For a restaurant with only 10 items on the menu, Tori Ramen (161 Victoria St N, St. Paul) presents the diner with a delightful challenge. There is a 100 percent chance you will have ramen in a non-pork-based broth. There is a 90 percent chance your bowl will contain yu choy (a brassica), an 80 percent chance it will feature an egg, and a 70 percent chance it will have burdock (more on burdock later). But there is only a 10 percent chance it will have kimchi or tahini. The point is, the menu is brief, and though many of the offerings appear similar, the similarity is superficial. Each bowl is fundamentally different.
Tori Ramen’s single-room space is small and humid. On one visit, the windows were fogged up, as if we were about to enter a soup sauna. There are a handful of counter seats and only ten or so small tables, which are so close together that you have to walk sideways between them. The room is decorated in a subtly Japanese style, with none of the cartoonish flourishes found at many other Japanese restaurants. Everything from the scorched-looking wood paneling to the tabletops is eminently Instagram-worthy. We were seated right away on each of our three visits, but with little room for waiting diners, it is hard to imagine what it’s like when Tori Ramen is slammed.
The servers are knowledgeable about the food and happy to explain the restaurant’s pork-free philosophy and introduce the more exotic ingredients, a few of which are not generally found in other local ramen shops. For example, burdock, which sits in for bamboo shoots, is considered an invasive weed in Minnesota but is relatively common in Asian food.
Compared to the more traditional ramen at Obento-Ya, Zen Box, or Masu, where poultry plays a supporting role, if any at all, Tori Ramen’s delivers a flavor profile that stands out as unique locally. The bird appears not in a cameo, but as a character actor who can do some really interesting and diverse things. This is surely to the credit of Chef Jason Dorweiler, who worked at Unideli and was a key factor in their rise to prominence in the local ramen scene.
Let’s start with some overall observations. As we’ve said, there is no pork. There is also very little seaweed, and not a single pink-and-white fish cake. This in no way prevents Tori Ramen from putting out some superb food. All of the broth had umami to spare, and the bowls came together with balance and remarkable depth of flavor. In most bowls, yu choy brings the vegetal element, burdock tastes sweet and earthy, and eggs add richness. Most importantly, the noodles were outstanding — squiggly, chewy, and with a light alkalinity. You will finish these noodles, and fast.
The Chicken Noodle Soup ($12) is the basic bowl. The broth had a fresh onion taste in front of an underlying sweetness hinting at root vegetables. It makes a convincing mission statement for a ramen place that doesn’t use pork. If you are the kind of person who dutifully orders tonkatsu whenever you eat ramen, start here, and Tori Ramen will surprise you with its poultry prowess.
Bali Bali ($13) takes the richness to a creamy and nutty level with the addition of tahini. Shiny globules of scallion and chili oil float on top of the broth. Szechuan pepper brings a numbing heat, though more than one diner wished there were chili peppers on the table to dial it up further.
The Salted Duck ($15), adorned with threads of pickled carrot, wisps of sorrel, and chrysanthemum leaves, has a dark-meat gaminess. This dish had an aroma more like traditional ramen than did many of the other bowls we tried.
The Best Seller ($12) is the vegan option on the menu, and while it was good, it didn’t rise to the same heights as the other bowls we tried. It was missing a complexity of flavor, which is always a danger when animal-based ingredients are left out, especially when vegan and non are tasted side-by-side. The fermented mushrooms, in particular, were a little too funky for the rest of the bowl. One had a gritty feel, as if it hadn’t been rinsed properly.
The Kor Dee Yuh (Korean Ramen, $13) was another standout. It had tremendous flavor accented by excellent house kimchi and black-garlic oil. The smear of fermented bean paste on the side of the bowl divided the table. Some of us thought its funk played well with the kimchi, and others felt it upset the balance of the bowl.
Chef Jason Dorweiler knows what he’s doing. Each bowl was well-balanced, with sweetness, umami, funk (where appropriate), and salt. Some bowls are by design louder than others, such that there is something for every palette. The portions and prices felt right, and the service was mostly great. Though on one visit, the bowls came out one at a time. The first bowl arrived quickly, and the other three dribbled slowly out of the kitchen. And one bowl came out a little cooler than we would have liked.
There is a single seat at the kitchen counter where you can watch how the soup is made. Our favorite experience at Tori Ramen (clocking in at just under 20 minutes, in and out) was a solo outing in that seat. If your friends are all busy or won’t return your calls, just go alone. Eating ramen is a slurpy, splashy business anyway.
A pork-free ramen shop
161 Victoria St N
St. Paul, MN 55104
BAR: Beer and wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $7-$15
NOISE LEVEL: Din
Sun, Tue-Thu 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4 p.m.-11 p.m.
Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4 p.m.-12 a.m.