When Tokyo-based ramen chain Afuri came to Portland, the owners figured go big or go home. Rather than replicate the bare-bones ramen shops at their various locations across Tokyo and Yokohama, their first Portland location on Portland's eastside was a palace of upscale Japanese fare: somehow a ramen shop, an izakaya, a steakhouse and maybe even a wine bar.
But that ambitious original Afuri location also suffered a bit from over-formality—it's unclear I need a $48 wagyu steak, a sake sommelier or carpaccio composed on a spoon at a ramen spot.
Their new Old Town dumpling bar and "noodle lab," which opened in November (50 SW 3rd Ave., afuriramenanddumpling.com), hits what may be the sweet spot between minimalism and bursting ambition. The fast-casual restaurant is a low-key rumpus room with aggressive cocktails and goofball circus-food innovations like poke hard-shell tacos. A new item seems to hit the menu every week. This is fitting, perhaps, for a space that used to house a pirate-themed pizza pub and an aerial-burlesque pole-dancing spot.
Those poke tacos (two for $8) are like the technicolor dream of the San Gabriel Valley—a Latin-Asian mashup that also manages to be as intuitive as ceviche on a cracker. The homestyle crisp taco shell is filled to overflowing with citric albacore, smothered in avocado sauce and lanced through with ginger and spice. Each bite is a tender fish bomb bursting with impossible flavor. The shinjo-age dumplings are equally showy, looking like tentacled sea urchins made of fried noodles. But at their core is a delectable bonbon made of shrimp and whitefish, topped with sweet-hot chili sauce.
Other casual standouts have included a beautifully balanced chirashi rice bowl and the citrus wallop of a yuzu tsukemen. If this is Afuri's noodle lab, the westside shop's take on these toothsome dipping noodles are a highly successful experiment: sticky, thick, slightly al dente and endlessly satisfying.
Not everything translated beautifully, however. On two December visits, Afuri's trademark yuzu shio ramen—a marvel of floral delicacy and subtlety on previous visits to the eastside location—had the telltale flavor of over-caramelization, leading the broth to be both bland and a bit bitter.
The shop is still working out the kinks on their trademark ebi (shrimp) and ginger-pork gyoza. On one visit, the dumpling wrappers displayed a lovely scrim-thin delectability, while on another they felt over-oiled and a little overcooked—afflicted by the cloying nuttiness of too much sesame oil.
A newly unveiled ebi shio ramen, however, was a paragon of quietude—a quality rare on a menu prone to flavor punches. The noodles offer a firm counterpoint to a gently fish-flavored, lightly aromatic broth that blooms into eloquence. On a cold and rainy night, with my hair still wet under my hat, I could feel my cheeks warm as the glutamate hit my brain. I wanted only one thing: more of the same.
Afuri, 50 SW 3rd Ave., afuriramenanddumpling.com. 11 am-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am-11 pm Friday-Saturday, 11 am-9 pm Sunday.