“Food, like a loving touch or a glimpse of divine power, has that ability to comfort.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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-
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.
2114 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 April 2014
1st VISIT: 24 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Tonkotsu Spicy Miso (Ramen), Curry with Pork and Rice, Takoyaki Balls