From Japan, with love: a true noodle house

Bones (reviewed on page 33) is an ultra-modern incarnation of a noodle bar: Asian flavors and French technique mixed on a menu that doesn't require the following of any rote classical canon. But for almost a decade now (at least according to the cartoon moose/blob mascot on the menu), Denver has also had what is probably the best and most accurate version of a true Japanese noodle bar in this country, operating out of a cramped strip-mall space. Oshima Ramen is a link in a chain of Japanese ramen shops that once had designs on the American market, dreams of bringing handmade ramen to those who'd only tasted the version that gets sold in grocery store for ten cents a packet. Unfortunately, Oshima's plans for worldwide ramen domination died fast. The chain opened precisely one American location: ours.

Weird, I know. But also very cool, because Oshima Ramen gets its supplies straight from the ramen mothership in Japan and makes fresh noodles, fresh broths, fresh everything every morning. And the result is a noodle shop that feels both truly alien and completely at home in Colorado — a slightly schizophrenic, damp and fitfully busy closet of a space where Tokyo and Tiffany Square intersect on many planes at once.

I stopped in after finishing my final meal at Bones, looking for a weight of comparison and a way to put my internal compass back to true. Todd Imamura, co-owner and original commando point man for Keiji Oshima, the chain's founder, was sitting hunched up by the register, reading the paper. He waved me in, gesturing for me to take a seat at the bar. I ordered my usual: chaishu ramen, no sprouts, with gyoza and a side of "tender chicken bits." The food began arriving almost before I'd gotten settled in my chair — three minutes, tops, from order to service.


Oshima Ramen

Oshima Ramen
7400 East Hampden Avenue

It was delicious; it always is. Fresh noodles, perfectly cooked, in a blonde shoyu broth with thin-sliced pork; a marinated, hard-boiled egg; flaps of green seaweed and just a sprinkling of green onions over the top. The gyoza came fried hard, covered with a crisp, lacy skin of something that almost made them look like pastry, and tasted sweetly of oil and pork and years of dedicated practice. The chicken (roughly ground or chopped white meat — poached, I think — and served on a white plate) was my favorite part, as always — bland and gentle, just a little salty, half of it dumped into my broth to steep, the other half eaten with my fingers. I sat and slurped, surrounded by a decade's worth of loving, weird and incomprehensible graffiti on the walls and Imamura clattering behind the counter, thinking how lucky I was to live in the one place in the world outside of Japan where I could have an authentic Japanese noodle-house experience without having to get on a plane.

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