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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
LATEST VISIT: 23 May 2014
1st VISIT: 14 May 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
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