It’s no longer a dormitory romance.
Over the past decade, that has become a truth regarding a foodstuff formerly stigmatized as one of shoestring budgets and clandestine dorm room hotplates.
The romantic affair brooding between the American public and salty bowls of ramen noodles has developed in much the same way as the bowls themselves are spun out: slowly. And though leisurely in its arrival, American ramen infatuation is hitting a pork-flavored fever pitch.
Unless you’ve been under a chicken nugget for the past few years (which, as the continuous proliferation of Applebee’s suggests, many Americans seem to blindly do) it’s no secret that ramen has systemically wormed, squirmed and slurped its way to sit beside rice-covered rolls of yellowtail as one of the country’s most popular Far East fares. With devout camps of die-hards in various coastal metropolises, the dish formerly reserved for power outages and 2 a.m. drunchies has become one of the hottest trends in the culinary world. It’s, like, boiling hot.
With the help of many a simmering bubble, noodle houses have systemically raced their way toward America’s greasy heartland with dozens of ramen restaurants now spread throughout the metro area: Uncle. Tokio. Sakura House. All three of those soupy juggernauts have popped up in Denver within the past five years, and all have daily wait lists full of ravenous Denverites intent on getting their fix. There’s even rumors of a new ramen pad opening within the new Stanley Marketplace, Aurora’s very own version of Denver’s The Source set to open later this year. Slurp on, Aurora.
To anyone who knows who James Beard is, ramen’s rampant prevalence is no secret. The trend first writhed onto American menus in 2004 following the explosion of now-renowned chef David Chang’s Noodle Bar and Momofuku restaurants in Manhattan. Later featured in PBS’s “The Mind of a Chef” with cranky cuisine genius Anthony Bourdain, Chang was one of the first to dip into the fast-casual trend of dining far before the likes of a certain Colorado burrito chain. And it wasn’t just through lampshade-sized bowls of soup.
“From them (Momofuku) there’s a pork belly bun in every restaurant in New York and pork belly went through the roof quite soon after they became famous for theirs,” said Jorge de la Torre, dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University in Denver.
On top of successfully porkifying the American psyche, Chang has since inspired hundreds of chefs around the country to wade into the noodly pool. And while Chang provided the impetus, de la Torre believes part of the appeal of ramen is that it doesn’t require the technical skills or cultural knowledge needed to produce other ethnic fare like sushi. Not to mention the relatively low cost of production, which provides a tasty financial incentive.
“Sushi is a whole different animal, because there’s no basis in most chefs’ training for it,” he said. “You don’t learn how to roll sushi or make sushi rice in typical French-style cooking, but you do learn how to make soups, broth, stocks and pasta. So if you get the basics of noodles and broth, how to layer flavors and use seaweed, it’s very similar — soup is soup.”
But despite the reported lack of necessary advanced skills, making traditional Japanese ramen is far more complicated than just pressing a button on a microwave. Just ask Chang Lee, the Aurora restaurateur who has barely been able to keep his head above well-boiled water after opening the instantly busy Katsu Ramen on Havana Street in January.
“We’re boiling and boiling pretty much all day — it’s very time consuming,” he said.
He’s not kidding. Katsu’s head chef, Shinsuke Hirao, who owned and operated a ramen franchise for 18 years in Osaka, Japan, slaves over vats of specialized bone broth starting at about 7 a.m. and not letting up until after about 1 a.m. the following day, according to Lee. He said that Hirao, who only moved to the U.S. from Japan on Dec. 27, brought two densitometers — pen-sized machines that are dipped into ramen broth and dictate the liquid’s density — with him from Japan and checks them dozens of times throughout the day.
“Our main focus is serving real, traditional Japanese ramen and we kind of try to educate customers with our website, when we advertise or when they come in to the restaurant,” Lee said.
He added that many customers — who only know ramen to be of the two-minute, microwavable variety — don’t understand the time and painstaking effort that goes into their bowl of noodles.
“People in line who we turn down (because we run out of food) will say, ‘why can you not just boil more, you don’t appreciate my business?’ It’s not that, we really appreciate it, but we want to keep this as original and authentic as possible — we don’t want to compromise,” he said.
So what exactly are Hirao, Chang and like-minded ramen chefs serving that justifies hours of labor and has noodle lovers in such a tizzy?
There are several styles of noodle soups served at most ramen establishments, many of which feature traditional, bone-based broth and stringy, but not mushy, noodles. While soy-based broths Shoyu and Miso both enjoy modest followings, pork-based Tonkatsu stands alone as fan favorite probably because Americans are willing to scarf down anything with even the slightest of ties to almighty bacon. Tonkatsu is one of the most traditional ramen renditions, as well as the most popular at Katsu in Aurora, something that came as a surprise to Lee who always thought the dish to be too deeply flavored and overly fatty for the American palate.
“A lot of customers are coming to try Tonkatsu, maybe because Colorado is growing so there are a lot of people from the East Coast and West Coast, where a lot of people know the dish,” Lee explained.
However, de la Torre said he believes that the recent burgeoning of pork in the American diet may have something to do with Americans’ growing tolerance for the boldness of Tonkatsu and other pork-heavy dishes.
“Many years ago, Tonkatsu may have been too porky, but now I think with that proliferation of pork belly and the real intense fat and bacon in almost every dish that people put out now I think that we are very used to a heavy pork flavor rather than a beef flavor,” he said.
Apart from the exodus of beef in America and the introduction of porkier flavors, de la Torre believes ramen’s agreeable flavor profile provides it with an instinctual attraction.
“People like sweet, fat and salty and a ramen bowl delivers that,” he said. “You get sweetness from the pork and soy and saltiness and fat from the broth. It’s very comforting.”
In Japan, ramen is just that — comfort food. Lee explained that ramen chefs boil their broth all hours of the day, providing night owls with a quick, cheap snack, much like pizza in the U.S. Though it’s not quite there yet, that uber familiarity and affordability is a direction de la Torre believes ramen and it’s slurp-obsessed die-hards could be headed.
“You can get four boxes of mac and cheese or you can get some real, homemade mac and cheese anywhere now and people enjoy it because they like those upscale comfort foods,” he said. “And I think that’s what this ramen thing is going to be.”
As for Lee, he doesn’t care where the trend goes nationally, as long as it continues to fill seats on Havana Street. Although, he said another Japanese chef to accompany a weary and definitely salty chef Hirao would certainly be a plus.