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Nikkei View

Oodles of noodles: Ramen has quietly become hip in Colorado

Erin and I have always been wistfully jealous of our friends in Los Angeles and San Francisco, for lots of reasons but not least the fact that they can eat killer ramen any night of the week. We have our fave ramen-yas in both San Francisco’s Japantown and LA’s Little Tokyo (“ya” means “shop”). There’s also great ramen to be had on the East Coast—I’ve slurped up wonderful noodles and steamy broth in New York City’s funky little “Japantown” district on the lower East side.

In Denver, for many years we had only one ramen-ya: Oshima Ramen, which was good (albeit pricey) when it opened about a decade ago, and has over the past few years become increasingly dirtier and greasier, and the ramen less special and more bland. As it went downhill, it gave us less and less reason to drive all the way across town for a sad bowl of noodles. Some people (including some food critics who don’t know better) think it’s “the real thing” but uh, sorry.

So Erin and I have made it a holy mission to find good ramen without flying to the coast, and some brave Japanese restaurants have met the challenge just in the past year or so.

The best we’ve found in the area is Okole Maluna, a Hawai’ian restaurant an hour north of Denver in the tiny eastern plains town of Windsor, whose owners serve a killer Saimin (Hawai’ian-style ramen). There’s a very good, very authentic ramen served in a little take-out food court in Boulder called Bento Zanmai. Although it’a a bit unorthodox, the miso-ginger ramen served at the late Hisashi “Brian” Takimoto’s East Colfax restaurant, Taki’s, is very good. And now, even the fast-foody Kokoro is serving ramen (but at only one location, on 6th and Broadway, and only after 4 pm). We keep hearing about a Korean-run Japanese restaurant in Longmont that we haven’t made it to. But as you can see, we’re willing to drive for a good bowl of ramen, so we’ll get there eventually.

Imagine our surprise, then, to find that there’s been a veritable explosion of ramen happening right under our nose (is that a triple mixed metaphor?)—and that it’s not ramen made by Asians!

This trend was actually started by an Asian chef, David Chang, a Korean American kid trained in French culinary arts who apprenticed in a ramen-ya in Tokyo on the first floor of a homeless shelter. He opened a noodle bar in New York, Momofuku, which became a nationwide sensation when Chang was profiled in the New Yorker in 2008. (Momofuku, coincidentally, was named after the man who invented instant ramen, the staple of college campuses for decades.)

In the past year, the ripples from Chang’s ascension haas vibrated through Colorado. The area has seen the opening of Happy Noodle House in Boulder, the latest in Boulder chef Dave Query’s restless search for hot foodie trends (he’s had hits with oyster bars, yuppie Mex, yuppie diner food, Cuban and some others—he’s got cuisine ADD), XO in the LoDo Jet Hotel, and local celebrity chef Frank Bonanno‘s Bones at 7th and Grant.

We would never have gone to check out Bones if we hadn’t been assigned to try out the food by Asian Avenue Magazine, the small pan-Asian community mag that we write food features for.

Frankly, I was skeptical … an Italian chef from New Joisey trained in French culinary arts whose signature restaurant, Mizuna (right around the corner from Bones) is a popular upscale hangout with its signature dish, Lobster Mac and Cheese, and who operates a high-end Italian restaurant on the other side of the corner (Bones sits on the corner), Luca D’Italia and another Italian eatery, Osteria Marco in tony Larimer Square downtown, was making ramen?

Bones, he announced, was going to be a place where foodies could just hang out and the food would be fun and (relatively speaking) affordable. He wanted to open a noodle house. He took great pains not to call it a Japanese restaurant or even an Asian restaurant or an Asian fusion restaurant. He just called it a noodle house, and because he likes Japanese food (and obviously knows a lot about it), it happens to serve some dishes that are informed by and are built upon Japanese culinary traditions.

Everyone there gets it: No one thinks of Bones (Bonanno’s Soprano-esque nickname) as an Asian restaurant. It’s certainly not an Americanized “faux Asian” restaurant that serves second-rate food for Asiaphiles, like Tokyo Joe’s.

My sensitivity radar was on full blast when we walked into the tiny, comfy corner joint. It didn’t have any phony Asian stuff on the wall. Good. One Asian behind the counter, a sous-chef who was working her ass off.

Everyone else was working their asses off too, even on a slowish night. Bonanno was off… or was visiting one of his other restaurants. His office, which he shares with his wife and partner, Jacqueline, is upstairs, somewhere close to where the dishwasher works.

We were served some incredible dishes:

Starters included Bone Marrow—a salted serving of roasted veal femur where the diner spreads the soft flavorful marrow on a slice of toast. It’s not something you’d find anywhere else, Asian or otherwise.

Even the familiar-sounding items have a Bonanno-twist: The roasted pork Char Siu Bao pork buns available at many dim sum restaurants are served here either with BBQed Suckling Pig or Pork Belly, with the meat placed on top of soft pillows of folded steamed dough, like a pork-bun taco.

Japanese Shishito Peppers are also available as an appetizer, roasted and salted to bring out its low-level heat—much more interesting than a typical Japanese restaurant’s bowl of edamame.

The Hamachi Tartare is flavored like Hawai’ian poki, served on a slice of avocado, drizzled with an amazing, subtle-tasting Shiso oil and topped off with a tempurafried Shiso leaf. The Shiso oil was so good we licked our plates clean after using the leftovers to sop up the pork bun bread.

Just these appetizers told us Bonanno and his creative crew know Japanese food, and aren’t jerking around with it. They’re diving deeper into the food culture of Japan than most sushi bars in the area. Who the hell cooks up shishito peppers and uses tempura’ed shiso leaves as a topper for raw fish?

The main event is Bones’ list of noodle dishes, and we had two winners: Japanese Soba buckwheat noodles topped with seared rare Ahi tuna with summer squash that was so flavorful we didn’t need much of the accompanying Grapefruit Ponzu sauce; and Bonanno’s awesome signature dish, Ramen with Poached Lobster and Edamame in a broth that washes over your tastebuds with buttery richness and just a hint of miso.

The noodles, chewy and thicker than the usual curly ramen, are flown in fresh from Japan. The result is a dish that’s not Japanese or French, but authentically delicious.

We ended the meal with Bonanno’s custom soft serve ice cream which he infuses with chocolaty Ovaltine or Fruit Loops (you can really taste the cereal), or twist them both together, a symbolic finish to the twisted cultural cuisine that’s served at Bones.

The result of Bonanno’s noodling around, for anyone who knows Asian food is a delightful surprise: The ingredients are all familiar but put together in a way that’s brand-new.

We’ve been back since that night, and we’ll go again. It’s not really a cure for our jones for authentic ramen, but it’ll do in a pinch!

By the way, the ramen revolution continues in Denver with the opening of the Den Deli and Seafood Market on Nov. 15. Owned by Toshi and Yazu Kizaki, the brothers who’ve made an institution out of Sushi Den on South Pearl Street in Washington Park, then opened a Sushi Den in Japan and Izakaya Den a block south of the original Sushi Den, the new deli will be right across the intersection from Sushi Den and among other delights, serve up—you guessed it—ramen.

The noodles are sure to be thick and chewy like the Lobetser ramen at Bones, because Bonanno gets his ramen from Toshi, who probably imports plane-loads full of supplies from japan every day.

*This article was originally published in NIKKEI VIEW: The Asian American Blog on July 26, 2006.

© 2009 Gil Asakawa

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This series presents selections from Gil Asakawa’s “Nikkei View: The Asian American Blog,” which presents a Japanese American perspective on pop culture, media, and politics.

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