Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico's Sesquipedalian Sybarite. 816 Restaurant Reviews, More Than 6100 Visitor Comments…And Counting!

Gen Kai Japanese Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Gen Kai Japanese Restaurant on Louisiana and Central

In Japan, ramen is so revered that diners line up, sometimes for hours, at ramen houses for homemade noodles tangled with such ingredients as dried fish, pork and chicken.  Connoisseurs make  pilgrimages to a popular ramen museum in Yokohama, not the only museum dedicated to ramen, by the way.  If you’re wondering how the ramen noodle product you purchased as a collegiate at the rate of ten bricks for ten dollars warrants such reverence and respect, you’re in the right ballpark, but not in the right seat. 

Although extremely popular throughout Japan where you can find  it even in vending machines, it’s not the ubiquitous low-brow instant ramen found in Styrofoam packages which warrants such adulation and enthusiasm. That adulation is reserved for ramen which is fresh and handmade with rich, creamy, opaque broths lovingly tended for hours, if not days. It is the consummate comfort food in the Land of the Rising Sun.

The Interior of Gen Kai Japanese Restaurant

In fact, comparing instant ramen to the ramen found in restaurants is akin to comparing the burger on a McDonald’s Happy Meal to a wagyu steak at a posh steakhouse. While the packaged ramen is ready in an instant, it’s teeming with sodium and suspect-sounding ingredients. Ramen house ramen, on the other hand, is the sublime result of cooking from the heart and soul.

In an ever-shrinking world, it was only a matter of time before the ramen house concept made its way across the pond.  The Food Channel, in fact, believes the ramen culture has made its way beyond heavily populated urban areas and has made its way to mainstream America.  That might be an understatement.  Cities both large and small have embraced the ramen culture with some ramen chefs achieving near rock star status.  A ramen shop debuting in New York City yielded a media frenzy and near religious fervor among patrons.

Tonkotsu Ramen

Albuquerque, which often tends to be late to the party, has seen its own explosion of ramen restaurants in 2014…if you can call three restaurants an explosion.  The first to launch was the Mekong Ramen House which offers a diverse and delicious culinary experience showcasing cuisine from several Asian nations…but not Japanese style ramen.  April saw the launch of O Ramen, a traditional Japanese style ramen house serving a sublime Tonkotsu.   Weeks later, the triumvirate was complete with the launch of Gen Kai Japanese restaurant in the International District.

Located in front of Ta Lin Market World Food Fare on Louisiana and Central, Gen Kai is owned and operated by a familiar face in Lily Genka whose previous restaurant venture was the popular UNM area eatery Mirai Japanese Restaurant. Mirai, which specialized in light and healthy cuisine, closed in January, 2014 only to reopen five months later in a new location and under a new name.  Sure to please those of us lamenting Mirai’s closure are the many similarities between the menus at Mirai and Gen Kai.

Spicy Tuna Donburi

As with Mirai, Gen Kai isn’t exclusively a ramen restaurant though it does offer four classes of ramen: shoyu (soy-flavored), miso (fermented soy bean paste), shio (salt) and Tonkotsu (pork).  All ramen dishes include pork char shu (slow grilled pork), dry seaweed, green onion, bamboo shoot, red ginger and egg.  Gen Kai’s menu also offers Udon (a thick wheat flour noodle soup), Donburi, Bento, Curry, Sushi and more. It’s a fairly comprehensive menu

14 May 2014: My benchmark for outstanding ramen starts and ends with the Tonkotsu Spicy Miso from O Ramen.  Quite simply it’s the very best I’ve had.  Gen Kai doesn’t offer a spicy ramen, but you can add a chili bomb, garlic bomb or special hot oil extract to any soup. Its Tonkotsu Ramen, while quite good  isn’t nearly as life-altering as its counterpart at O Ramen.  That doesn’t mean it’s not a good soup with all the soul-warming properties of a good ramen.  The broth for Gen Kai’s Tonkotsu ramen is made from pork bones simmered for hours.  There’s a generous amount of pork swimming in that broth.  Interestingly, Gen Kai adds red ginger (the bright pink pickled ginger which accompanies sushi) to the broth instead of the more conventional shaved ginger root.

Pork Katsu Don

14 May 2014: With the 2013 closure of Kokorao Japanese Restaurant on the heels of the 2010 closure of Noda’s Japanese Cuisine in Rio Rancho, foodies wondered when and where we would get our next fix of donburi, a large bowl of steamed white rice with a variety of toppings.  While Gen Kai offers nine different donburi dishes, unfortunately none are unagi (my favorite).  Donburi, which has been described as “sushi in a bowl,” is so good, aficionados eschew other menu offerings to partake of this simple dish with so many interpretations.  For the truest sushi experience, try the “spicy tuna” (or “spicy salmon),” a compilation of spicy tuna with a chili mayo dressing, avocado, zucchini, nori (seaweed), red ginger and wasabi.  Mix in a little soy sauce, close your eyes and you just might think you’re in sushi heaven.  The donburi is served with miso soup.

23 May 2014:  Nikko Harada, my friend and culinary kindred soul shares my passion for donburi.  Who wouldn’t?  It’s the perfect mishmash of great ingredients thrown together much like Korean bibimbap.  Its also ridiculously easy to prepare if you have a modicum of kitchen skills.  When those ingredients complement one another, this dish sings.  Gen Kai extracts a chorus of flavors from its Pork Katsu Don, a magnificent melange of few and simple ingredients: pork cutlet, scallions, pickled daikon, a soft-boiled egg and rice with a soy flavored sauce (not pure soy sauce, but a sauce “flavored” like soy sauce with more than a hint of what may be teriyaki sauce).  For those of us who consider donburi a comfort food, this one is very satisfying.

Unagi

23 May 2014: The Appetizer and Salad menus, a mishmash of familiar-common and authentic-rare (to Albuquerque), includes a few dishes  Nikko was surprised to see.  At first browse, the wakame salad appears almost too small for two to share.  That’s especially true if you’re accustomed to the mountainous plates of American salads.  A little wakame salad goes a long way.  Wakame, a very healthy type of edible seaweed is extremely green in gradations ranging from bell pepper green to neon green.  It has a very pleasant texture and is as refreshing and clean as any salad you’ll ever have.

23 May 2014:  The sushi menu includes a limited number of nigiri (hand-formed sushi rice topped with sliced seafood) and maki (toasted seaweed nori rolled around vinegar-flavored rice and various fillings, including raw seafood and vegetables) sushi as well as sashimi (sliced fish).  In honor of Nikko’s brother Kiichi who recently graduated from the New Mexico Institute of Technology (NMIT), we shared his favorite sushi–unagi (fresh water eel) nigiri-style.  Unagi, a delicacy in Japanese cuisine, is my favorite too.  Unlike much of the seafood used in sushi, unagi is almost never served rare.  Gen Kai’s rendition is prepared on a grill and is cooked all the way through. Unlike at far too many Japanese restaurants, Gen Kai’s sweet “eel sauce” isn’t “lacquered on” to give the unagi a candied flavor.  Instead, it’s used sparingly to allow diners to enjoy the natural flavors of the “barbecued” eel.

Gyoza

23 May 2014: Gen Kai offers two types of dumplings: a boiled pork wonton dumpling with a spicy peanut sauce  and gyoza, pan-fried chicken or pork pot stickers served without the usual soy-based dipping sauce.  Gyoza, a staple in Japanese cuisine, is always a reliable starter with solid flavor combinations sure to please even the most discriminating palate.  Served six per order, these gyoza won’t fill you up, but they’ll make you very happy.

23 May 2014: During my inaugural visit to Gen Kai, I had the great honor of sitting next to a table of Kirtland Air Force base’s finest noncommissioned officers, one of whom had been stationed in Japan. He gave Gen Kai two resounding thumbs-up, praising its authenticity.  He especially loved the pork katsu curry rice, deep-fried, panko-breaded pork with a generous ladling of Japanese curry.  Japanese curry is the curry even unabashed curry haters will love.  It has none of the piquancy or pungency of Indian curries or the coconut cloyingness of Thai curies, but has its own unique flavor profile.  It’s thick and smooth textured with a resemblance to gravy.  It’s sweeter than Indian curries, but not as sweet as Thai curries and it won’t singe your tongue with piquancy.  Gen Kai’s curry is better than the curry at O Ramen.  The only complaint I have about it is that Nikko and I talked so much, we let our food get cold.  Curry is a dish best served hot…or at least warm.

Pork Katsu Curry Rice

While Mirai once offered a fried tempura green tea ice cream Nikko raves about, Gen Kai offers only the ice cream sans the light and delicate tempura which made it a popular dessert favorite.  Green tea (matcha) ice cream has a distinctive bright color, and a flavor similar to sweetened green tea. Whether or not green tea ice cream inherits the antioxidant properties of green tea, it certainly inherits green tea’s deliciousness.

When you walk into Gen Kai, you’re greeted with a hearty “Irasshaimase!”, an honorific expression welcoming someone (similar to namaste in India).  This greeting shows respect toward the guest by honoring their presence.  Duke City diners will be hearing that greeting quite frequently because this is one Japanese restaurant sure to draw in discerning diners.

Gen Kai Japanese Restaurant
110B Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505 255-0112
LATEST VISIT: 23 May 2014
1st VISIT: 14 May 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tonkotsu Ramen, Miso Soup, Spicy Tuna Donburi, Asian Iced Coffe, Pork Katsu Curry Rice, Green Tea Ice Cream, Gyoza, Unagi (Nigiri), Pork Katsu Don

Gen Kai on Urbanspoon

Izanami – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Izanami01

The pathway to sublime dining at Izanami

“Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words.”
~Marcel Marceau

When the Spaniards first gazed upon the setting sun as it hit the towering snow-capped mountains and appeared to bathe the slopes in a burst of red, they were so moved that the pious Conquistadors exclaimed “Sangre de Cristo,” blood of Christ.  Whether bathed in the spectacular red alpenglow of sunset or in the “like yellow hair of a tigress brindled with pines” gold of autumn aspens as described by D.H. Lawrence, the Sangre de Cristos still move people deeply, stirring their very souls.

The Sangre de Cristos are also spectacular when wispy amorphous clouds dance around the blanket of sky in all its magnificent gradations of blue. That’s the palette from which skies were painted on the day my friends and culinary kindred spirits Franzi Ortega and Nikko Harada joined me for an incredible dining experience at Izanami, the celebrated izakaya-style restaurant at the Ten Thousand Waves resort scant minutes from downtown Santa Fe.

Izanami02

Izanami, an incredibly rare dining experience and more

You don’t have to spend time at Ten Thousand Waves to fully appreciate Izanami, but if you don’t, you might  feel you missed out on a very special place.  The 20-acre Japanese-inspired spa and boutique inn just a few miles from the terminus of the Sangre de Cristo range is transcendent, a tranquil idyll at which you might feel you’re on a mountain retreat in the Land of the Rising Sun instead of one in the Land of Enchantment. The Japanese onsen (thermal baths), spa suites, lodging and restaurant are situated among piñons and junipers where the stillness is punctuated only by birdsong and wind rustling through the trees. 

Opening its doors in November, 2013, Izanami is a meticulously planned, no detail spared, culmination of years of dreams come true for owner Duke Klauck.  Though there are a few parking spots in close proximity to the restaurant, parking in the lower lot near Hyde Park Road provides a back-to-nature option you’ll ultimately appreciate more.  With a 91 step climb over a dirt trail, you’ll not only gain 60-feet of elevation, but you’ll feel renewed and refreshed among nature.  At night the trail is illuminated by Japanese lanterns.

Izanami04

Wakame Salad

As you approach the summit and Izanami comes into view, any notions that you’re still in New Mexico may temporarily dissipate.  Instead of the adobe-hued architecture that so defines Santa Fe style, the elegant edifice housing Izanami is architecturally,  thematically and spiritually Japanese.  The hunter green roof is constructed from some 11,000 tiles procured from the  Aichi prefecture in Japan  It’s only when you look across the vast expanse across the valley and see the adobe stucco tinged homes dotting the distant hillsides that you’ll remember you’re still in New Mexico.

Prefacing the restaurant’s entrance is an elegant waterfall from which rivulets of water cascade in a calming cadence.  Seating options offer a variety of dining experiences.  Weather permitting, there may be no better option than the outdoor patio which offers spectacular views of the Sangre De Cristos.  A tatami (woven straw mat) room provides experiential authenticity with its floor seating (although people of height may not find this option very comfortable).  Sit at the counter and views of a spectacular exhibition kitchen complete with robata  charcoal grill at your beck and call.  Other options range from a communal table to a custom-made private booth.

Izanami05

Daily assortment of pickles

As you peruse the menu, you’ll immediately discover Izanami is not your standard run-of-the-mill Japanese restaurant as Americans have come to stereotype them.  Izanami is an Izakaya which translates literally to “stay sake shop.”  It’s essentially a Japanese tavern or drinking house with a menu of small dishes.  Call it a gastropub, if you will.  Contrary to many American restaurants, Izakaya establishments don’t try to “turn tables” by rushing customers out so others can take their place.  Izakayas are intended to be milieus in which diners can linger with good friends, good food and good drinks.

The good food is in the form of kozara (small plates) which arrive from the kitchen as they’re ready.  It’s become popular to equate kozara with Spanish tapas, but the kozara tradition actually has its genesis in Japanese fishermen using paddles to share food with one another.  Seasonal menus are crafted from locally-sourced meat and produce.  The kitchen is helmed by the phenomenally talented Kim Muller, one of the most credentialed and popular chefs in New Mexico.

Izanami06

Crispy Brussels Sprouts

Perhaps only Andy Rooney, the curmudgeonly commentator on television’s 60 Minutes would dislike Izanami.  Rooney didn’t like food that’s “too carefully arranged; it makes me think that the chef is spending too much time arranging and not enough time cooking. If I wanted a picture I’d buy a painting.”  Everyone else should enjoy the eye-pleasing artful plating. Everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, balance and appearance, a sort of plate syzygy. The balance of color, texture and appearance makes diners give pause to reflect on how great everything looks before their taste buds confirm what their eyes already know.

Having Nikko across the table during our inaugural visit gave us insights as to culinary traditions, preparation styles and ingredients.  She guided our adventure, three separate orders of three items per order, all shared by the three of us.  In nearly three hours of relaxed paced dining, we never felt rushed nor did we ever feel overfull. It was all so un-American.

Izanami09

Seasonal Vegetable Plate with Edamame Hummus and Shiro Miso Dip

Our inaugural triumvirate of deliciousness included a wakame salad, a mound of deeply green wakame (an edible seaweed) surrounded by thinly sliced radishes and drizzled with a ginger wafu dressing.  Scallions and a small tangle of rice noodles completed the artisan salad.  The Wakame, a mild sea vegetable vaguely similar to spinach, comes to life with the mild, yet refreshingly cool dressing.   As if tasting great isn’t enough, the wakame salad is high in vitamins and minerals and is low in fat and cholesterol.  The dime-thin radishes, including daikon, are lightly pickled and are absolutely delicious.

The daily assortment of pickles is not to be missed.  An essential part of the Japanese diet, pickles are served with virtually every traditional meal (along with rice and miso soup).  The versatility of pickles allows them to be used as a condiment, relish, garnish, digestive or palate cleanser.  Moreover, they’re absolutely delicious, in large part to judicious use of pickling spices, brine and salts.  None of the pickles we shared were of the lip-pursing variety.  The pickled cucumbers, for example, have a crunchy texture and a sweet-sour flavor with neither sweet nor sour being overly so.

Izanami10

Nami Burger

In recent years Brussels sprouts have become a trendy, almost de rigueur offering at restaurants of all genre.  Brussels sprouts not only transcend ethnicity, they’re considered among the healthiest foods in the world.  Izanami’s crispy Brussels sprouts have a light, crinkly texture and are seasoned with lemon, chili, mint and puffed rice.  Diners who are averse to the aroma or taste of Brussels sprouts should try these.  Unlike some restaurants which try to mask the natural flavors of this cruciferous vegetable, Izanami complements those flavors, rendering these Brussels a joy to eat.

Hummus, a traditional and very versatile Middle Eastern dish, is yet another food that has transcended ethnicities.  Restaurants of all genres offer their take on a dish that can be used as a dip, spread, condiment or even entree.  Izanami’s rendition is made with edamame, the young, tender soybeans beloved by vegans and carnivores alike.  Edamame hummus has all the qualities of an outstanding hummus with an element of freshness many of them don’t offer.  This hummus is part of a seasonal vegetable plate which pairs the edamame hummus with a shiro miso dip, the lightest and sweetest of all misos.  Instead of the more fashionable pita wedges, a bowl of sliced carrots, sliced zucchini, edamame in pods and cabbage are provided for dipping.  The shiro miso dip was outstanding, on par with the edamame hummus.

Izanami11

Yaki Onigiri

After espying burgers being delivered to the table behind us, we succumbed to carnivorous temptation and split a Nami Burger.  Constructed of six ounces of naturally raised, impossibly decadent wagyu beef from New Mexico’s own Lone Mountain Wagyu, this is a burger good enough to belong on such a sublime menu.  Wagyu beef, which surpasses USDA marbling standards for prime-grade beef, comes from the same breed stock that yields the famed Kobe beef of Japan.  It’s unctuous and delicious, rendering toppings unnecessary.  Even green chile would have been superfluous.

Perhaps nothing pairs with burgers as well as fries.  Izanami’s Shichimi fries are certainly a wonderful complement to the Nami burger.  The fries themselves are cut from Kennebec potatoes, a favorite of fine restaurants everywhere.  Shichimi is a coarsely-ground, seven-spice seasoning blend widely used in Japanese cuisine, takes those fries to another dimension of deliciousness.  One of the reasons we all enjoyed Shichimi so much is that red chili peppers are the primary ingredient in the spice mixture.  A shaker of Shichimi is available on each table along with salt so we used it on almost everything.

Izanami08

White sweet potatoes with a miso glaze and butter

Perhaps the closes Izanami comes to serving sushi is in offering Yaki Onigiri, described on the menu as “grilled rice balls” even though they’re triangular in shape.  Onigiri is made of sushi rice, is flavored with rice vinegar and is dotted with sesame seeds.  Unlike nigiri, no raw fish is involved.  A miso glaze smear on the plate is all the condiment you need to enjoy this Japanese street food favorite.  The onigiri is accompanied by a small bowl of daily pickle.  Trust me, you can’t have enough Japanese pickles.   The Dill stork should deliver these treasures.

Nikko, Franzi and I all had our favorites and selflessly allowed one another to eat more than an equal portion of our individual favorites.  For me, the white sweet potatoes became an object of cupidity, maybe even lust (I momentarily contemplated hiding the bowl of these terrific tubers from my friends).  Glazed with a sweet miso and plenty of butter, these grilled white sweet potatoes aren’t overly sweet or starchy, but have a thoroughly enjoyable flavor and texture.

Izanami07

Sake-braised shimeji mushrooms

As a sheltered child growing up in an agrarian village in northern New Mexico, my first exposure to mushrooms came from an episode of Gilligan’s Island when Mary Ann believes she had eaten poisonous mushrooms (roomis igloomus).  It wasn’t until years later during a visit to Furr’s Cafeteria that I experienced edible and delicious mushrooms for myself.  Izanami’s sake-braised Shimeji mushrooms are far superior to the gravied mushrooms from Furr’s.  Shimeji mushrooms have small, rounded, tight caps and when lightly cooked, are replete with the flavor sensation known as “umami” in Japanese cuisine.  These are truly exceptional mushrooms.

Not all of Izanami’s desserts are traditional Japanese postprandial offerings, but they’re certainly Japanese inspired.  They’re also absolutely fabulous, all worthy of their amazing predecessors.  A banana, cut into four sections, coated in panko bread crumbs and deep-fried is somewhat reminiscent of some Thai desserts, but with a personality all its own courtesy of the panko which imbues the bananas with a light, crunchy coating sheathing a sweet, soft fruit.  The black sesame panna cotta is delicate and light with an almost alchemic quality in that its flavor profile builds on your tongue and taste buds.  The longer you linger between bites, the more you enjoy the amazing flavors of this ethereal dish.  Our third dessert was a plum sake sorbet.  Perhaps more than any other culinary culture, Japanese have actualized the potential of plums.  The plum sake sorbet is imbued with the sweet-tart flavor unique to plums, while taking in the refreshing qualities of a superb sorbet.

Izanami12

Black Sesame Panna Cotta, Plum Sake Sorbet, Panko Banana

In the past two months, I’ve experienced outstanding meals at two transcendent restaurants in the Land of Enchantment–Epazote and Izanami–both in Santa Fe. One of the things that made them transcendent and transformative is their ability to transport diners to a better time, a better place, a better self. Within months after opening Izanami was one of only thirty restaurants nominated for a James Beard Award as the best restaurant to launch in 2014.  It has and should continue to garner tremendous accolades for years to come.

Izanami
Ten Thousand Waves
3451 Hyde Park Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 428-6390
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 May 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$$ – $$$$$
BEST BET:

Izanami on Urbanspoon

O Ramen – Albuquerque, New Mexico

ORamen01

My friend Jim Millington stands in front of O Ramen on Central Avenue

“Food, like a loving touch or a glimpse of divine power, has that ability to comfort.”
~Norman Kolpas

According to most online definitions, the term “soul food” defines the cuisine associated with African-American culture in the southern United States.  In wide use since the 1960s, the term originated and came into heavy use with the rise of the civil rights and black nationalism movements.   Though still  most widely associated with the African-American culture, over the years “soul food” has become synonymous with basic, down-home cooking, especially of comfort foods…and as Cracked magazine puts it, soul food is “the real reason why white people like Cracker Barrel.”

While the term “soul food” has, by definition, been culturally limiting and exclusive, in recent years the term has been broadened to include other cultures, albeit with a prefixed qualifier.  In 2011, for example, New Mexico Magazine’s celebration of the Land of Enchantment’s “best eats” included the category “New Mexican soul food.”   It was a declaration that New Mexican cuisine can also feed and nurture the soul.

ORamen02

The interior of O Ramen

When my friend and culinary kindred spirit Nikko Harada used the term “Japanese soul food” to describe the food at O Ramen, it brought a broad smile to my face.  It’s far too easy to get into a thought process rut and immediately think “sushi” (or worse, the knife wielding prestidigitation of teppanyaki restaurants) when contemplating Japanese cuisine.  Nikko gets it.  Like me, she craves the Japanese food with soul-warming qualities–those homespun, flavor-packed dishes everyone in Japan, from children to grandparents, craves.

So, just what is Japanese soul food?  Think curry, tonkatsu, gyoza, tempura and the noodle dishes: soba, udon and especially ramen.   This is Japanese comfort food, what Bon Apetit editor Matt Gross describes as  “the earthy, fatty, meaty, rib-sicking, lip-smacking fare–the noodles and curries and deep-friend delights that millions of Japanese depend on everyday.”  It’s food to gather around, food to share with friends and family…food that truly feeds the soul.

Takoyaki Balls

Takoyaki Balls

Nikko’s enthusiastic endorsement for O Ramen was so effusive, I had to visit immediately: “it is seriously the closest I’ve come to eating legitimate Tokyo-style ramen in quite a while. The only other place that came even close was a ramen place my cousin took me to in the St. Mark’s district in NYC.”  My inaugural visit led to a second visit the following day with plans to return next week.  That doesn’t happen very often, but then not every restaurant is as wonderful as O Ramen.

O Ramen is situated in the space which previously house Fei’s Cafe on Central Avenue across from the University of New Mexico.  Students expecting the microwavable noodles in a Styrofoam cup that constitutes the typical student diet (along with burgers, pizza and beer) are in for a surprise.  From a culinary, if not necessarily esthetically, standpoint, it’s as authentic and traditional as a ramen house in Japan.  The open kitchen, closed proximity seating ambiance at the 35-seat restaurant is more contemporary than it is traditional, but it’s not the ambiance that feeds the soul at O Ramen.

ORamen03

Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen) with Nori (seaweed) and corn

Feeding the soul is the bailiwick of owner Kenny Wang and his staff.  Himself a former sushi chef, Kenny patterned his restaurant after ramen restaurants throughout Japan and in major metropolitan cities across the fruited plain.   Though the ramen noodles are imported weekly from California, the broths are lovingly prepared in-house–with heart (as the movie Ramen Girl depicted, ramen has no soul until it’s prepared from the heart and not from the head).  The process is painstaking. 

The Tonkotsu (pork bone broth) is rendered from the long (18 hours), slow boiling of pork hocks, neck bones and other ingredients.  This is a magnificent elixir, as soothing and comforting a broth as I’ve ever had.  It elevates the ramen noodles and miso to rarefied company, easily among the very best soups I’ve ever had.  I’m in good company.  Nikko calls it “some of the best ramen ever.”  O Ramen is so good, I momentarily contemplated not sharing it with my readers for fear it will get too crowded and I’d have to wait for a seat.

Curry with rice

Curry with pork and rice

One of the O Ramen offerings which most excited Nikko is the Takoyaki which she thought she’d never have again without traveling to Japan or New York City. She described is as “awesome and perfect.” Takoyaki, a casual Japanese fast food appetizer, translates literally to “octopus fried,” but that translation short-changes it. Takoyaki are tiny, piping hot balls of fried batter stuffed with green onions, ginger and octopus (yes, octopus) and topped with a small dollop of mayo. A crispy exterior easily gives way to a gooey, addictively delicious interior. Available in small (four pieces) or large (eight pieces), this is a perfect precursor to the ramen.

Ensnaring my affections most is the Tonkotsu Spicy Miso Ramen which combines a spicy miso with the house tonkotsu broth along with chashu pork, menma (a Japanese condiment made from lactate-fermented bamboo shoots), wood ear mushrooms, scallions, fresh ginger and a marinated boiled egg.   Optional toppings include nori (seaweed) and corn.  You can select the level of heat–from one to five–you desire, but Japanese soul food isn’t a test of heat tolerance as Thai food can be (even though the menu warns “Not responsible for burnt taste buds, but will take credit for full bellies.” You also don’t want the spice level to detract from your appreciation of the deep, soulful flavors of that magnificent broth and the ingredients with which it’s paired.  The pork, though there’s relatively little of it, will make you swoon.  The noodles inherit the unctuous flavors of the broth and may have you closing your eyes in appreciation.  See where this soup ranks with my very favorite soups in New Mexico here.

Japanese curry arrived in the island nation courtesy of the British navy and was not, as widely thought, imported from India.  Although that curry did have a strong Indian influence, Japanese curry in its current form is very different.  Called Karē, it has a very thick, velvety smooth-textured gravy that’s sweeter and less spicy than Indian curries.   Tadashi Ono, one of the authors of the wonderful book Japanese Soul Cooking contends the spices in Japanese curry “give you a high similar to sugar.” 

That high is deliciously palpable in O Ramen’s curry which is served with with your choice of what Nikko describes as “panko fried goodness: tofu, chicken, potato croquette or pork” and is served with rice. The light, delicate panko crust and amazingly grease-free pork is amazing! As fabulous as the curry is, it’s a cultural faux pas (though entirely American) to request even more curry with which to flavor the rice because rice is itself considered a vital element of Japanese soul food.  Call me an ugly American because I appreciate curry that good much more than the best of rice. 

O Ramen should perhaps be renamed “Oh, Ramen” as in “Oh, Ramen, how I love your soulful deliciousness.”   Humble trappings aside, this is already my favorite restaurant to launch in the Duke City in 2014.

O Ramen
2114 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 243-3390
LATEST VISIT: 25 April 2014
1st VISIT: 24 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 24
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen), Curry with Pork and Rice, Takoyaki Balls

O Ramen on Urbanspoon