Photos by Eliesa Johnson
Two bowls of Ramen
If 2015 was the year our restaurants more fully embraced Italian, 2016 will be the year we run to ramen. And why not? Ramen provides similar noodle-based comfort. Tried and true bowls (of the authentic, non-instant sort) can be found at Tanpopo, Masu, moto-i, Zen Box, and Unideli, but the trend is ready to pop off thanks to newbie Ramen Kazama and a slew of forthcoming joints.
Chef-owner Matthew Kazama (formerly of Fuji Ya) opened his eponymous counter-service spot at Nicollet and 34th last fall. The space is spare but stylish in that hipster-minimalist way, with the requisite Minnesota state outline on the wall. There are only 46 seats, including a small kitchen bar and window counters, and they fill up fast—when I visited, Kazama hadn’t quite figured out how to avoid the need for some patrons to stand and try to slurp their noodles.
Just like at the noodle shops in Japan, you walk in, order at the counter, and then (hopefully) find a seat while waiting for the ramen to be brought to you. The menu is simple: five different bowls of ramen and various other dishes, including karaage fried chicken, spicy cucumber salad, and onigiri rice balls.
In the early days, the restaurant tried to be open for lunch and dinner, but it’d never make it to dinner—people jammed the place early and ate everything that had been prepped for the day. Now there’s no lunch, just dinner starting at 5 p.m. (though the line starts forming around 4:30). And yet Kazama still has days where it closes early because it’s out of food. Such is our local lust for real ramen.
Kazama’s bowls are generous, its broth beautifully rich and thickly flavored. One highlight is the tonkatsu (a.k.a. the Southside) pork broth, which has a silky depth and is a nourishing spoonful on its own. Accompanying the broth are slices of well-turned pork belly, a semi-hard egg, and, of course, ramen noodles. The noodles here are the Myojo brand from Japan, which are on the thinner side. Personally I like a heftier noodle, but these are fine, and the broth more than makes up for it. The shoyu bowl (a.k.a Old School) has a thinner broth that is no less flavorful, and the chili-redolent karamiso bowl (a.k.a. Magma) of bright-red broth decked with ground pork will warm you to your toes.
Ramen Kazama takes the necessary time to make its rich broth, and that should be respected. I have no problem waiting for something well crafted, and am happy to let this tiny shop work out the kinks that arise from being slammed all the time. Do I think it’s the end-all-beat-all champ that eclipses all other ramen in town? Nope. But it’s a swell fit in the local landscape, and I appreciate that it’s planted a flag for the standalone ramen shop. With all the potential noodle places debuting this year, the game being brought should be fierce. I look forward to the slurp.
Now open/coming soon: Second-wave T.C. Ramen Shops
This new joint in Northeast offers ramen and other Asian favorites like Korean wings and bao buns. They have had a Boss Ramen with crispy fried Thai chilies, fish sauce, and a raw egg. 1032 3rd Ave. NE, Mpls., domogastro.com
At press time, this spinoff of Red Lantern Sushi in White Bear Lake was prepping for a January opening in the old Fuji Ya space in downtown St. Paul. 465 N. Wabasha St., St. Paul, redlanternsushi.com
Hong Kong Noodle House
Also prepping to open at press time, this shop will take up half of Eat Street’s Shuang Hur Asian market. The owners are promising lots of noodles and a full-service atmosphere. 2710 Nicollet Ave. S., Mpls.
Zen Box Izakaya
Owners John Ng and Lina Goh spent late last year traveling around Japan eating a lot of ramen. They are currently looking for the right location to open a ramen-only shop, and hopeful for a 2016 opening date.