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April 4th, 2012 MATTHEW KORFHAGE | Food Reviews & Stories
 

There’s a Bowl For That

Boke Bowl is a polished, pragmatic take on ramen.

dish_bokebowl_3822PICK UP STICKS: Boke Bowl’s family dining. - IMAGE: leahnash.com
With its clean lines, design-conscious self-branding and techy iconography, Boke Bowl’s interior looks more than anything like an Apple store. It’s the iPad of Portland ramen houses: a coolly pragmatic American gloss on Asian aesthetics and cuisine, and a place where convenience comes in the form of high-priced, minimalist efficiency. Even when the place is full, meals often arrive within minutes of being ordered at the counter, leaving precious little time to watch the noodles being made at the restaurant’s rear.

Unlike Apple’s closed manifolds, however, at Boke Bowl everything is modular. In a move borrowed from old-time ice cream shops, the menu consists of a matrix of wall-hung wooden slats that can be added or removed at will, depending on what’s available. (This may hark back to Boke’s beginnings as a monthly pop-up restaurant; flexibility is in the place’s DNA.) You choose your dashi (broth) from pork ($9), caramelized fennel ($8.50), seafood miso ($10) or the only occasionally available duck ($15), and then may bring in somewhat eccentric add-ons to taste, with options including buttermilk-fried chicken ($3) and cornmeal-crusted oysters ($3).

The mammoth bowls are beautifully complex, and bespeak a flavor profile as Northwest continental as it is Japanese. Authenticity, after all, is the hobgoblin of narrow palates. The dashis are surprisingly low-sodium, the meat broths rich with the fat of the pork or duck confit, the noodles mixed in the broth with not only scallion and bamboo but squash. At times, in the meat broths I wished for more salt—a rarity for me in restaurants. The vegetarian ginger-spiked fennel dashi is, however, one of my favorite broths in town, especially with pork belly ($1.50) added, if that’s your thing. 

In addition to the ramen, the menu offers a shotgun blast to the wall map: Korean pickles, Momofuku-style folded steamed buns that look like little Chinese gorditas, fusion forms of American Midwestern and Southern treats (namely, Twinkies and fried pies). Of these, the pickles come with variable success: the kimchee ($1) seems a bit young (high acidity, low spice), but the soy-pickled shiitakes ($1) are a more than pleasant garnish. The little steamed buns ($7 for three) are uniformly pleasant but are a quite small meal without sides, and so are recommended with the green-onion ginger rice ($1) or the fried pears ($2.50), which have the half-rubberized consistency of dried apricot and an oily sweet taste and are deeply addictive. The miso butterscotch Twinkie ($3) was actually quite rich and subtle, and amounts to something of a coup, if also a meal best shared. 

Though Boke Bowl is primarily a lunch spot, it does open Thursday nights for its Boke Bird dinners, which offer a half-chicken and sides for $25 that will comfortably serve two (or two very thin people and a child, which I discovered by observation.) Here the Apple store parallel comes back, with a wait stretching beyond the promised 30 minutes for a hyped product. The chicken is slow-cooked for 48 hours, chilled, then fried, leading to a gently crisp outer texture and a tender inside—though not quite as tender or juicy as the process would lead one to expect. The white meat can be slightly overcooked, but the garlic-ginger soy sauce, especially with the addition of both green and fried onions, was salty, sweet and bitter in just the right proportions.

Boke Bowl’s chef and owner are at play with cuisine, and even with the idea of a restaurant. It’s a sense of play that sneaks into the experience of eating. It’s fun to be at Boke Bowl. It just works. 

  • Order this: Caramelized fennel dashi ($8.50) with pork belly ($1.50) and slow-poached egg ($1) add-ons. Or pork dashi ($9) with fried chicken ($3). It’s ramen for porch-sitters.
  • I’ll pass: The pickle plate ($6) needs a little work in a town that knows its pickles. And when it comes to the half-chicken, I would like my half to be the legs and the thighs.

EAT: Boke Bowl, 1028 SE Water Ave., 719-5698, bokebowl.com. 10:30 am-3 pm Monday-Friday (5-9:30 pm Thursday), 10 am–4 pm Saturday. $$.

 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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