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O Ramen – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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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.

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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.

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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

  • Hannah says:

    Don’t have time to comment, must get to restaurant.

    April 27, 2014 at 7:14 AM
    • Axel says:

      Quick, someone post the hours. Do they work weekends? How bout dinner? Good food should be an all-day experience.

      Also, these guys are gonna make so much money. Hallelujah!

      April 27, 2014 at 9:18 AM
      • Gil Garduno says:

        If Urbanspoon is to be believed, O Ramen is open:

        Monday – Friday: 11:00am-3:30pm, 5:00pm-8:00pm
        Saturday: 12:00pm-8:00pm
        Sunday: CLOSED

        I’d call ahead to make sure about Saturday because when Jim and I asked, we were told it was closed on weekends.

        April 27, 2014 at 7:05 PM
  • Jim Millington says:

    I had the honor of accompanying Gil on his first visit to O Ramen and was genuinely surprised at how good the Tonkotsu Spicy Miso Ramen was, as good as I ever had and was thrilled to see Curry with Pork and Rice on the menu. I had mourned that Japanese Curry was gone from Albuquerque along with Kokoro. I regret not noticing the Takoyaki Balls which (in my feeble mind) competes with Okonomiyaki to be the “National Dish” of Osaka. I do wish they were open weekends but it was probably the intelligent business decision. I plan to return regularly.

    April 27, 2014 at 10:22 AM
  • Astrid Tuttle Winegar says:

    I’m reading David Chang’s cookbook “Momofuku” where he rhapsodizes about ramen. I’ll have to go there and see if his obsession if justified!

    Went to NOSH and it was fabulous!

    April 27, 2014 at 3:59 PM
  • Nikko Harada says:

    Although this delightful review of O Ramen needs no further comment, because it artfully reflects exactly my own thoughts on the restaurant, I can say that the descriptions are spot-on and that O Ramen is a welcome addition to the Albuquerque food scene and one that I have been waiting years for. The tonkatsu spicy ramen is truly authentic and I look forward to many more visits to enjoy this Japanese dish. The takoyaki is Japanese street food at its best and when the owner’s wife prepares it, it is truly a stand alone dish that makes a visit to O Ramen worth it simply to indulge in that appetizer alone. I am excited that the owner has mentioned that he intends to introduce a green chile ramen at some point in the future and am intrigued to see how the quintessential New Mexico element marries with one of my favorite foods.

    April 27, 2014 at 7:20 PM
  • Axel says:

    You know a place is good when you run into other FOGs (friends of Gil) when eating there.

    I had the Takoyaki, the Tonkotsu Shoyu ramen with extra pork, and a delightful little desert.

    The Takoyaki is as good as everyone says it is. If you need to convince someone to try it, tell them that it is a fried ball of creamy deliciousness with a savory flavor. And make sure to get the large order, you won’t regret it. Well, not until you discover that the plate is empty, and you still want more.

    When I ordered the Tonkotsu Shoyu ramen, I was expecting it to be a little salty. What I got was a lovely and balanced flavor profile, with hints of nuttiness, a little sweet (very little, but still there), and yet still savory. I am glad that I ordered extra pork, simply because its pork belly (I think) and its is prepared simply yet flavorfully.

    Finally, the desert. When I asked the waitress, she said that they didn’t have anything on the menu. I pointed to the other waitress/cook/owner passing us holding a plate with two scoops of ice cream, and she revealed that that was for returning customers, and that she’d make an exception for me ( i had said some kind words about the food earlier). They have three asian flavors of ice cream: Green tea, Red bean, and plum. I ordered the red bean and plum. The red bean was pretty standard, but the plum was amazing. It was very creamy, and made me think of some of the better plum-flavored products I had as a child in Hawaii.

    I honestly believe that this restaurant has the holy trifecta for restaurants: it’s delicious, it’s fast, and it’s cheap. The fact that the people working there are very nice and personable is simply the cherry on top of this very delicious sundae.

    My only regret was that I hadn’t had the japanese curry, which I’ve loved since my childhood. But that’s what the next visit is for. I know where i will be tomorrow!

    …*reads the time schedule posted above* Oh, hold on, they are open for dinner? Never mind, I guess I know where I’m going for dinner tonight!

    April 28, 2014 at 12:37 PM
  • Jim Millington says:

    I went by again with the Child Bride & ended up very happy and very disappointed. I finally talked her into ordering the Tonkotsu Spicy Miso Ramen after she ran through the complete list of things I knew she wouldn’t like. I know her tastes far better than she does and am tiring of her ordering things that I know she won’t eat then trowing it out uneaten.
    I ordered the Takoyaki Balls and found them completely unlike any I had in Osaka, doughy and cooked without a hint of crispness. In Osaka the volume of octopus in the ball is small but 3-4 times this amount and (both places we went) served with squeeze bottles of several condiments. I also had the Katsu (pork) curry. I only had one example of many in Japan so bland. Japanese curry is never very hot but every other place I ate it was almost identical to that served at the late Kokoro. Also the quantity of pork was about 1/3 of the amount one would normally expect.
    Despite my disappointment with the other dishes the Ramen is wonderful and well worth regular trips.

    April 30, 2014 at 8:39 PM
  • Jim Millington says:

    We returned with Japanese food loving friends today and absolutely no disappointment. Reading Nikko Harada’s comment that the Takoyaki Balls were wonderful when the owners wife prepared them I recalled that nobody of the female persuasion had been in the kitchen on our last visit and not today either. So I mentioned the previous mush balls to our waiter. He thought they were being prepared properly today but would emphasize CRISP. We all loved them. I also ordered Tonkotsu Spicy Miso Ramen at heat level 5 and is was pretty hot. The Child Bride loved her Chicken Curry (of course she loves plain rice more than most of us). Our guests loved there Squid salad, seaweed salad and gyoza. Even if Kokoro does not return (I hope it does) there is an excellent basic Japanese restaurant in Albuquerque.

    May 7, 2014 at 2:36 PM
  • Dave Dixon says:

    Though I often agree with you Gil, I’m going to have to differ with you on two points. First, yes, the adjuncts – takoyaki, tonkatsu, staff – at O Ramen are great. The noodles, however, are deeply dull. The ramen at O Ramen has that over-boiled-over-rinsed-packaged quality I can get at home for a lot less cash. Get some fresh udon at a true ramen hut and you’ll see what I mean. And here’s the second point were I disagree – the movie touchstone for ramen is Tampopo, not The Ramen Girl.

    August 8, 2014 at 9:15 AM

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