Lining up on Havana Street for Colorado’s latest noodle craze

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Something big is brewing on South Havana Street.

Make that boiling.

Tucked behind a freestanding 7-Eleven on the corner of Havana and East Jewell Avenue, a diffident storefront with plastic food displays in the windows has been abuzz for the past two weeks. From afar, it begs the optimistic questions: Is it a new Chick fil-A? Shake Shack? Did Voodoo Doughnuts decide to take the plunge and set up shop in the Aurora suburbs?

This time, the city is lining up for Katsu Ramen, Havana Street’s newest — and arguably busiest — restaurant is proving that stringy, broth-coated noodles are not exclusive to clandestine dorm room micro waves, and that Aurora cuisine is starting to ever-so-slightly hang with the best of them.

“In New York and L.A. it (ramen) is kind of a trend right now, but in Denver, there’s almost none.” said Chang Lee, part owner and operator of Katsu Ramen. “That’s why we opened.”

Along with his wife, Yumi Oga,i and business partner, Masumi Higo — the three of whom also own Katsu Sushi on Havana — Lee started serving traditional bowls of Japanese noodles Jan. 26 and has been the center of Havana scuttlebutt since.

“We didn’t expect this,” Chang said of his restaurant’s early success.

Since opening its doors, the fledgling operation has barely been able to keep its head above well-boiled water amid an overwhelming demand. Although the sign on the front door says Katsu Ramen operates daily until 9 p.m., the latest the restaurant has been able to serve customers before running out of food is 7:30 p.m., and most days doors are closed by 6 p.m. During an interview before the restaurant opened for the day on Jan. 30, three parties tried to nab tables only to be asked to wait until Katsu officially opened for business at 11 a.m. By 11:10 a.m., the place was full.

Such demand came as a shock to Lee who said he used to think Japanese ramen — which he described as oily and deep-flavored — was not for everybody, although he pointed to the state’s growing population as a reason for the frenzy.

“It’s not for everybody, that’s what I thought,” he said. “But somehow 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.”

Despite coastal Americans’ knowledge of Tonkatsu — Katsu Ramen’s signature, uber-traiditional menu item — Lee said that the idea to open the new Katsu (which translates to “victory” in Japanese) outpost came about a year ago and was founded in his wife’s inability to find authentic ramen dishes in Denver.

“My wife is Japanese so we started this because she couldn’t find any good Japanese ramen,” he said. “We’ve been living in Denver for about 15 years and she has always tried to find a good ramen restaurant, but there are really few. So this makes my wife very happy, and it’s not about money — she really enjoys it.”

Lee said that passion for quality Japanese food is a pillar of the business and something he aims to share with his customers.

“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.

And based on the restaurant’s first, chaotic week of business, it seems the metro area is replete with fast learners. However, Lee said he firmly wants to express to his customers — many of whom are American and only know ramen to be of the two-minute-ready, microwavable variety — that preparing such traditional dishes takes time. And a lot of it.

“A lot of people are angry,” he said. “People in line who we turn down 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.”

A typical batch of Tonkatsu ramen broth takes between 12 and 15 hours to perfect, according to Lee, so once it’s gone, it’s not a matter of simply whipping up some more.

“We’re boiling and boiling pretty much all day — it’s very time-consuming,” he said.

Katsu’s head chef, Shinsuke Hirao, who owned and operated a ramen franchise for 18 years in Osaka, Japan, slaves over vats of the necessary salty liquid, often starting at about 7 a.m. and not leaving until after 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.

Lee said he’s thrilled with the initial public response to Hirao’s cooking, but has already reached out to other ramen chefs in Japan to try to convince them to come to Aurora in an attempt to meet the ballooning demand.

Gayle Jetchick, executive director of the Havana Business Improvement District, said the restaurant’s near-instant success does not surprise her, given the increasingly diverse makeup of the surrounding area.

“Since this is a ‘mom-and-pop’ ethnic restaurant and this is Havana where everyone goes crazy for ethnic restaurants, it makes it a bit of a challenge logistically because everyone wants to try it,” she said. “But if you have two really good ethnic places in this corridor like they (the Katsu owners) do, you’re going to be successful.”