I would like to issue an apology to every other ramen place in Portland, because I like you a little bit less now.
It's not you—it's Marukin, the Tokyo-based ramen shop that just moved into a tight-quartered space next to Nong's Khao Man Gai.
This isn't the first time I've fallen in love with a bowl of ramen in this town. Miho Izakaya's, right when it opened, was smoky as Texas barbecue. The first couple years of Biwa's ramen was a prolonged honeymoon. And I will always come back to the purity of Umai's shio, the sweet heat of Mirakutei's miso yuzu, and especially the rich and perfect comforts of Yuzu's pork belly tonkotsu, until now my model for what ramen in Portland could aspire to.
But after five visits to the fast-moving, utilitarian-to-the-point-of-undecorated counter-service spot—it'll probably be six by the time this article prints—Marukin has my heart.
Marukin's miso broth is almost bottomless in its depth and excitingly light, just salty enough to pull out the complexity of its pork-chicken base and rich soy ferment. It is a roundness of flavor that causes separation anxiety between slurps. The tonkotsu shoyu is an echo chamber of pork, milky with marrow-laden fattiness. And that paitan shio—a fatty chicken broth that's like tonkotsu's younger cousin, spiked with salt burst—is a marvel of subtlety and light floral notes, singing with whatever the bird ate.
A bit behind Shigezo and Kizuki in putting a Portland charm on its bracelet, Marukin is nonetheless the first of the Japanese chains to truly fulfill the promise of the motherland, and this after a mere month in our country.
The tiny ramen-ya makes its own distinctively chewy noodles daily in a kitchen the size of the dining room, and rotates a cast of seven broths throughout the week—along with a smattering of sides that may expand as the restaurant gets its legs under it.
Pre-open hype has squeezed massive crowds through Marukin since its March opening, leaving little time to prep new items and delaying introduction of the full menu. And yet it's all held up beautifully.
Of the six meat broths (all $10, with trimmings), only the classic chicken-pork Tokyo shoyu is merely very good, paling in comparison only to the other stellar options. The red broths, meanwhile, are versions of the subtle paitan and tonkotsu so laden with chili oil they might as well be Korean. All come with slight variations of the same frills: eggs whose yolks are always just barely on the gummy side of molten, beautifully delicate chasyu pork coddled by a light ribbing of fat, pickled bamboo strips divested of that stalk's characteristic bitterness, sheets of nori, scallion strands and rich greens.
The vegan broths—a tare-based shoyu and soymilk tonyu—don't attain the heights of the meat. But this should be expected; it is not a virtue of Noraneko and Boke that their vegan broths are richer than the meat options. But tofu aside, the fillings are exemplary at filling out the umami notes, from a wealth of shiitake mushrooms and kelp to a pair of just-green tomato wedges bursting with brightness.
Drinks are simple. Avoid the $12 Logsdon and opt for a low-cost sake or draft Asahi—the broths don't need competition. Among sides, the pork gyoza ($8) are king, better than any I've had in town, crisp on the outside and bursting with meat, lightly salted in dipping sauce. The curry ($4, $8) is fiery and lovely, but mostly worth ordering in its small size to fill out the meal with hearty rice and flavor. The kara-age chicken ($8) is all light breading and pungent spice—preferable to the shrimp (also $8) that forgoes the heat.
One could quibble about cost and size for appetizers, but sides are beside the point. At least one broth each day is not merely wonderful but extraordinary.
And thankfully, there's already another location soon to open across the river at the perpetually delayed Pine Street Market. In the '80s, we used to worry the Japanese were taking over America. Now, so help me, I pray they do.
Order this: Miso ramen (Monday, Thursday and Friday), paitan shio (Tuesday and Saturday), tonkotsu shoyu (Wednesday and Sunday). All $10.
EAT: Marukin, 609 SE Ankeny St., 894-9021, marukinramen.com. 11 am-9 pm daily.