Like the buffoon at the center of Moliere’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, who learns he’s been speaking in prose for 40 years without intending to do anything so lofty, American eaters have lately discovered that they were tapping into an ancient culinary tradition when they boiled blocks of Top Ramen noodles instead of lunching in the college cafeteria. Ramen, as the nation’s food curious now know, is a Japanese art, practiced by masters who hand-pick pork bones for their broth and lose sleep over how much kansui to add to their noodles.
But what’s sometimes forgotten in the current ramen hubbub—which may have reached its peak when David Chang devoted the first issue of his single-subject food journal, Lucky Peach, to the dish—is that while housemade ramen may be extraordinary, it’s also ubiquitous. The iconic noodles are the Japanese equivalent of burgers in the U.S.: cheap, comforting, and all over the quality map.
Seattle diners can catch a glimpse of ramen diversity at a pair of restaurants that opened late last year. Kukai Ramen’s Bellevue shop is the first U.S. outpost of a small Japanese chain best known for its salty tonkotsu broth and Tokyo airport location. In burger terms, think Fatburger.
And, over in Wallingford, 4649 Yoroshiku Japanese Restaurant is the creation of a former electrician who so missed the soups and snacks of his native Sapporo during a yearlong Seattle stay that he went home to apprentice in its izakayas, acquiring the skills he’d need to correct the situation. To use another burger analogy, if you’ve ever eaten a patty of grass-fed, house-ground beef on rosemary focaccia at a pop-up restaurant, you have a good sense of where 4649 falls on the ramen spectrum.
Kukai and 4649 are very different restaurants. But both are worth a visit by eaters wanting to better understand ramen, fast and slow.
Fifteen minutes after Kukai opened on a chilly December day, every table was taken. What initially seemed like a surge of first-day enthusiasm has morphed into routine, co-owner Nuri Aydinel reports. “There hasn’t been a lunch or dinner without a wait line,” says Aydinel, a Turkish businessman who partnered with a Taiwanese grocery-store manager on the project. “When we opened, we weren’t expecting the demand. It’s just been amazing.”
A torrent of customers was probably high on the pair’s wish list back when they regularly met on Wednesdays to trade entrepreneurial ideas, but Kukai has had trouble coping with the unanticipated crush. Six weeks after opening, the young crew of friendly staffers still seemed frantic. “You can eat as much of this as you want,” a server said apologetically when he delivered a forgotten order of agedashi tofu after dropping off the check. But Ayindel says the restaurant’s sorting out its service issues, and he recently repaired a heating problem that forced diners seated in the front half of the restaurant to eat with their coats on.
According to Ayindel, wait times have been extended by ramen neophytes who haven’t adapted to the slurping pace that predominates in Japan. Kukai’s shotgun dining room has a corporate sleekness that fits its strip-mall setting, yet—unfortunately for those congregated around the host stand—the open kitchen, warm lighting, and wooden tables set with husky brown leather chairs make it a pleasant place to linger when the thermostat’s working.
Kukai is drawing many Japanese diners, too, but Ayindel says they’re coming mostly for sake and izakaya items, such as grilled bacon-wrapped asparagus and takoyaki. I wasn’t taken with the bar snacks I tried: The tardy agedashi was served so hot that the tofu melted into a soybean puddle (it quite likely had waited out our meal under a heat lamp), and citrusy fried-chicken wings were unduly greasy.
But the restaurant’s shoyu ramen helped make sense of the chain’s success: Uncomplicated and salty, the dish was distinguished by chewy noodles slick with pork fat. Ayindel says it took a year to clear a California factory’s noodle formulation with Kukai’s home office: “There have been a lot of shipments back and forth,” he says.
The curly noodles share the bowl with a slightly overcooked hard-boiled egg, leafy greens, scallions, and a flap of smoky pork. The cloudy, buttercup-yellow broth is thick with fat and tweaked with pepper, though it’s tough to taste past the punch of the soy sauce and “special salt mix” that’s a Kukai signature.
“We were making it the same way as Japan,” Ayindel explains. Now, he adds, customers can request their ramen “light,” i.e., made with less oil and salt. But the traditional version’s still available for diners who care less about the cult of ramen and more about getting a meal that’s hot, quick, and salty.
When Keisuke Kobayashi in 2007 spent a year studying at North Seattle Community College, he could only find three kinds of Japanese restaurants: teriyaki joints, sushi bars, and restaurants “owned by another person who is not Japanese.” Determined to show the city that Japanese food isn’t merely grilled chicken and raw fish, he started working in commercial kitchens after returning to Sapporo to take care of his mother.
Since opening 4649 in the former Joule location last November, Kobayashi has had to repeatedly explain his vision to befuddled patrons who’ve wandered into his unadorned dining room. “Sometimes they ask for [sushi],” Kobayashi says. “And sometimes they leave.”
Diners who stick around will find plenty to savor on Kobayashi’s snacky menu, which is faithful to Sapporo’s culinary habits. There are bright housemade pickles; tightly curled grilled shrimp drifting in a pool of shio butter sauce; primly crisped cubes of agedashi tofu with creamy white centers and agedashi tomatoes smeared with tuna mayonnaise; barbecued lamb; deep-fried chicken and eggy okonomiyaki, savory pancakes knitted with tofu and stuffed with seafood, meat, or vegetables.
The list of yakitori is a kilometer long, give or take a few grilled skewers, with beef, pork belly, vegetables, and nearly every important free-range chicken part represented. While the beef had a sadly weather-beaten bent, the fatty chicken skin and thighs seasoned with tare were terrific. But Kobyasahi says nothing outshines his salads, and he’s right: A bowlful of snow peas, bell peppers, broccoli, and celery strewn with peanut dressing is a chromatic celebration of health, freshness, and crunch.
Kobayashi’s excellent shio ramen, garnished with strips of roasted pork, is wonderfully substantial and as unabashedly chickeny as matzoh ball soup. The crimped noodles are the rare ingredient that doesn’t originate in 4649’s kitchen. “I think 98 percent of the food we are making every day,” estimates Kobayashi, who’s now working to perfect the ramen for which his hometown’s best known.
“I’m always studying miso ramen,” Kobayashi says, explaining his struggles to match the flavors of Washington-state chicken bones to the misos sold in Seattle. “It’s very close. Maybe we can serve miso ramen in two weeks.”
Still, Kobayashi worries about who will try his ramen. “To be honest, it’s pretty slow,” he says. “If you write an article, please say we will not disappoint you.”
Kukai Ramen 14855 Main St., Bellevue, 425-243-7527, kukai-ramen.com. 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m. & 5–9:30 p.m. Mon.–Thurs.; 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Sat.–Sun.
4649 Yoroshiku JAPANESE RESTAURANT 1913 N. 45th St., 547-4649, 4649seattle.com. 5–10 p.m. Tues.–Thurs.; 5–11 p.m. Fri.–Sat.; 5–9 p.m. Sun.