13) — sounds heavy, but rises above. The pork (above) is tender, slightly sweet, savory, and not the least bit fatty. With vinegary slaw and fresh greens, the dish is impeccably balanced and deeply satisfying. The same is true of Southern-tinged Spiced Braised Beef ($16) served with expertly prepared bitter greens. A generous accompaniment of pickled ginger ties the dish together and gives it a funky kick.
We’re also fans of Sassy’s Thai-style chicken curry ($14) heaped atop “cauliflower fried rice.” Frankly, we were skeptical of the rice substitute, but the finely chopped and semi-firm cauliflower added texture and depth of flavor. We’re sold. Plus, the chicken was succulent, and the red curry was appropriately sweet and spicy.
In the ebb and flow of food trends, some things are worth letting fade away (sriracha aioli, “kobe” burgers, fancy banh mi) and some things are worth holding on to for dear life. Reasons to hang on may be as simple as “this is really good” or as significant as “this makes life…better.” Ramen in the MSP, real ramen made from scratch, is of the latter disposition. While some may argue about the authenticity of the current ramen offerings in the MSP, to debate this point is to miss The Point entirely. In these times, a thoughtfully made bowl of ramen is always a good thing.
While the parameters for what makes a good bowl of ramen are largely a matter of opinion, there are rules. The foundation of a good bowl of ramen is a stock that is made from scratch: This means bones, aromatics (like onions and leeks), and sometimes an accent component like mushrooms, miso, katsuobushi (a resin-like seasoning made from bonito that has been smoked, fermented, and dried), and seaweed. Noodles are an equally important component of the ramen experience.
Whether they start out as fresh or dried, a good noodle will properly absorb a hot ramen stock without turning to mush too soon. Something special happens when you slurp noodles, as you should, from a bowl of hot stock: While tasting a spoonful can give you the big picture of a particular stock’s character, the act of slurping noodles aerates the stock, opening it up and telling you the details, like decanting wine. Ramen accoutrements often include, but are not limited to, meat, eggs, fresh and / or pickled vegetables, and nori. None of these accoutrements should be fighting for the spotlight. Rather, these should be thoughtfully chosen to complement the bowl of ramen as a whole. After all, there’s more to ramen than a perfectly cooked noodle…ahem. And so, the very best bowls of ramen are the ones that work well as a whole. A good bowl of ramen is a perfect world in a bowl.
On Mondays Obento-Ya, tucked in a commercial intersection of Minneapolis’ Como neighborhood near the U of M, sells their Ginger Pork Ramen for $10 a bowl. The Obento-Ya space is meticulously clean and seating is tight. The service is very matter-of-fact, which bodes well for those on a tight lunch schedule. The Ginger Pork Ramen is served in an oblong shaped white china bowl, a modern presentation choice that immediately eliminates any expectations one may have, if any, for a more traditional bowl of ramen.
The contents of the bowl are minimal: stock, noodles, seaweed, and pork. The serving size is a conservative portion which, considering the strength of the flavors in this bowl, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The soup base is a salty and full-flavored pork stock that opens up to a smoky and fishy character when slurped and carried by softly chewy and pale yellow noodles. With the multitude of ramen choices happening around the MSP, this ramen is a decent meal if you’re in the area, but not worth going out of your way.
Obento-Ya, 1510 SE Como Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55414; 612.331.1432
Just beyond the western edge of the U of M campus, at the intersection of East Hennepin Avenue and 4th Street SE, is Masu Sushi & Robata, initially shaped by Chef Tim McKee of La Belle Vie. As one would expect from the James Beard Award-winning chef, Masu’s Pork Belly Ramen ($12.50) is damn near perfect for a Western style of ramen, heavily influenced by the restaurant world’s current wonder boy David Chang of Momofuku in New York City.
Masu’s ramen is built upon a rich porky stock and carried by perfectly chewy noodles which are brought in fresh from the Los Angeles-based noodle maker Sun Noodle. As if the broth weren’t rich enough, the soup is garnished with a poached egg which, when the yolk is broken and stirred into the stock, creates an outright sublime texture and flavor. Diners who are more interested in the food than the scene should visit Masu during the lunch hour since the dinnertime crowd, clad in skinny jeans and fedoras, can be overwhelming.
Where Masu’s finds its niche as an unapologetic caricature of Japanese pop culture, Zen Box Izakaya successfully operates as an honest-to-goodness Izakaya modeled after the comfortable and fail-safe bars in Japan where businessmen and locals gather after work for food and drinks. Co-owner and Chef John Ng, along with his wife and Front Of House Manager Lina Goh, serve ramen with conviction and authenticity. Zen Box’s “Tonzen” Tonkotsu Ramen ($12) is built on the foundation of a pork stock that’s painstakingly simmered for 36 hours, a labor of love that creates a creamy texture and a deeply layered pork flavor. The soup is garnished with a generous slice of Chashu pork belly that’s been marinated, rolled and butcher tied, and slow roasted until tender.
Where chefs of any culinary background will agree that a particular chef’s level of skill can be judged by his / her ability to cook an egg, Chef John Ng’s thoughtful treatment of his eggs is downright masterful. He begins by cooking a large pot of perfectly soft-boiled eggs which, in restaurant quantities, is a feat in and of itself. Once the eggs are cooled, they’re peeled and then preserved in the rendered fat and marinade from the Chashu. Tasting these soft-boiled eggs in the context of a bowl of ramen is, above all else, a hang-your-head-and-sigh-with-pleasure experience. Thanks to Zen Box’s quality of food and unassuming atmosphere, it should be of no surprise that off-duty local chefs and Japanese food enthusiasts call this place home base. Zen Box Izakaya is located on the corner of Washington Avenue and Portland Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.