“Ramen is a dish that’s very high in calories and sodium.
One way to make it slightly healthier is to leave the soup and just eat the noodles.”
~Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto
America may be a multicultural melting pot, but thriving within its most populous metropolises are ethnic neighborhoods–pockets of diversity residing in two worlds, retaining many of the cultural and culinary traditions of their motherland while integrating into and pursuing the American dream. Cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and even Las Vegas, Nevada have long realized that these ethnic enclaves offer a treasure trove of cultural and culinary experiences. Most of these neighborhoods welcome culinary tourism–the opportunity to showcase the cuisine of their homelands.
Obviously Albuquerque doesn’t have the population to support a “Chinatown” or a “Little Seoul,” but the Duke City does offer multicultural dining diversity representing many of the world’s cuisines. Most of the city’s ethnic restaurants are strewn throughout the metropolitan area where they’ve integrated into the fabric of neighborhoods which may or may not have an ethnic population base. With few exceptions–a small cluster of Mexican restaurants in the South Valley, for example–you don’t see clusters of ethnic restaurants from the same country in close proximity to one another. One inexplicable anomaly exists on Central Avenue where virtually next door to each other are three Japanese ramen restaurants.
First on the scene in February, 2014 was O Ramen which quickly garnered public and critical acclaim, earning a “Hot Plate” award from Albuquerque The Magazine for its Mini Pot, a dessert that looks like a potted plant. Naruto followed suit in December, 2015, launching two doors down from O Ramen. In August, 2019, the Iron Cafe made Central Avenue just across the street from the University of New Mexico (UNM) “destination central” (pun intended) for seekers of authentic Japanese comfort food. Only one other storefront separates Iron Cafe from Naruto. The three ramen restaurants are so close to each other you can almost imbibe the aromas of one while listening to diners slurping audibly at the other.
Okay, maybe it wouldn’t be entirely fair to label the Iron Cafe simply a “ramen restaurant.” In fact, prominent signage at its storefront proudly declares its specialty of the house: “Lan Zhou Hand-Pulled Noodles.” After not having a single hand-pulled noodle restaurant, Albuquerque gained two of them within six months of one another, the other being the Fun Noodle Bar on Menaul just east of San Mateo. As with the Iron Cafe, the Fun Noodle Bar’s culinary heritage can trace its roots to Lan Zhou, home to more than 1,000 beef noodle restaurants. Lan Zhou’s distinct culinary culture is centered around different types of noodles, making the city renowned throughout China for its noodles nonpareil.
Fittingly my inaugural visit to the Iron Cafe was with a United Nations delegation of UNM Information Technology professionals: Tuan Bui (Vietnamese), Harold Chiang (Korean), Bruce Jefferson (Texan, but Texas is “like a whole other country”) and your humble Hispano-Americano blogger. Experienced multi-cultural diners all, we deliberated individual elements of the three restaurants, comparing and contrasting what we liked most about all three. By meal’s end we had determined our favorite ramen broth is from O Ramen, the best seasoned eggs are from Naruto and the best noodles and appetizers come from the Iron Cafe (more on those starters later…).
As we stepped into the sparsely decorated restaurant which is appointed primarily in red, I recalled that “the color red in Japanese culture denotes strength, passion, self sacrifice and blood. It’s the color that ‘gets the blood flowing’.” Having spent most of the morning in cold conference rooms, we all needed a warm elixir to get us back to 98.6. We also wanted to watch the Iron Cafe’s chef demonstrate his mastery of the art and skill of pulling noodles. Through a small window to the kitchen, we watched as he repeatedly stretched and folded a cylinder of dough then multiplied it into progressively thinner strands. It’s a principle and aesthetic similar to forming a large pizza dough (something else no one at our table can do without risking personal harm).
Having enjoyed our “entertainment,” we then focused on the business at hand–perusing a diverse and interesting menu replete with potentially delicious options. It’s a menu offering not only Japanese comfort food favorites, but foods from other Asian nations. To point out what the menu offers solely by listing its categories would be selling the menu short: appetizers, fried rice, stir-fry noodles, bento boxes, noodle bowls, rice bowls and dessert. Within each of those broad categories are a number of tempting teases sure to please discerning diners. Each of us decided to order different entrees and split appetizers.
First to be delivered was takoyaki, six batter-fried orbs resembling donut holes, even onto the sauces drizzled on top. Served piping hot just out of the fryer, you may want to wait a couple of minutes before biting into them or risk burning the roof of your mouth. Bite into them and you’ll be pleasantly rewarded with a creamy amalgam of octopus, tempura, pickled ginger and green onion. Dried bonito flakes are sprinkled atop each takoyaki ball. Each orb is just about bite-sized if you stretch your mouth wide enough (or you’re a politician). If you’re wary that octopus may assault your taste buds with “fishiness,” fear not. The Iron Cafe’s octopus is fresh and delicious
I recently shared Wikipedia’s “list of dumplings” with my friend Desiree Aguilar who was surprised that by definition, empanadas and ravioli are both a type of dumpling. So are gnocchi, pierogi and Pop-tarts. Even Danny DeVito and Barack Obama somehow made Wikipedia’s list, but as Desiree pointed out, Hot Pockets didn’t. We had two questions: (1) Who the heck curates this list? (2) Did Michelle Obama’s best-selling tome “Becoming” explain if and why she would call her husband “dumpling?” There is, however, no question that gyoza are a type of dumpling.
In fact, gyoza, a type of Japanese dumpling, very closely resembles its Chinese counterpart, the pot sticker. According to cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, who wrote a whole cookbook on Asian dumplings, pot stickers “tend to be medium-sized dumplings, usually eaten in two to three bites. They have fairly thick, often homemade wrappers that crisp up nicely on the outside while still being soft and encasing the juicy filling inside.” Gyoza, on the other hand, “are usually made from pre-fabricated wrappers that are thinner, smaller, and more delicate, and the filling is more finely textured.” The four big guys at our table all prefer the larger, more generously filled pot stickers to gyoza and its minced filling, but as gyoza goes, these did the job.
By universal acclimation, our favorite among the four appetizers we shared were the Iron-style chicken wings, a mix of drumettes (shaped like the much larger chicken drumstick) and wingettes or flats (the two thin bones that run parallel to each other down the length of the flat). Unlike so many chicken wings which feature a lacquered-on sauce, Iron Cafe’s wings are dusted in a pleasantly piquant rub from which we could discern paprika and red chile. These wings are meaty and delicious. So were the tempura shrimp and vegetables which weren’t photographed, so eager were we to dig into them. By the way, the appetizers are a bit of a throwback in that you won’t need a bank loan to afford them.
I began this review by quoting Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto who described the unhealthy properties of ramen, but not its sheer unbridled deliciousness. There are four ramen dishes in the noodle bowls section of the menu, but for me the one which defines the soul food comforting qualities of ramen is tonkotsu ramen (served with pork joins chashu, corn, scallions, bamboo shoots, Naruto, seaweed and seasoned egg in a rich creamy pork bone broth). Our server couldn’t tell us how long the homemade pork bone broth had simmered, but from the depth of porcine flavor, simmering time was probably in double-figure numbers. The results are a thick, rich broth with a light, but not salty flavor. Slices of chasu (simmered pork) were thicker than you’ll find in most ramen and were tender but not mushy. Oh, and those hand-pulled noodles are something special with an elasticity and smoothness Iron Chef Morimoto would appreciate.
What does it say about a restaurant that sets up shop next to two successful restaurants offering similar fare? Bravado, confidence or something else? Whatever it means, the Iron Cafe gives Duke City diners yet another wonderful option for ramen and so much more.
2108 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 October 2019
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: tonkotsu Ramen, Takoyaki, Gyoza, Iron-Style Chicken Wings, Tempura Shrimp & Vegetables