Osaka Ramen Opens Tuesday in River North

Spicy miso ramen (or tantanmen) with a 148-degree egg and ground pork.EXPAND
Spicy miso ramen (or tantanmen) with a 148-degree egg and ground pork.
Mark Antonation

"I've done eight restaurant openings and they're all the same," says chef/restaurateur Jeff Osaka. "Nothing ever goes as planned." Despite delays, and almost a year after he closed his first Denver restaurant, twelve, Osaka is finally ready to swing open the door of Osaka Ramen on Tuesday, May 5 on a corner in the River North neighborhood that's also home to Biju's Little Curry Shop and Park Burger RiNo. The subterranean ramen bar initially will be open from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (and closed on Sundays and Mondays); Osaka has plans to add lunch hours in the coming weeks.

The menu will include five regular ramen styles: shio (chicken broth and sea salt) with braised pork shoulder; shoyu (chicken broth and soy sauce) with pork, mushrooms and bitter greens; tonkotsu (pork and chicken broth) with pork belly, ginger, black garlic oil and bamboo shoots; spicy miso (pork and chicken broth) with spicy pork, sesame and bean sprouts; and vegetable, made with Thai green curry, tofu, honshimeji mushrooms and pickled vegetables. All come with eggs cooked at 148 degrees to give them a soft, custardy texture.

Osaka also plans to roll out seasonal bowls, like traditional Hokkaido-style ramen with corn and butter when Olathe corn season hits at the end of the summer. Aside from noodles, the kitchen will offer bento boxes with four proteins — boneless chicken thighs, steamed Colorado striped bass, grilled Korean beef and vegetarian mabo-style tofu — as well as an array of small plates ranging from traditional gyoza and chilled tofu to fun, modern creations. The list includes bacon-fried rice and okonomiyaki French fries topped with dried bonito flakes and; kara age chicken gets a citrus, soy sauce and ginger marinade before being dusted with seasoned potato starch and deep fried.

A full bar menu features several sakes and a collection of Riesling wines, which Osaka says is the perfect accompaniment to his ramen. Beer and cocktails round out the list. 

Decor is minimalist — almost cafeteria-like — but with splashes of color and humor; the restaurant's logo depicts a cartoon chicken and pig hot-tubbing in a ramen bowl, and a mural of the Tokyo skyline runs the length of one wall, with a silhouette of Godzilla rampaging for ramen. Menu signs above the ramen bar further the cartoon theme, showing various proteins with cute faces priced in Japanese yen, after the Tokyo ramen shops that inspired Osaka's vision.

Kara age: fried chicken with potato-flour crust.EXPAND
Kara age: fried chicken with potato-flour crust.
Mark Antonation

The chef is planning a soft opening at 5 p.m. Saturday, and will officially open the doors next Tuesday. Given the recent rise in ramen's popularity in Denver (several new noodle eateries have opened in the past year) and Osaka Ramen's long-anticipated opening, Osaka says he "wouldn't be surprised" if there were lines out the door from day one. But this restaurant isn't some flash in the pan or an attempt to jump on the ramen bandwagon. "I've been planning this since I started twelve," he explains, adding that he took an exploratory trip to Japan several years ago to glean ideas. And he's glad to see Denver experiencing a surge in Japanese noodle houses, which have long had a foothold on the East Coast and in Los Angeles, where Osaka grew up eating ramen.

Chilled green beans with soy sesame dressing.EXPAND
Chilled green beans with soy sesame dressing.
Mark Antonation

In addition to RiNo's Osaka Ramen, the chef is also working on a second location in Cherry Creek North. He's leery of giving a firm opening date for that Osaka Ramen, citing the delays at the first shop and the unusual two-story layout of the new spot, which was previously Ay Caramba torteria. What kind of delays has he experienced? The RiNo kitchen didn't have gas until the beginning of this week, he says, and his noodle cooker was not calibrated to high-altitude cooking when it was shipped, so a technician had to come out and tear the machine apart on-site.

During those delays, Osaka held a couple of ramen pop-ups; he's  also designing his own line of chef's aprons and knife rolls with Winter Session, a Denver accessory design company, that will be sold at Berkeley Supply on Tennyson Street. But right now, it's all about the noodles, and Osaka is both relieved and excited to finally open his place. And the rest of ramen-crazed Denver is excited, too.

100-quart stock pots filled with different ramen broths.EXPAND
100-quart stock pots filled with different ramen broths.
Mark Antonation
Okonimiyaki fries with bonito flakes.EXPAND
Okonimiyaki fries with bonito flakes.
Mark Antonation
Cooking eggs at 148 degrees gives them a custardy texture.EXPAND
Cooking eggs at 148 degrees gives them a custardy texture.
Mark Antonation
The noodle cooker.EXPAND
The noodle cooker.
Mark Antonation
The long, narrow dining room with a mural of the Tokyo skyline.EXPAND
The long, narrow dining room with a mural of the Tokyo skyline.
Mark Antonation
Decor is austere, but with warm touches like the wooden legs on these chairs.EXPAND
Decor is austere, but with warm touches like the wooden legs on these chairs.
Mark Antonation
Condiments at each table.EXPAND
Condiments at each table.
Mark Antonation
The underground ramen bar captures the urban feel of Tokyo.EXPAND
The underground ramen bar captures the urban feel of Tokyo.
Mark Antonation
The host stand with the ramen bar in the background.EXPAND
The host stand with the ramen bar in the background.
Mark Antonation
Godzilla in search of ramen.EXPAND
Godzilla in search of ramen.
Mark Antonation
A playful mix of service ware adds a homey touch to the industrial space.EXPAND
A playful mix of service ware adds a homey touch to the industrial space.
Mark Antonation
The kitchen at Osaka Ramen is ready for service.EXPAND
The kitchen at Osaka Ramen is ready for service.
Mark Antonation
The menu encompasses four ramen styles, four bento plates, a baker's dozen of small plates and a few desserts.EXPAND
The menu encompasses four ramen styles, four bento plates, a baker's dozen of small plates and a few desserts.
Mark Antonation
Menus have several different Japanese phrases on the back.EXPAND
Menus have several different Japanese phrases on the back.
Mark Antonation
Menu signs above the ramen bar mimic Tokyo price boards.EXPAND
Menu signs above the ramen bar mimic Tokyo price boards.
Mark Antonation
The front entrance, down the stairs from the Walnut Street doorway, between Park Burger and a marijuana dispensary.EXPAND
The front entrance, down the stairs from the Walnut Street doorway, between Park Burger and a marijuana dispensary.
Mark Antonation
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