Cafe Society

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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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