Eating dessert after a bowl of ramen is like ordering a brownie fudge sundae after downing a milkshake. It’s excess with a capital E, a feat best left to competitive eaters who swallow 62 hot dogs while the rest of us gawk in horror. That’s because these famously rich Japanese soups are treats in their own right. With luxuriously fatty broths, assorted toppings and piles of starchy noodles that, from the body’s perspective, deliver a sugar-like jolt, ramen hits all the pleasure centers that make desserts so addictive. By the time I’m halfway through a bowl of the stuff — be it porky tonkotsu or dashi-spiked shoyu — I’m thoroughly satisfied, in need of nothing more than the check. But then I tried the doughnuts at Osaka Ramen, which opened this past spring in RiNo, and everything changed.
A tribute to culinary director-owner Jeff Osaka’s wife, who loves both mochi and doughnuts, these are doughnut holes of epic proportions, ranging from golf balls to baseballs in size, depending on the night and who’s making them. (Note to the cook with the generous scoop: I love you.) Conscientiously sweetened (which is to say, not overly so), with nubby edges that get extra-crispy in the fryer, these fried dough balls would be hard to resist on their own. But stuffed with mochi (an opaque, glutinous rice cake) that melts into a chewy center, dusted with granulated sugar and kinako (roasted soybean flour) and ultimately dipped in an artistic smear of salted butter — that’s right, doughnuts in butter — they become required eating, every bit as integral to the dining experience as the sake and ramen you came for.
“The first bite is, ‘What the hell is this?’” laughs Osaka, who shuttered twelve, his intimate fine-dining eatery in the Ballpark neighborhood, last summer in favor of a string of casual ventures, including a second Osaka Ramen that opened recently in Cherry Creek and Sushi-Rama, scheduled to launch later this year. “The second bite is, ‘I kind of like it.’” For the record, Osaka is being characteristically modest: “Love,” not “like,” is the more accurate verb.
A veteran chef, Osaka should be used to people falling hard for his food. But for a host of reasons (location, price point, constantly changing menu, etc.), twelve never sparked the same kind of unadulterated joy as these doughnuts. Not that Osaka’s previous restaurant didn’t have its own memorable fare; out of hundreds and hundreds of dishes I ate one year, his plate of scallops with bacon, butternut squash and persimmons nabbed a spot on my year-end best list. But twelve was more elusive and restrained, and it never clicked with Denver diners the way it should have. Osaka Ramen does, in part because of dishes like these doughnuts, and in part because Osaka seems to have set himself free, not just opening a casual addendum to his fine-dining repertoire, but jumping in head first, closing twelve and devoting himself entirely to fun, casual fare.
These are foods you don’t just relish; you crave them. Ramen, with its manners-be-damned slurping and two-fisted utensil-shoveling, is the most obvious. Osaka dishes up five iterations, all made with fresh noodles from the legendary Sun Noodle, supplier to a who’s-who list of ramen shops around the country. He sampled some fifty versions before settling on the straight and wavy noodles that now bob in his spicy miso, shoyu and tonkotsu, sorting through them until he found ones with just the right thickness and chew. But the best ramen isn’t defined by its noodles — though good ones such as these certainly don’t go unnoticed. Unforgettable ramen is a product of broth and flavoring, which is where Osaka’s fine-dining sensibility shines. “My focus has changed, but the quality of food has not,” he says.
Shoyu runs on the lighter side — “light” being a relative term, since we are, after all, talking about ramen. The lightness comes from its reliance on chicken broth rather than the pork-chicken or all-pork bases of other versions. However, the powdered dashi that goes into the bowl before the broth lends a depth that chicken broth alone could never reach, a depth associated with umami-dense Japanese staples such as dried bonito flakes and kombu (seaweed). I’d expected to nick a few points for the fact that the kitchen doesn’t use scratch-made dashi, but in truth, the end product, layered with shoyu (soy sauce), didn’t suffer for the shortcut.
Miso ramen was a bit richer, given its equal amounts of pork and chicken broth. Unlike some variations I’ve had elsewhere, this had a spicy, not nutty, profile, thanks to kimchi, sesame paste and miso (both white and red). Spicy ground pork and an egg poached in its shell were welcome additions, the runny yolk intensifying the soup’s viscosity and richness. Vegetable ramen — more of a Southeast Asian-style curry, really — was richer still, with green-curry paste and coconut milk. Friends liked it, but I found it too thick and heavily flavored, more of a sauce than a soup; I prefer the veggie-packed, shiitake-based versions at other ramen shops in town.
King of the mountain was tonkotsu, which rolled all the reasons that pork fat rules into one. Springy noodles glistened with the concentrated broth of pork bones boiled for a day; around them floated thick slabs of pork belly fragrant with sake and soy, their fatty edges turned into caramel-colored porcine candy thanks to a last-minute hop on the griddle. Pickled ginger and a drizzle of black-garlic oil with all the punch of black coffee helped the bowl find an irresistible balance that it really shouldn’t have had, given its over-the-top components.
With ramen this good, you’ll be tempted to order quickly at Osaka Ramen — but remember, patience is a virtue. Settle in and let your server tell you which sakes-by-the-glass have banana notes and which are drier, and relax while you sip your libation of choice and enjoy the surroundings. Even if you don’t grab a seat at the counter, with prime views of bustling cooks and 100-quart stockpots, you won’t feel the typical get-me-outta-here oppression of many basement restaurants. Lime-green and sky-blue chairs brighten the space, as does the soft blue Tokyo skyline painted on dark gray and white walls. Don’t miss the giant red Godzilla, towering over one building while shouting “Ramen!” in Japanese.
Besides, if you rush straight to the ramen, you’ll miss the small plates, which could be meals in themselves if ramen and doughnuts weren’t waiting. Deep-fried kara age was puffy and crisp, with chicken so alluring from its marinade of citrus, shoyu and ginger, I wish I could’ve eaten two orders: one battered in potato starch, one plain. Shishito peppers were less an appetizer than a light entree; a creative sprinkling of bonito flakes turned them into a salty, sea-based version of chipped beef. Cold green beans doused in sweet soy sauce and sprinkled with freshly ground sesame seeds brought a welcome dose of freshness, and a mild bowl of curry featured carrots and potatoes cut in the shape of flowers. Tamago gohan, a deep-fried rice cake topped with a poached egg, housemade kimchi and a frizzle of scallions, was impossible to share with the chopsticks we’d been given, but delicious enough to stick with. Again, patience paid off.
Also available are black-and-red bento boxes, their elegant compartments looking nothing like the TV-dinner trays of yore, all including steamed rice, pickled daikon and cucumbers with an herbal accent, orange slices and Osaka’s rendition of coleslaw. The best is the bass, with skin-on fillets whispering of shoyu and sake. Mabo tofu and marinated-sirloin versions were also tasty, but the protein portions seemed less substantial, and if I’m going to eat at Osaka Ramen, I’d rather fill up on something other than rice.
When I first set foot in this restaurant, walking down the stairs into what feels like a repurposed storm shelter, I thought, “Here we go again.” Given twelve’s difficult address, I would’ve expected Osaka to know more than anyone that location matters. But if anyone can make a success of the kind of subterranean space that has swallowed many a restaurant, it’s the Jeff Osaka of today, unfettered by expectations about what veteran chefs can and should do. Besides, he’s already proven capable of turning expectations on their heads: We’re devouring doughnuts after ramen.
2611 Walnut Street
Chicken kara age $7
Green beans $4
Shishito peppers $5
Tamago gohan $5
Bento box $14
My Wife’s Donuts $7
Osaka Ramen is open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Friday, 5-11 p.m. Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at osakaramendenver.com.