It’s a shame that the term “ramen” has been co-opted and sullied by the producers of the 10-for-a-buck instant noodles—you know, the stuff that’s become famous as college cuisine. A typical package of that type of ramen contains noodles that are deep-fried with palm and cottonseed oils, not to mention 7 grams of fat (3.5 grams saturated) and 790 milligrams of sodium. They are, virtually, nutrient-free.
Why do I rail about ramen? Well, I grew up eating the real thing. Having spent a big chunk of my childhood in Japan, I was introduced to real ramen, tonkatsu and other Japanese comfort foods by our housekeeper and part-time cook, Yukiko. And I think it’s a crying shame that folks who have only ever tasted the salty, instant supermarket ramen are missing out on the glorious wonders of ramen made from scratch.
There are plenty of Asian restaurants in town that have ramen on their menus, but most of them use powdered and packaged broths or miso mixes. I’ve only come across a couple of places that do ramen right: Dojo (423 W. 300 South, 801-328-3333, DojoSLC.com) and Plum Alley (111 E. 300 South, 801-355-0543, PlumAlley.com). That is, until a couple weeks ago, when Naked Fish Japanese Bistro morphed—at least partially—into a ramen noodle shop.
At night, as it always has done, Naked Fish specializes in the highest-quality sushi and sashimi, along with contemporary Asian cuisine, from raw to cooked. But during lunch, the restaurant now functions primarily as a noodle shop. The menu has been pared way down, allowing the kitchen—led by the personable Tosho Sekikawa (“Chef Tosh”)—to focus on doing one thing well: ramen. There is no sushi served at lunch; the menu currently consists of a sprinkling of appetizers, ramen and one dessert. I’m told that additional dishes will be added, such as a vegetarian ramen option, but for now, Naked Fish is keeping it simple, with a laser-like focus on ramen.
Real ramen freaks know that there are two critical components to awesome ramen: broth and noodles. The perfection of both is essential. That’s because ramen is actually very simple food; there is no place to hide substandard noodles or bad broth. So, both must be taken very seriously and treated with the righteous ramen respect they deserve. Naked Fish does that.
The broth for Naked Fish ramen is made from pork bones that are simmered for hours on end. It’s a very clean-tasting broth: not too salty, and rich, but not heavy on the palate. The same broth is used for all of the ramen served at the restaurant, of which there are currently three varieties. Like I said, a vegetarian version is also being developed, along with a curry ramen.
If you’ve only experienced ramen noodles in the deep-fried, squiggly form, too bad. Those noodles are too thin, for starters. Conversely, the ramen noodles used at Naked Fish are superb. Owner Johnny Kwon told me that he sources his ramen noodles from the same supplier as Momofuku, Chef David Chang’s renowned New York noodle bar. (Incidentally, the inventor of the dried ramen I detest is named Momofuku Ando, the founder of Nissin Foods, who conceived of dried noodles as a way of feeding Japan’s post-World War II masses.) Anyway, the only restaurant I’m aware of in town making ramen noodles from scratch is Plum Alley; the others buy noodles from various suppliers. Naked Fish gets its from Los Angeles’ Sun Noodle company, which makes six varieties of fresh ramen noodles; Naked Fish uses the tonkotsu wheat & egg noodle. For what it’s worth, you can get fresh Chinese egg noodles that are really good for making homemade ramen at Oriental Food Market (667 S. 700 East, Salt Lake City, 801-363-2122).
Before you roll into the ramen at Naked Fish, be sure to order the kushikatsu ($2.95/two pieces; $5.95/five pieces). It’s Christiansen Family Farm pork tenderloin medallions breaded in panko crumbs, deep-fried and served with shredded cabbage (kyabetsu no sen-giri) and tonkatsu sauce (sometimes called “Japanese ketchup). You don’t need teeth to eat this moist, impossibly tender and delicious pork, which comes served on skewers. Also be sure to try the housemade gyoza (Japanese dumplings). The gyoza skins are made from scratch in-house, and stuffed with either minced pork or veggies, your choice. They’re served with a zippy soy & chili-oil sauce.
My favorite Naked Fish ramen is the simplest: tonkotsu ramen ($7.95). It’s classic in style: a big bowl of wonderfully rich, but light, pork broth that envelops perfectly cooked tonkotsu ramen noodles. The noodles are just firm enough, and a nice reprieve from the mushy ramen served in too many restaurants. Atop the noodles is an almost see-through slice of tender, tasty pork belly, half a poached egg (in Japanese noodle shops, chefs often use fishing line to cut the egg in half so as not to mess up the yolk) and a sprinkling of minced scallion. Naked Fish gets bonus points for giving customers ramen ladles for the delectable broth.
If you like heat, try the fiery karai ramen ($9.50). It begins with the same tonkotsu broth, but is kicked up a few thousand notches with hot chili. Those same perfect noodles this time are adorned with minced pork—the same used for the gyoza—chopped bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and moyashi (bean sprouts). Finally, there is also shoyu ramen ($7.95) with a soy-based broth, pork belly, poached egg and scallions.
“Some people think I’m mad,” Kwon says of the riskiness of serving pretty much one dish at lunch. But for those of us who are mad about ramen, it’s a stroke of pure genius.
NAKED FISH JAPANESE BISTRO
67 W. 100 South