Twin Cities restaurants serve up memorable variations on ramen, the iconic Japanese comfort food.
Innovative restaurants in New York and Tokyo, like David Chang’s Momofuku and Chef Ivan Orkin’s Ivan Ramen, spark mixed reactions about the “authenticity” of different ramen dishes.
Consumers debate about the best noodles to slurp up and which traditional broth recipes are the tastiest. While the debates are sour, the food itself is warm, accessible and playful.
Ramen transcends categorization: You can just as easily find it at a street-side noodle shop as an upscale sushi bar.
The different atmospheres of, Obento-ya, Masu Sushi & Robata and UniDeli demonstrate ramen-shop variety. As the battles rage on, these three spots near the University of Minnesota’s campus continue to serve up smiles.
Obento-ya Japanese Bistro
Obento-ya, on Como Avenue, is the perfect campus date night spot. The simple, clean flavors of the dishes match the minimalist aesthetic of the restaurant.
The interior sports sleek serving ware and bamboo countertops, and the Zen atmosphere continues onto a wooden patio housing a small garden dappled with rustic animal statues.
The restaurant, City Pages’ 2014 Best Ramen winner, boasts an impressive sake menu and fast, no-frills service. It serves robata and sushi in addition to three types of ramen.
While the Karaka-tantan ramen with spicy miso broth’s vegetable content is limited to a few mushrooms, the soup feels light and thin. It is flavorful without being too salty. The bowl is brimming with silky and springy noodles that serve as a nest for an egg (for $1 extra).
Obento-ya’s boiled egg stays separate from the broth: The deceptively hard-boiled texture of the white hides a perfectly gelatinous yolk that coats the noodles like a warm blanket.
A meal at Obento-ya leaves you feeling satisfied and refreshed.
Obento-ya Japanese Bistro
1510 Como Ave. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414
Masu Sushi & Robata
James Beard award winning chef Tim McKee conceived the concept and recipes behind Masu Sushi & Robata. Despite its nightlife façade, Masu serves up sustainable sushi and time-intensive ramen.
McKee said the kombu, chicken, dried mushroom and pork bone-based broth takes over ten hours to prepare. This stock serves as the base for all four ramens on the menu.
Chefs add curry paste to the popular tonkatsu curry ramen to give it a sweet and savory edge, mirroring the Japanese ketchup that sits atop the dish’s fried pork cutlet.
Conscious of the ramen trends in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo, McKee uses alkali noodles and tops the dish off with a creamy soft poached egg cooked at a low temperature, 62 degrees Celsius, for an hour — which McKee said is a technique the restaurant’s cooks learned from David Chang at Momofuku.
With its breaded meat and Chinese broccoli, the curry ramen is tasty and accessible to a Western palate, reminiscent of fried chicken and collard greens. The kimchi ramen is also worth a try; it truly tastes of sour and salty fermented Korean veggies.
Masu Sushi & Robata
330 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55414
In the heart of United Noodles, an Asian Grocery store near the Seward neighborhood, is UniDeli. Co-owner Eric Fung and chef and manager Jason Dorweiler recently worked together to transform the hidden gem into a full-on noodle counter that features nine varieties of ramen.
They used “Ramen Monday” events to test their innovations, many of which are now available on the regular menu.
UniDeli’s ramens tend to have explosive flavors and rich broths. It’s hard to tell where a sour bite or sudden jolt of spice come from.
Dorweiler creates beautiful and innovative dishes. He said that a lot of his ideas germinate with online research.
“The internet is a very valuable tool,” he said.
The newest ramen entitled “Dramen,” which Dorweiler called “drama in a bowl,” features a combination of three popular ramen flavors.
“The idea is the three [ramens] fighting,” Dorweiler said.
While combining multiple broths and sauces in the bowl is potentially chaotic, the “dramen” is a successful blast of flavors and textures. The buttery pork belly, firm noodles imported from Japan, bright green bok choy and salty shoyu egg deliver the “stick-to-your-ribs” feeling that all good comfort food should.
Fung, co-owner of the family-run business, said that he sees UniDeli as an introduction to a new cuisine.
“I found that the UniDeli is kind of a gateway drug to Asian food,” he said.
The restaurant’s vibe is casual and fun with a diverse demographic of patrons sticking post-it messages on the walls as they eat among the aisles.
2015 E. 24th St., Minneapolis, MN 55404