Americans make movies about violence and sex, and the Japanese make movies about violence and food. So who do you think makes the better noodles?
If you've seen the film Tampopo, you know that the noodle house is serious business in Japan. In that movie, a truck driver, Goro, who looks like a Japanese version of the leading guy in every spaghetti Western ever made, is in search of the perfect noodle. The charming and sweet Tampopo owns a noodle house but can't make a good noodle bowl to save her life. Naturally, these two hook up, then embark on a mission to create the perfect noodle bowl. There's some sex along the way, but naked breasts are shown over food; there's some violence, but it's usually over food, too. Mostly, the story is about a quest for ideals -- specifically, the ideal broths and noodles and the ideal noodle-house etiquette.
Watch the movie before you visit Oshima Ramen, and you won't snicker when the guy next to you makes a slurping noise that sounds like an elephant being sucked through a straw; nor will you be offended when the woman at the other end of the counter gulps from her bowl as though it were a jumbo mai tai. These are both acceptable noodle-house behaviors. And it's also customary for a noodle bowl to contain enough food to nourish the body for, oh, about a week. The noodles themselves are lovingly prepared by Keiji Oshima, former Japanese high school welterweight boxing champion and owner of more than a dozen noodle houses in Tokyo. One of Oshima's Japanese partners, Todd Imamura, moved to Colorado a few years ago and convinced Oshima that this state would be a good place to take his noodles international. And while I wish Oshima had picked a better location than this tiny, tidy spot in Tiffany Plaza, rents are high in the metro area, and he had to start somewhere. Now all he needs are a few more customers -- and he deserves them.
In fact, Oshima Ramen is a noodle house so good that it deserves its own cinematic celebration. Oshima's deeply flavored soup stocks alone qualify as works of art. He starts with whole chickens and pork necks and cooks them for hours, skimming the fat off the broth (he leaves a few tiny blobs floating in there for extra flavor, and you'll find yourself chasing them around the bowl like a Pac-Man with a spoon) and then adorning the rich brown broth with real bamboo shoots (sweeter and softer than the woody canned kind you're accustomed to), tender meats, the customary hard-boiled egg half (it's darker because it's been soaked in soy sauce) and the most important element: the noodles.
As in Japan, noodles are taken very seriously here. If you order your soup to go, Imamura, who serves as the manager and unofficial interpreter -- he's one of the few people working at Oshima Ramen who speaks English -- will ask when you plan to eat your bowl; if dinner is more than an hour away, he'll package everything separately. "The noodles will stretch too much," Imamura explains. "You'll lose texture." And Oshima would lose face, because he prides himself on flawless ramen. This is light years away from the Top type: not too soft, but not chewy, either, with a noticeable springiness and plenty of curves, which help trap the broth. And he puts enough noodles in each bowl so that each dip of the chopsticks pulls up a hefty load suitable for slurping.
The setup is as genuine as the food: You sit at a long, U-shaped counter with a raised area where the soups are placed when ready and where you're instructed to leave your empty bowl. And it will be empty. While we soaked up the atmosphere, we devoured an order of gyoza ($3.50): Six fat, freshly made dumplings had been fried together so that they formed a single crust that ran alongside them; it looked like the browned, crackly piece of cheese that oozes out onto the grill and turns into a greasy little cracker when you make a grilled cheese sandwich. This dumpling cracker was just as sinfully greasy and delicious. The gyoza themselves were spongy balls filled with seasoned ground pork; a container of soy vinegar on the counter provided the right counterpoint to their richness.
The menu offers ten noodle-bowl choices, although some are simply variations on the basic types: soy-based, or shoyu ramen; miso-based, or miso ramen; and the pork-based, called Melting Chashao. There's a vegetable version ($9) as well, with plenty of vegetables -- bok choy, carrots, soybean sprouts -- in a milder broth (vegetarians, take note: It contains that concentrated chicken stock). Oshima Ramen also offers a rice bowl ($7), which was basically a big bowl filled with fabulous fried rice coated with a delicious, greasy sheen and studded with scrambled eggs; a bowl of garlic broth and a tiny dish of sweet, soy-soaked bean sprouts came on the side.
For my money, though, the best bet is the soy-based ramen ($7), with slices of pork laid out along one side of the bowl and lots of scallion rings and cabbage. Although the miso ramen ($8) included many of the same ingredients, it boasted a murkier broth that wasn't quite a conventional miso soup but had that soup's traditional deep saltiness and pointed flavor. The Melting Chashao ($9) featured thick-cut pieces of chashao, the same cut of pork as our bacon (from the belly and sides of the pig); unlike bacon, though, this meat hadn't been smoked or cured and so imparted a wonderful, fatty flavor to the soup. For that matter, the pork-pumped broth was studded with pieces of oh-so-soft fat -- call the nutrition police! -- which made the bowl a true melting pot. One bite, and who needed sex? The air was plenty steamy with authenticity.
The Japanese don't have a complete monopoly on good noodles, though. For proof, stop by Billy Lam's Yan-Kee Noodle, a central-Denver variation on his Chef's Noodle House, which has been serving up delicious noodle and rice bowls at Sixth Avenue and Havana in Aurora for five years. Before that, Lam was the chef/owner of the ambitious China Cowboy across from the State Capitol. When that effort went under, he decided to concentrate his talents on less upscale ventures, turning out delicious food for cheap -- a concept that benefited greatly from his fine-dining skills. Things are running so smoothly at Chef's Noodle House these days that Lam's entrusted the cooking there to his talented kitchen staff and is concentrating on his four-month-old Yan-Kee Noodle.
Like Oshima Ramen, Yan-Kee Noodle suffers from a less than ideal location (and also has no liquor license). The problem here is access: Heading west on Alameda Avenue just past Broadway, you don't notice Yan-Kee's sign until you're already passing it. And even once you've turned around and pulled into the small shopping area, the parking spaces reserved for Yan-Kee customers are likely to be occupied by people heading to the businesses located on either side of Lam's storefront eatery. Would-be diners aren't the only ones irritated by the situation; it's been a major source of frustration for Lam, whose Aurora outlet may not have the best address, but does have plenty of parking.
Still, it's worth any amount of effort to eat at Yan-Kee. While Lam mans the wok, his sister, Sophie, runs the register and takes care of the dining area, a small room packed with gleaming metal tables and chairs that look out into that dreaded parking lot. But the food quickly diverts your attention. We started with a few appetizers, including Lam's signature emerald chicken dumplings ($3.25), four bright-green crescents --spinach contributes the color -- filled with oniony chicken and served with Lam's garlic-packed nuoc cham. The sauce that comes with the Vietnamese egg rolls ($3) is also something special: a pineapple-packed elixir that's good enough to eat with a spoon but is also heavenly on the crispy-shelled, golden-fried packages stuffed with chicken and onions.
Lam's Vietnamese-style noodle bowls have no broth; they focus more on meats and other ingredients. But there's always a sauce on the side, and the restaurant offers many bottles of other sauces that you can use to doctor your dish. The special Yankee noodles ($5.95) featured wok-tossed fat rice noodles in a rich brown sauce sweetened with tomatoes and pineapples, with many tender chunks of beef piled on top. The Saigon noodles ($5.95) starred noodles made out of corn and potatoes, wok-tossed with medium-to-large shrimp perfectly coated with a spicy garlic sauce.
In addition to the noodle bowls, this Lam outlet also offers rice bowls and soups. The chicken bowl ($4.95) paired beautifully steamed jasmine rice with either a slightly sweet, thin ginger-soy sauce (my favorite) or a thick, curry-packed peanut sauce. More chicken taste permeated the soup ($5.25 for chicken, $5.95 for shrimp or a combination of both), a light broth that was paler and less intense than Oshima's but still packed a flavor punch -- as well as lots of freshly made egg noodles. Yan-Kee serves up less liquid assets, too, including succulent orange beef ($7.50): big chunks of tender meat encased in a thick, crunchy shell, all heavily slicked with a sweet citrus sauce that stayed soft rather than turning into an Asian version of a candied apple as it cooled.
With these two modest eateries, both Oshima and Lam demonstrate that they know how to use their noodles. If you're on a quest for the perfect noodle -- or just a perfectly great-tasting bargain-priced meal -- Oshima Ramen and Yan-Kee Noodle will bowl you over.
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