I’ve been planning food vacations for decades, a strategy that has led to many memorable meals, from a hearty onion tart in Strasbourg, France, to a cinnamon-dusted, pigeon-filled b’stilla in Marrakech. A year and a half ago, I added another globe-trotting dish to the list: tonkotsu ramen at a hole-in-the-wall ramen-ya in Tokyo. The broth was transformational, far richer than what I’d slurped before, the result of pork bones — ones typically shunned by American cooks, like trotters — boiled for the better part of a day. Ramen, as we all know, is more about stock than noodles. But not until that rich, cloudy-white broth — which coated my lips with a silky layer of fat and smelled oddly sharp, like the offspring of pork belly and cream and something indefinable from so much collagen and marrow — did I understand just how true this is.
So when I pulled up to Katsu Ramen, with its red lanterns and red-and-yellow sign fluttering in the breeze, I was hoping for a Proustian moment, one that would transport me back to that utilitarian Japanese spot, with its poor lighting, battered tables and counter full of men in suits who didn’t even bother to pull out phones, so intent were they on eating. Ramen-yas, even ones you don’t take a plane to get to, aren’t places for lingering, and Katsu Ramen, which opened in an Aurora strip mall this winter to long lines of ramen lovers, is no exception: The server arrived to take our order before we'd settled in to our seats.
My friend and I knew what we wanted: tonkotsu and miso ramen. What we didn’t know was whether we wanted the bowls solo or as part of a lunchtime combo, with gyoza and a hearty side. So we asked for another minute, which seemed to perplex our server, as if she’d never before encountered someone not wanting to rush in, slurp and rush out. She stayed away longer than necessary, but even with the delay, it didn’t take long for our food to arrive. First came complimentary bowls of chile-studded garlic chives and mung bean sprouts in sesame oil. Gingery, pork-filled gyoza were next — we’d sprung for the combos — followed by rice bowls topped with shaved beef hinting of mirin marinade and beef curry loaded with potatoes, carrots and a mellow bit of fruit. But before we’d made a dent in those courses, our oversized ramen bowls arrived, contents sloshing against the thick black-and-white rims, and we pushed the other plates aside. Cold curry is one thing — but cold ramen is unacceptable.
The tonkotsu was lovely to behold, its surface littered with buoyant bok choy, bean sprouts, pickled ginger, ajitsuke tamago (marinated soft-boiled egg), a swirly pink fish cake, green onions and two slices of chashu, the gently marinated pork belly that added pockets of fat to an already over-the-top soup. Beneath it all was a stock as white as I’d remembered, so opaque that if an Escoffier student had served it, he would’ve been sent back to Stocks 101. But clear broths are a French, not Japanese, tradition and as I dipped my deep-cupped spoon into the bowl, I inhaled deeply, hoping for the scent of emulsified animal magic.
But instead of the aroma that had captivated me in Tokyo, I smelled...nothing. The first spoonful brought a liquid with a thick mouthfeel that spoke to seventeen hours over the stove. Chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other, I dug deeper into the bowl, ferrying food to my mouth before the stock had time to cool and the noodles lost their bounce. But I soon realized there would be no madeleine moment. This stock was very good, but it lacked the primal oomph that had captivated my senses in Tokyo. The ajitsuke tamago was more hard than soft, and the chashu must’ve hopped in and out of its marinade. Disappointed, I leaned heavily on the chile paste that the kitchen had dabbed on the side of the bowl to doctor up the dish.
And that’s the thing about ramen: Even in Japan, where Katsu Ramen’s chef, Shinsuke Hirao, worked in ramen-yas for seventeen years, there’s no defining recipe, no golden rule, and customers can customize. Cooks are free to experiment, too, especially with tonkotsu, so every bowl is different: Some are made with pig heads, some not; some are loaded with housemade noodles, some with dried. (Katsu Ramen sources its noodles from Los Angeles.) Such flexibility is good for chefs, because it means more freedom, but it can be maddening for ramen lovers, who might slurp hundreds of bowls looking for the stuff of memory.
My husband experienced his own memory moment on another visit to Katsu Ramen, over a bowl of miso ramen that was full-bodied, nutty and slightly sweet. With bean sprouts and cabbage mixed into the noodles, the dish had a fresh, crisp profile — two adjectives not usually associated with ramen — and he declared it the best he’d eaten. When I tried the miso ramen at another meal, the broth was lighter, as if the balance of red to white miso had changed, but it was still quite good.
Less nuanced was the chilled ramen, Hirao’s take on what is traditionally a seasonal offering. The broth here tasted like a blend of soy sauce and sesame-seed paste; given its palate-pounding strength, I would’ve preferred the concoction as a dipping sauce to complement, not clobber, the otherwise enjoyable cold noodles topped with tomatoes, cucumbers, chashu slivers and tamago, slices of the sweet, spongy omelet familiar to sushi fans. My tongue also got clobbered by the spicy chicken ramen, but this time in a good way; spicy chile oil added a red slick to everything in the bowl. Shoyu was on the other end of the spectrum, made with a mild-mannered mix of soy, chicken and pork stocks. I don’t know why anyone would order this over tonkotsu, miso or the spicy chicken; it tasted too polite, as if it were holding back its truest self.
As I slurped my way through many bowls, I noticed that I wasn’t tasting two flavors commonly associated with ramen: dried kombu (seaweed) and bonito (fish) flakes. Were these ingredients used at all? Curious as to why a chef who’d spent nearly two decades in ramen-yas in Tokyo and Osaka and who moved to the United States to work at Katsu Ramen would downplay these staples, I put in a call to Hirao. Was he tweaking the recipes to cater to American tastes? I never got to ask him that; Hirao doesn’t speak English. Instead, I spoke to Yumi Ogai, who owns the similarly named Sushi Katsu with her husband, and who partnered with Masumi Higo to launch Katsu Ramen. Ogai — who occasionally works in the Katsu Ramen kitchen — kindly heard me out and confirmed, without elaboration, that the kitchen does not use bonito or kombu. Later, however, she e-mailed back to say the chef “refused to disclose the information.”
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The surroundings at Katsu Ramen speak for themselves. The walls hold Hello Kitty memorabilia and dueling televisions, one set to CNN and the other — on one occasion, at least — to Japanese programming with people bowing alongside a furry yellow mascot. The windows lined with shelves of plastic food are a common sight in Japan, designed to showcase everything on the menu. Just don’t pay too much attention to these: The vegetable-heavy beef curry (also heavy on MSG) looked nothing like the meat-heavy model in the window, and our beef bowl was served without the red pickled ginger sprinkled attractively on top. And there were other dishes that fell short: Japanese fried chicken must’ve been pulled from the fryer too soon, since the traditional flour-cornstarch batter was a shade too pale and not as crispy as it should’ve been. Hiyayakko, an appetizer of soft tofu with a soy-based dressing, tasted like thick, wet bean curd. And the chicken thighs in the teriyaki entree were bathed in such a mild sauce that they weren’t worth our attention.
Then again, we had better things to eat, like katsu curry, a panko-crusted pork cutlet dipped in that sweet, brown sauce. And ramen, of course. Katsu Ramen may not be up to the level of the spot I remember in Tokyo, but it’s still a welcome addition to the Denver dining scene.
1930 South Havana Street, Unit 4, Aurora
Select menu items:
Pork gyoza $5.50
Tonkotsu ramen $9.85
Shoyu ramen $9.25
Chilled ramen $9.50
Beef bowl $8.95
Katsu curry $9.50
Teriyaki chicken $8.50
Beef curry $8.95
Katsu Ramen is open from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Learn more at katsuramen.com.