Finding My Religion
It's an embarrassment, the amount of instant ramen noodle soup in my cupboard right now, from a variety of companies (Nissin, Maruchan, some off-brand called Ninja), in several preparations (both the cup and the brick, as well as a microwavable bowl) and a spread of flavors that all taste exactly the same. I have more ramen than I'm willing to admit -- at least a dozen packages.
And not a one is dusty. These aren't holdovers from more destitute times (like the box of old cassette tapes, a three-foot plastic Christmas tree and some college textbooks) that have chased me from crappy apartment to crappy apartment, back and forth across the fruited plain. No, these are freshly purchased packages of ramen, about enough to last me a month. Because if I had to guess, I'd say I still eat ramen about three times a week.
I know this is something I should be going to confession for. I'm a restaurant critic, ferchrissake, and I should be stuffing myself with foie gras and licking caviar off supermodels and getting up at three in the morning to nibble on the stuffed figs and prosciutto that the magical food elves leave in my refrigerator. The caviar and the supermodels in particular -- that's why I signed on for this gig. But instead, it's Nissin shrimp ramen in the cup. I stand bleary-eyed before my stove in the middle of the night waiting for the water to boil, then sit on the couch bathed in the blue light of the TV, slurping at my noodles. Ramen is a habit I've had for years -- since those days when I really was destitute and 59 cents was all I could afford for dinner -- and, like smoking, cheap whiskey and microwave cheese sandwiches, it's one I like too much to quit.
So this is my ramen experience: the dusty spice packet, midnight steam burns and boiling water splashing down the front of my jammies. This is how I've come to know the stuff, how an entire generation of poor American college students, graduated slackers and starving-artist types have come to know it.
In Japan, though, ramen is a proper meal, eaten sitting down or standing up, served on the street and in regular ramen restaurants decorated with big-eyed laughing cartoon children and Day-Glo pandas. More than soba, more than udon, the humble ramen noodle is Japan's most culturally identifiable food -- its Big Mac, its mac-and-cheese. Ramen is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, slurped down late at night by sake-drunk sararimen, served in every home. For tourists terrified of the poison blowfish, live surf clam, tuna belly and mystery meat smoking on grills all over the Ginza, ramen is international comfort food, harmless, if not entirely recognizable.
Because that bowl of steaming, savory broth, fat shrimp, seaweed and buckwheat noodles in Tokyo is a far cry from what the people in the Nissin, Maruchan and Ninja packaging plants produce -- the Styrofoam containers crammed onto the shelves at King Soopers between cans of corned beef hash and Wolfgang Puck's instant consommé-in-a-cup, the bricks of odd-smelling noodles, the nasty little desiccated peas and stingy brine shrimp. What makes it to America's heartland is the equivalent of what would happen if Ronald McDonald started freeze-drying cheeseburgers, packing them up with little packets of powdered ketchup and onions, and mailing them off to Japan.
But finding a McDonald's in downtown Tokyo is easy today. Finding a real ramen noodle house in the United States is much more challenging. So how lucky are we to have Oshima Ramen, hidden and half-forgotten in a Denver strip mall, part of a chain of ramen noodle shops that is to Japan what Mickey D's is to this country?
We're very lucky. As a matter of fact, we're the luckiest people in the whole USA, because this small, unprepossessing and virtually invisible spot squashed intoTiffany Plaza is the only Oshima Ramen in America. Brought from the center of Tokyo to the Rocky Mountain West five years ago by local noodle magnate Todd Imamura, it was the beginning (and the end) of the Oshima Ramen invasion.
As envisioned by Keiji Oshima, the founder of the chain, Oshima Ramen serves the ultimate ramen. The broths are made every day to exacting standards with fresh pork bone, chicken and bonito stock, as well as other ingredients imported from the Japanese markets; the fresh noodles are rolled and cut every morning, every bowl made to order. The menu offers two basic broths -- a blonde soy shoyu and a coffee-dark and cloudy miso -- that create about twenty soups, everything from a simple Original Ramen to a veggie, to a tofu and bamboo-shoot ramen, to a seafood ramen, to a double-up super original Oshima Ramen with chaisu, boiled egg and corn.
Keiji has dedicated his fortune and his life to the construction of a worldwide ramen empire that, thus far, has established only this one outpost outside of Tokyo. "He finally birthed the secret special Oshima Ramen after great efforts and improvement," says the bad English translation on the Oshima Ramen corporate website. "To accomplish his great dream that people all over the world will eat his ramen, he never compromises with the taste so that someday God of Ramen will make his dream come true."
Yes, Keiji believes in the God of Ramen -- it says so right in his business plan. And he has also decreed that daily, ardent prayer by his cooks will bring them closer to understanding the "ultimate taste of beauty." Eccentric? You bet. Flat-out crazy? Maybe. But then, I wholeheartedly believe in the Food God Ptomainicus, who punishes gossipy foodies, those who use garlic presses and any critic who utters the phrase "to die for" -- so who am I to judge? Besides, the food at Oshima Ramen is really good, and if praying to the noodle-armed and salty God of Ramen is what it takes to make a miso broth as heady, composed and huge as any Italian di tartufo soup or French bouillon aux champignons, then sign me up. I can't wait to see what this church uses for communion.
The worship begins at 11:30 a.m. on a Tuesday at Oshima Ramen, where I'm sitting hunched up at a counter that wraps all the way around the open kitchen, surrounded by construction workers in dusty boots, businesspeople, a geek in a Star Trek T-shirt and chattering knots of Japanese girls at the rickety tables pressed up against the wall. There's no music here -- no radio, no piped-in Asian bubblegum pop -- so the only sounds are the conversations of my fellow travelers, the orders being taken in English by the single waitress and received in Japanese by the single cook, the occasional jangle of the phone and, in those weird moments when all talking suddenly stops, the tink of plastic pho spoons and the harmonized slurping of a dozen mouths drinking soup straight from the bowl and sucking down long, thin, tender buckwheat ramen noodles. It's enough to drive any etiquette teacher out of her gourd, but I love the sounds: that contented slurping, the spitting hiss of oil hitting a hot wok, the twittering Japanese voices filling the long, narrow space better than any movement of Ludwig van.
I find religion in the chaisu ramen -- inhaling the steam rising from the shoyu broth, then shoveling in big bites of curling noodles, thin-sliced marinated pork, bits of seaweed, bean sprouts, green onions and chunks of soy-soaked boiled egg as fast as I can work my chopsticks. Eating quickly is the secret with everything here -- the flavors at their best and freshest the minute your bowl hits the rail. I order a cup of hot green tea, and it comes in Styrofoam, already steeping. My side of "tasty chicken bits" is a small bowl filled with pasty-white, poached chicken scraps that taste great while they're hot, like old gum once they cool. I dump the cold ones into what's left of my broth, swirl them around, then pick up the bowl and drink just like everyone else. Slurp, slurp, slurp.
The home of the God of Ramen is really pretty dumpy, the space around the grimy cash register a mess of computer parts, old phone books, a fire extinguisher, crumpled menus. The shabby walls are tiled in graffiti- covered white posterboard crammed with pronouncements of love, line drawings of big-eyed anime girls with kitty-cat ears, and scrawls of indecipherable kanji script. But there's something about Oshima Ramen's scruffiness that makes the place feel all the more vital. It's drab, but authentically so. It's cluttered and claustrophobic, and I have to wonder when someone last cleaned out the bottles of soy sauce and curry powder and sesame seeds and minced garlic and red pepper and plain pepper and whatever else is stacked up along the front of the bar. But there's no question that my pork fried rice -- made with stubby, fat little short grains of rice, pork belly and seared streamers of egg -- is the best I've tasted in a lifetime of hunting after really good pork fried rice, so I forgive any sins of housekeeping and order more ramen.
This time it's the Super Original. I attack the bowl fast, slurping madly and loudly at the noodles and thin, salty, slightly tart broth; turning everything -- the bean sprouts, the seaweed, the nira chives and hakusai Chinese cabbage and whole boiled egg -- over and over with my chopsticks to get at the tiny pink cubes of pork belly tangled in the ramen at the bottom. When a plate of oily, flat-grilled, stuck-together gyoza dumplings arrives, I split one open and almost swoon at the fierce smell of gingered pork paste that catches me like a sucker punch straight to the nose.
I don't like the soy and peppery daikon dipping sauce on the side (the combination of white radish and ginger is too much like smelling salts), so I lean over and ask the Russian bricklayer next to me, silently forking rice into his head with all the passion of a steam-shovel operator, to pass the rice vinegar. He does, and the combination is perfect: bittersweet and savory and astringent all at once. I finish the dumplings, order tea, touch the wad of folding money in my pocket and cross my fingers: Oshima Ramen only takes cash.
From the inside, from the outside, from any angle at all, Oshima Ramen isn't much to look at. It's cramped when things get busy, creepy-quiet between hits. There's a cartoon moose trying to get you to eat more ginger-and-red-bean ice cream, the drinks all come in Styrofoam, and the plates and bowls are plastic. If you can't handle chopsticks, the forks are the sort you pick up for a buck apiece at Wal-Mart. But who cares about that when the waitress is this friendly? When there are Japanese beers in the cooler and the fried rice is so good? When the ramen comes straight from God to the wok to you? For food like this, I would sit on a bucket and eat off my knees if I had to. For this, I would eat standing on my head.
That would no doubt please Keiji Oshima. With me, he's one mouth closer to his great dream of world ramen domination, and even if his campaign is currently stalled in a Denver strip mall, he's given us lucky few the most authentic, odd and plainly Japanese ramen house in the USA, where all that stands between me and another bowl of miso ramen is one man trying to please the Ramen God.
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