Camden has been working his way across weight classes since overrunning Northeast 30th Avenue with fine-dining restaurants (Yakuza, Beast, DOC). He's now sprinkling the city with casual joints that have middle-tier pricing. The formula worked well for Blue Star Donuts, which builds crazy hoops from a base of rich brioche, and at Boxer Sushi, which aims for quick-service nigiri.
Camden's new Boxer Ramen is probably his greatest creation yet. The menu hanging from the wall of this room—all blond wood and cafeteria-bright light with a cerulean-blue floor—is only six lines long, but six lines prove sufficient.
The first three items serve as appetizers or sides. The sesame greens ($4) might be my favorite thing on the menu. Swiss chard is sliced into pencil-width ribbons and sopped in nutty, rich sesame oil and rice-wine vinegar, then topped with shiitake mushrooms, oyster sauce and toasted sesame seeds. The okonomiyaki tater tots ($5) are served quesadilla-style in a sizzling skillet with creamy Kewpie mayonnaise sauce and a generous pile of bonito flakes curling and crinkling in front of you. The rainbow of pickled vegetables ($6) is useful mostly as an acidic chaser to the ultra-rich items around it.
The noodles in the ramen bowls (all $10) come from Sun Noodle Company, which pulls the wheat for top-flight Asian restaurants such as New York's Momofuku. If you get only one, let it be the vegetarian bowl, which on our second visit was a rich coconut-intense white curry sauce with strips of fibrous inari sweet tofu. The "really spicy miso" is as spicy as advertised—important because Boxer doesn't offer sauces to spike its bowls—with pasty miso broth and a gooey sous-vide egg, a few snips of green onion and slices of pork belly that can be either far too fatty to blithely chomp or burnt down to salty nubs of unadulterated joy. The tonkotsu ramen, made with a broth of pork bones, is milder and extra salty from a dousing of soy and a powdering of charred garlic.
The tiny 31-stool Japanese soup shop sits at the southern end of Union Way shopping arcade—the restroom is down the heated hallway and secured by key code—a boutique retail alley bisecting Fish Grotto and Buffalo Exchange that Carrie Brownstein told The New York Times Magazine "both comments on and embodies all of Portland's lifestyle and aesthetic aspirations." (Read: a $7.50 baggie of chai-flavored lollipops at Quin and a pair of Danner boots to suck them in.) Boxer is cash-only, with an ATM onsite. There are no to-go containers, something diners learn from the word bubble painted above a cartoon dog, which stands next to paintings of rosy-cheeked women about to slurp.
This isn't a full-fledged izakaya—the bright lighting alone would disqualify Boxer, even if it were open late. But a well-selected slate of sakes, including the warm cedar burn of taruzake ($6), and several discerning taps are all you need to wash these noodles down. So far, weekend lines have been a hindrance, though service is speedy. I have no way of knowing, but I suspect Camden may thin out the lines by opening a few more of these spots.
- Order this: Sesame greens ($4) with spicy miso ($10), a glass of taruzake sake ($6) and a pint of beer ($5).
- Best deal: The sesame greens and a $2 glass-sized pour of beer are both steals.
EAT: Boxer Ramen, 1025 SW Stark St., 894-8260, boxerramen.com. 11 am-9 pm Monday-Friday, noon-9 pm Saturday and Sunday.