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.
Masu Sushi & Robata, 330 E Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55414; 612.332.6278
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.
Zen Box Izakaya, 602 Washington Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55415; 612.332.3936
Midori’s Floating World Cafe, located on Lake Street in Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood, offers their Tokyo Ramen ($11.95) as a fixture on their menu. Tokyo Ramen is based on a pork, chicken, and shoyu broth, with little or no traces of dried fish infused into the stock, making it easily accessible for anyone who is unfamiliar with the sea-like flavors found in Japanese food. The soup is garnished with sliced pork, hard-boiled egg, and fish cake, along with an occasional refreshing and crunchy bite of ginger. Though Midori’s ramen may seem too straightforward at first glance, their bowls are on the mark for an “everyday” meal that’s delicious and comforting even when you’re not looking to challenge your palette.
Midori’s Floating World Cafe 2629 E Lake St, Minneapolis, MN 55406; 612.721.3011
Across town in St. Paul’s emerging Lowertown district, Tanpopo Restaurant offers Pork Ramen ($11.75) on Monday evenings. Where Zen Box’s ramen is comforting and Masu’s ramen is indulgent, Chef Koshiki Yonemura’s ramen shows a beautiful sense of restraint and balance. True to her signature flavor profile, Yonemura’s ramen is clean and light. The flavors in her stock of pork, fish, dried mushrooms, and seaweed are all evenly spaced and balanced, and each has room to breathe. The soup is garnished with slices of perfectly roasted pork tenderloin, spinach, menma (pickled bamboo shoots), and a simple hard-boiled egg. Despite the generous portion, finishing a bowl of Tanpopo’s ramen leaves one feeling refreshed, which might be the most unique trait of Yonemura’s approach to Japanese food.
Tanpopo Restaurant, 308 Prince St #140, St. Paul, MN 55101; 651.209.6527