"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.
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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.
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.