But the thing that makes Biwa's ramen great has always been those toppings—the molten core of its soy-poached egg, and that tender pork-belly chasyu leaching its meaty flavors into the swirl. That chasyu is still the best food item at Noraneko, Biwa's new ramen-ya spinoff on an industrial Southeast Water Avenue corner by the train tracks, a spartan, honey-wooded nook with 30 seats, including four at the tiny bar. Just four blocks from Bunk Bar and Boke Bowl, you might as well call it Pork Belly Row.
Photos by www.rachaelrenee.photos
Noraneko doesn't include the fixins with its four $8 ramens, but you're a sucker not to add them when you order at the counter before sitting: Tack on $3 for pork two ways, plus $1 for that perfect egg, and it's the same $12 as Biwa's regular-menu ramen, although in a slightly smaller form. (The $5 ramen happy hour is midnight to 2 am.)
The broths are an entirely different beast from Biwa's, however, veering into chicken-broth takes on shio (salt), shoyu (soy) and miso (fermented soy). All three are decent renditions—the miso is the most flavorful—but the shio is oddly thin compared to food-cart Umai's heartily aggressive version, the shoyu not as rich or rounded as Shigezo's or Yuzu's.
But damn, that mushroom. The fourth broth is an invented vegetarian soy-shiitake broth that's a heartbreaker of epic proportions: You find and lose love with each sip, riding the umami dragon down to the bottom of the bowl and then looking around nervously with a wet chin, ashamed of yourself. Break a vegan's heart, too, and still add that chasyu, as the fried tofu came on a little rubbery.
But really, it's possible the drinks are better liquid refreshment than the soup. Along with vibrant housemade sodas, Noraneko serves a wealth of brightly refreshing chuhais that are a revelation—they're essentially grain-liquor spritzers, shochu mixed with yuzu, kombucha or maybe black-pepper soda. Served in cans in Japan, here they're a highballed lesson in sweet-tart booziness, as is an ume gimlet ($8) made with ginger syrup, lime and pureed plum.
Tack on the French 75, Sazerac and margarita, plus a skillfully balanced yuzu whiskey highball, and it becomes a crying shame that Noraneko feels more like a lunch counter than a bar, despite its late-night hours and $1 bar snacks from 4 to 6 pm. Because if I treat the place like I want to, I'll look like a Japanese take on Edward Hopper—a nighthawk at the ramen shop, silly on yuzu.
- Order this: Mushroom ramen with two-way chasyu and egg ($12 total), ume gimlet ($8), black pepper chuhai ($8), yuzu whiskey highball ($8).
EAT: Noraneko, 1430 SE Water Ave., 238-6356, noranekoramen.com. 11 am-2 am daily.