I’m not the first to fall under the spell of tonkotsu ramen, with its mysteriously alluring pork broth that hides a world of flavor in every white, cloudy spoonful. Jeff Osaka, chef-owner of the month-old Osaka Ramen, the latest entrant in Denver’s ramen war, has spent years thinking about the stuff, too — and at Osaka Ramen, we get to savor the results.
Of the five types of ramen fashioned in his subterranean RiNo restaurant, the tonkotsu has already distinguished itself as the biggest seller, and it’s not hard to see why. Osaka has applied the same meticulous approach that marked his 23-year career in fine dining – most recently, as chef-owner of the highly-acclaimed twelve – to what is essentially a bowl of comfort food.
First, there’s the broth. Most restaurants boil whatever combination of bones they’ve chosen for the better part of a day. (At Katsu Ramen, which I review this week, tonkotsu broth cooks for upwards of seventeen hours.) But after much testing, Osaka found that the broth needed more time. A lot more time. Currently, the broth — made from pig’s femurs and feet – spends anywhere from 36 to 48 hours on the stove. And given the high demand, some 300 quarts of the stuff are bubbling away at any given time.
Noodles are delivered fresh, not frozen, and made to Osaka’s specifications by the famed Sun Noodle, with his desired thickness and amounts of kansui and egg to give them the right amount of chew. Other touches that show a chef’s mind at work: Tonkotsu is topped not with beni shoga (red pickled ginger) but natural ginger. And instead of ajitsuke tamago, the marinated, soft-boiled eggs that often float on the surface, there’s a poached egg. Osaka prefers the creaminess of its free-flowing yolk, and I liked it, too, especially since it doesn’t come out over-cooked, as soft-boiled eggs have a tendency to do.
The topping that people swoon over tends to be chashu, but as good as the fat slices of rolled, marinated pork belly are, it is the mayu (black garlic oil) that seals the deal. Added with sesame oil just prior to serving, the dark, slightly bitter, slightly sweet liquid goes through a transformation not unlike that of the broth; call it quits too soon, and both end up shadows of their future glorious selves. The process is a slow one, with garlic creeping its way from toasted to black. At home, you might think you’ve gone too far, but Osaka knows better. “We take it a step further until it sweetens up,” he says. “It takes a few hours to get to that point.”
Time-consuming steps such as this are why no one makes ramen at home — not on a regular basis anyway, not even tonkotsu-fans like me. Not when such a spectacular bowl of ramen can be had within minutes of taking a seat at Osaka Ramen.
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And soon you'll be able to grab a seat at Osaka Ramen during the day. Osaka says that as of Monday, June 1, Osaka Ramen will be open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, with dinner seven days a week starting at 5 p.m.