"I don't know if I could have predicted how popular it would become," acknowledges Jeff Osaka, referencing the wave of Japanese ramen mania that's sweeping the nation. "Ramen is something I've been eating since I was a kid, so it's not new to me, but it seems like the nation has been leaning toward more casual, inexpensive and fast dining options, while still demanding quality ingredients, and I do believe the mania is here to stay -- and not just another fad," notes Osaka, the owner-chef of twelve, who's opening Osaka Ramen late this summer in a subterranean space in the Ballpark 'hood, where he'll share the building's real estate with Park Burger, Zephyr Brewing, Biju's Little Curry Shop and a pot shop.
"Opening a ramen shop is something I've wanted to do for a long time," reveals Osaka, who hunted for a space for more than two years -- and just got back from Los Angeles, where he at his way through several ramenyas. "Every time I go back home to Los Angeles to visit, I eat ramen, and while there are a couple hundred noodle shops in southern California, here in Denver, I can count them on one hand," he adds. And because of that dearth, continues Osaka, "there's room for more ramen in Denver, and I just want to fill that void and share it with others -- and yes, there's also the selfish aspect of it: I want it for myself."
His L.A. discoveries -- Osaka has been prolifically posting photos of his ramen stops on his Facebook page -- will likely translate to what he envisions for his own seventy-seat shop that will ballyhoo "mid-century modern" decor, complete with "Japanese pop culture" accessories, including light fixtures that mimic flying saucers and antiquated Japanese film posters. "One thing that's similar to the ramen shops in LA is that mine will be approachable," shares Osaka. "I want Osaka Ramen to be a place where you feel comfortable and a place you want to frequent; it will be fast without being fast food," he explains.
But there will be marked differences, too, especially when it comes to the ramen itself. "Although the staple will be ramen, there will be hints of Korean, Chinese and even Southeast Asia," says Osaka, who teases that he may also dish out soba noodles, traditionally served cold. "I may offer soba as a cold noodle dish during the warmer months, because it's a lighter, more refreshing option to the heavier ramen noodles, which are typically made with wheat flour," he adds.
And speaking of noodles, Osaka is procuring his from Canada and Australia. "The wheat here in the states tends to be a little softer, so the noodles can't develop the 'chew' I'm looking for, but the noodles that I'm sourcing hold up well and complement the various broths I'll be making," explains Osaka, who will serve five different broths, each, he says, with "distinct differences." Shio, a chicken-based broth that's the lightest of the five, is made with Japanese sea salt, while a second stock, also chicken-based, will benefit from the addition of shōyu, an ebony soy sauce that Osaka describes as "a little darker and richer than the mineral flavor of shio or sea salt from Japan." The miso broths, he adds, "will have nuttier, fermented notes of miso paste and sesame," and the tonkotsu, which Osaka considers the "highlight" of his ramens, is a "rich, fatty, flavorful pork broth -- it's almost indescribable -- cooked for at least 24 hours." The latter is a stock on steroids, and, done right, a rocket of deep, pungent flavors.
Noodles, of course, are the bounce that give those steaming bowls of broth something to soak into, and while Osaka admits that this isn't by any means a rule of thumb, his philosophy adheres to the "the lighter the broth, the thicker the noodle" school of thought.
The tonkotsu, for instance, will bob with "a straighter, thinner noodle, because the broth coats the noodle easier," says Osaka. On the other hand, he notes, the shio and shōyu broths "will have a thicker, wavier noodle for the same reasons: more surface on the noodle for adherence to the lighter broth." It's similar, he adds, "to the different sizes and shapes of pasta and pairing a specific sauce to a specific pasta."
So what's the secret to a perfectly boiled ramen noodle? "Since all the noodles I'm using are fresh, it's very important to cook and time them properly," says Osaka. "One of the noodles I'm using cooks in less than 60 seconds, but once you put the noodles in hot broth, they continue to cook, and they also cook during the five or ten seconds it takes the server to walk the bowl to the table, and the longer you wait to take the first bite, the more the noodles cook." In other words, notes Osaka, "there are many variables that come into play, so no two bowls are the same, but you try your best to create some consistency. Some people may think this is extreme, but get the perfect bowl of ramen, and tell me it isn't worth it," he insists, adding that the "most difficult thing about making ramen is the time it takes to bring all the individual components together."
Diners who journey down the stairwell into Osaka's noodle shop will have access to two separate bars, once of which will peer over a partially-open kitchen, giving them a voyeur's view into Osaka's ramen kingdom, and while it's tempting to dawdle, the rule of thumb, at least in Japan, is simple: don't. Still, while Osaka concedes that it "can be considered rude to linger," and ramen is at its best "while it's boiling hot and at its peak flavor and texture," he's not about ready to kick the dalliers to the curb. "I want people to enjoy their noodles, and I'll also have more offerings than the typical noodle house -- some skewered items, pickles, rice dishes, and other side dishes, for example -- so it'll be more of a communal setting for people to relax, enjoy the food and their company," he says.
And slurping, he insists, is absolutely fine. "Again, this isn't Japan, but slurping is tradition, and we'll encourage diners to slurp if they feel the need," he says. Still, if you're insistent on using your spoon, Osaka will have those, too. "I'll be using a wider, more shallow spoon rather than the typical Chinese soup spoon that most places use," he tells me. "The shallow surface of the spoons helps cool the broth quicker to make it easier to eat, and second, the width helps distribute the aroma over a larger area -- and half the enjoyment of eating ramen is the smell," he points out.
I asked Osaka about the ingredients most essential to a basic bowl of ramen, and while he admits that it "depends on the style," bamboo shoots, a hard-boiled egg, green onions and roasted pork, he says, are the most typical -- but not at Osaka Ramen. "This is where Osaka Ramen will divert from the traditional noodle houses," divulges Osaka. "Well put our own personality in each bowl by using different cuts of pork with different preparations; eggs with be soft-poached instead of hard-boiled; and there will few other ingredients in there that are seasonal," he adds.
And while Osaka is one of those low-maintenance chefs who's pretty laid back when it comes to the wants and desires of his guests, ramen, he acknowledges, shouldn't be tampered with. "Because all of the bowls will come fully composed, there won't be much room for additions, and while removing an ingredient is fine, changing the ingredients obviously changes the integrity of the original dish," he says. It's like ordering a hot dog, he reasons. "I won't tell you that you have to have mustard on your dog, but without it, it may not taste the same." Nonetheless, "Osaka Ramen won't be about making people eat something that they don't want to eat; I just want to give people the opportunity to experience the original composition of each dish," adds Osaka.
Still, there are a few basic ramen etiquette rules that Osaka says should be followed. "Ramen is meant to be consumed hot, which is something a lot of people aren't used to, but this is when the all the ingredients are at their peak," he advises. Rule number two: Eat it fast. In Japan, says Osaka, "there are shops in a lot of the train stations, and I've seen people down a bowl in the few minutes they have before their train arrives."
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Osaka, who's hoping to open in August -- and will naturally pour sake, beer and wine to pair with his noodle bowls -- plans to post up at a pop-up on May 2 to introduce his ramen to those lucky enough to snag a bowl. The pop-up, which will take place from 6 to 10 p.m. at Berkeley Supply, a shop at 4405 West 43rd Avenue that specializes in American-made menswear, will only feature one ramen: the tonkotsu. "I'm only doing 100 bowls of ramen, and when I'm out, I'm out," warns Osaka. There's no set price for the pop-up, which will also include cocktails from Basil Hayden, a liquor company that specializes in bourbon whiskey, but donations will be accepted -- and encouraged -- and all the proceeds will benefit Project Angel Heart, a local nonprofit that prepares healthy and nutritious meals for clients suffering from life-threatening illnesses. Osaka will begin serving his ramen at 7 p.m., and since this is a no-reservations pop-up, it's to your advantage to pop in on the early side.