January 2015 wasn't the start of the ramen bowl trend by a long shot, not even in Denver, but it was the date that Katsu Ramen flung open its doors in Aurora to stupendously long lines of noodle-crazy customers — so crazy that they ate through the kitchen's stock by 7 p.m. and the owners, Yumi Ogai and Chang Lee, had to close up early. Since then, they've grown a lively, incredibly popular ramen shop on Havana Street — even if it is the size of a toenail.
When I rolled up around 5 p.m. on a recent visit to this teeny-tiny noodle palace thrust between a cell phone store and a British tea shop in relatively busy strip mall, it was evident that I had lucked out and hit a lull, because for the first time in my trips there, I got through the door and to a table without a wait. There are reasons why this place is hot-hot-hot right now, and maybe it has to do with the super-clean, bright, miniature dining room decorated with cheesy, kitschy Japanese knickknacks like Hello Kitty dolls, the terrible eighties music playing (unless you like Zapp & Roger), Mighty Morphin Power Rangers playing on the tube, or the sardine-can-packed close dining quarters. Or maybe not. This isn't a place to relax — the pace is furiously fast here.
Despite the other distractions, it’s definitely all about the ramen here, although little perks like tuna tataki salad; cold, Sangaria-brand Ramune soda; and panna cotta smothered in mango sauce add a touch of variety. Ordering is easyl thanks to a succinct, photo-filled menu, leaving you with a few minutes to really get to know your tablemates — since everyone is really, really close and everyone gets seated communally. There are fifty perches in the whole place; fortunately I got jammed in next to a kid with an iPhone who wasn't interested in chatting.
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The service is comet-fast and my tuna tataki salad arrived before I could even think of making new friends. The wiggly, crimson tuna was so gently seared, it wasn’t cooked so much as merely run through a hot kitchen — perfect for my tastes. The rest of the salad was heavy on the iceberg lettuce which I would normally ignore, but it actually gave it some icy, crisp bite that went well with the avocado and tomato slices. I was just mopping up the last bit of tuna in the last bit of dressing when my shoyu ramen bowl arrived, and I instantly regretted not ordering an extra salted egg because that creamy salty yolk staring up at me was the first thing I went for. Katsu ramen serves five ramen types: shoyu with meat broth, miso with savory broth and vegetables, tonkotsu with pork, tan tan with spicy chicken, and hiyashi chuka, a summery noodle dish with chilled broth.
My steaming shoyu bowl was awash in a rich broth dotted with fat, two slices of melting pork, tender-crisp veggies, that gorgeous egg, and the token garnish I call “the swirly fish ball slice.” I can’t make better ramen at home — and why would I bother when Katsu Ramen does it for me so fast and cheap? Takeout isn't a bad idea, since there is an inescapable turn-and-burn feel here, as evidenced by the kid next to me leaving, only to be replaced by another teenager who plopped into the seat and proceeded to order before the staff could even clear away the dishes and teacups. But then again, the loud and lively atmosphere adds to the experience: Everything comes at you fast and furious at Katsu Ramen — and it’s worth the ride.