Before opening in March, fans of fresh ramen had to trek north six hours to Vancouver, B.C., for a proper fix (both great Seattle ramen houses have closed). Next door to Simpatica, Biwa is more convenient than Canada. The fare is minimally embellished Japanese street food with a simplicity mirrored by its space, which is cleanly adorned in wood, concrete and steel. And other than one lonely yellowtail offering, sushi is absent from the menu—chef-owner Gabe Rosen's testament to a cuisine that's far more extensive than raw fish.
Ramen originated in China, but the fresh noodles are everyday chow in Japan. Techniques to create memorable egg noodles and perfect broth are well-guarded secrets. Most of the time, Biwa's ramen ($9) impresses: just slightly chewy in delicate-yet-complex broth with sweet grilled and sharp green onions, a fatty slab of tender pork and a smattering of garlic. Ramen is simmered to order, and adding a boiled egg for a buck is crucial. Problem is, the broth can be inconsistent—sometimes perfectly salty and sometimes not. Ramen is Japanese comfort food but Biwa's portion isn't big enough.Noodles are cheap to make; why not throw a few more of them in the bowl? Also the pork, though usually the palm-sized hunk that it ought to be, once arrived as a two-bite diminutive resembling boiled bacon.
Biwa's udon noodles are dense and chewy treats that will hopefully raise the bar for eateries that serve straight from the package. Order them plain ($7); hearty nabeyaki-style ($11), simmered with chicken, veggies and egg; or refreshingly chilled ($7) with green onions and katsuo (dried mackerel)—perfect for summer.
House-made kimchi ($3) treads light on the heat, favoring complex, cold spice over the ubiquitous salty overkill. The vegetable chijimi ($5) is a savory, saucer-sized, onion-spiked Korean griddle cake. House-made pork gyoza dumplings (five for $6) are darn near perfect, as are grilled oysters (five for $12) and the stellar shio-yaki saba ($8), half of a grilled salt mackerel.
Rosen, who studied in Sapporo, Japan, knows meat, having put in years at the local charcuterie Viande. No surprise that the grilled skewers are standout—albeit dinky. The best is the bara, a.k.a. pork belly ($3). Wash down tasty lamb "Genghis Khan" ($4)—lifted from Japanese beer halls menus—with giant Sapporos ($5). There's also grilled leeks, tiny, spicy Shishito peppers ($4) and tofu ($3) to be had.
Biwa is open for lunch during the week, serving a slimmed-down version of its dinner menu. While the curry rice ($6) is a well-portioned nod to the broke, it seems that a lunchtime ramen special is a crucial omission. With tea ($2) and tip, 15 bucks is too much for a meal that doesn't quite fill you up. Then again, you won't have to drive to Vancouver.