Everywhere the guy with the Mohawk went, the cameras followed.
It was grand-opening night, Oct. 18, at the new Portland location of Tokyo-based ramen chain Afuri just off Southeast Morrison Street. Brothers and celebrity ramen chefs Hiroshi and Shigetoshi Nakamura strode through their stately Japanese-inflected pleasure dome trailed by not one but two camera crews. Shigetoshi, who designed the noodles his brother's ramen chain uses in Portland, was the one with the flattened 'hawk.
"They're filming a documentary," we were told by bartender Ryan Magarian, who made the punctiliously precise cocktails on Afuri's menu. "It's like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but for ramen."
The other camera guy was for local TV news, and sometimes the crews pointed their cameras at each other. Afuri's ramen is so popular in Tokyo that would-be diners line up around the block in the morning to buy a "ticket" to their afternoon meal from a little vending machine, like crowds in the aughts trying to get into David Letterman.
That night at Afuri, one thing became very clear: Real-deal Japanese ramen had finally come to Portland.
Ramen is, of course, Japan's drunky, slurping comfort food, the equal province of late-night hard-drinking salarymen and harried lawyers at lunchtime. But it is also serious business. The maker of a city's finest tonkotsu or shio broth is a subject for debate every bit as serious as the brisket champ of Texas hill country or the finest bistro burger in Portland.
A truly great bowl of ramen, marrying the subtle flavors of tare seasoning with soup base, pinged by salty nori and the alkaline tang of lightly al dente noodles, deepened by molten egg and fatty pork chashu, is not just comfort but revelation. Ramen can make you cry.
But Portland ramen used to be crap. Until 10 years ago in this town, it was still mostly a dry good scarfed by college kids after 2 am, fancied up maybe with a drunken egg drop and about 6 ounces of Sriracha. Even as recently as a few years ago, if you wanted a good Hakata-style tonkotsu pork broth, you had to drive to a Beaverton strip mall to seek out an almost unmarked door with blacked-out windows next to the cellphone store.
Now in the past two years alone, three different ramen chains from Japan have parked themselves here, while seemingly every strip-mall neighborhood in town gets its own local ramen-ya next to the artisan wood-fired pizzeria.
But the best bowls in town right now are mostly from just those three chains from Tokyo: Kizuki, Marukin and Afuri. I know, because I ate them all—almost 40 bowls at over a dozen spots that specialize in ramen.
So why are the Japanese slinging noodles in a midsized provincial city like Portland? Well, it's a little bit of luck, and a little bit of fear.
The sudden onslaught of Japanese restaurants expanding to the U.S. isn't just a Portland phenomenon. Even with our three Shigezo izakayas beginning in 2011, we're actually late to the game. According to national food blog Tasting Table, the glut of Japanese expansion to Los Angeles and New York is partly inspired by Japan's low birth rate: Turns out if there are fewer people in the country, your restaurant doesn't do as well. New York PR firms are now staging seminars for Japanese restaurateurs eager to follow ramen dons Ippudo and Ichiran to Manhattan and Bushwick.
That's the story with Kizuki, whose palatially high-ceilinged strip-mall spot in Beaverton has wait times of over 30 minutes even at 1 pm on a Tuesday for bracingly garlicky tonkotsu and the lovely tsukemen, a variety of ramen dipped in broth as you eat. The chain came first to Seattle and is now churning out locations and franchises all over the country: Carmel, Ind., Chicago and God knows where else. (Kizuki swapped out its international name from Kukai after noting its unhealthy resemblance to both a French perfume brand and the Hawaiian word for birdshit.)
But for the time being, only Portland gets Marukin and Afuri. Both are well-loved Tokyo boutique chains, and both are probably making some of the best ramen in the country.
Afuri has the higher profile, and not just because of the considerable money it obviously sunk into its flashy izakaya behind the Commons Brewery, which sports a deep sake list, two separate bars for dining and drinking, and an open kitchen larger than some entire restaurants. Many consider Afuri's light, delicate broths the best in all of Tokyo—and celebrity ramen chef Ivan Orkin, describing the phenomenon of the "lady ramen shop" for Lucky Peach magazine, said it's also one of the few ramen shops where as many women eat as men. (Tokyo ramen shops, believe it or not, can be rough and tumble.)
With Afuri, as with Olympia beer, it's all about the water.
Afuri's United States CEO, Taichi Ishizawa, tells WW he criss-crossed the country testing the water each place he went, trying to find water as pure as the waters of Mount Afuri in Japan. The minerals in hard water, he says, "steal the flavor" from a broth.
Portland has the softest water he found, a quality one can't help but think has rubbed off on the people here.
And while Afuri has expanded its offerings for the Portland restaurant to include robata-grilled skewers and precious spoon dishes with layered flavor bites, layered maki rolls and sashimi, every single meal there should include the yuzu shio ramen, whose aromatic, bonito-spiked chicken broth opens out like a flower.
Marukin, meanwhile, is here for personal reasons. Long ago in Japan, local investment broker David Rademacher was the next-door neighbor and friend of Masa Hayashi, now a co-owner of Marukin. "We were both hockey players," says Rademacher, "which is rare in Japan."
During one of Hayashi's visits three years ago to his son, who was going to school in British Columbia, he liked the region so much he turned to Rademacher and said, in a line familiar to impulsive Portland transplants from everywhere, "What about here?"
Marukin keeps it simple—counter-service ramen with a few sides—and unlike almost every other shop in town, it make its constantly improving, firm-textured noodles by hand at its own shop. Chef Mayumi Hijikata, who traveled here from Japan after cooking with Marukin for more than a decade, cooks down its trademark, impossibly rich and balanced tonkotsu for eight hours from pork bone stock, creating a broth neither oversweet nor overly fatty but nonetheless big as hell, like a Pollock painstakingly made with fine brushwork. (Her favorite, for the record, is the chicken-stock paitan shio.)
The ramen doesn't seem to have suffered in the translation to Portland, but Hijikata says the diversity of interests and backgrounds of Portland-trained chefs is something she has to work through when making something so dedicated to consistency.
"[Marukin's] founders love talking to the cooks here," says Rademacher. "They ask about the tattoos. They're not used to cooks being in bands."