Cafe Society

Sachi Sushi serves up authentic ramen in Niwot

I checked the clock nervously, willing the car in front of me to step on the gas.

"GO!" I yelled, six inches from the guy's bumper. Mercifully, there was a break in the traffic and I zipped around the old white sedan, resisting the urge to cut it off entirely. It was 6:45 p.m. on a Sunday, and according to the Japanese man I'd spoken with on the phone earlier that day, Sachi Sushi would close in fifteen minutes.

I'd been on the hunt for authentic ramen for months, craving the hearty, chewy wheat noodles in a savory broth studded with slivers of pork, scallions, dried seaweed and half of a poached or salt-boiled egg. The dish, which originated in China, arrived in Japan sometime near the beginning of the twentieth century, and as its popularity increased, ramen took on regional variations. But it was only after instant ramen noodles were invented in the 1950s that the soup became ubiquitous. Some Japanese suggest that those instant noodles were the most important invention of the twentieth century.

The instant ramen of my elementary-school lunchroom was my first experience with the noodles; I'd suck them down, burning my mouth because I was so eager to eat the sodium-infused soup that I couldn't wait for it to cool. That midday meal was nothing compared to the authentic ramen I found while in school in California, but I didn't become truly obsessed with the dish until I was living in New York City and friends took me to Ippudo for the first time. From the moment I curled the first clump of thin, springy noodles around my chopsticks and stuffed them into my mouth — along with a spoonful of cloudy, rich broth, creamy with velvety pork fat but as delicate as lace — I was hooked. Ippudo was the restaurant I missed the most when I packed up my Brooklyn apartment and came home, and it's still among my favorite restaurants in the world. And almost as soon as I stepped off the plane at DIA two years ago, I started looking for a noodle shop that would come close to measuring up.

I chased a lot of false leads, ducking into a Japanese restaurant if there was even a whisper of a rumor that the ramen was stand-out. But I never found anything more than light broths and noodles, a dish more reminiscent of my childhood lunchroom than anything at Ippudo. I eventually made do with the lobster ramen at Bones, which is delicious and fantastically rich, but still wasn't the porky soup I craved.

A few weeks ago, though, I heard about a spot in Niwot that made real Japanese ramen once a week, on Sundays. So I cut a weekend in Denver short to make the drive north. It took me longer than I'd anticipated, and by the time I was running through the doors of the Niwot Market, the grocery store where this Japanese eatery was reportedly housed, I was crossing my fingers, hoping that I'd made it in time.

My desperation grew as I made laps through the aisles, trying to find the elusive spot. Finally, an aproned employee of the market took pity and pointed me to a back corner of the store, cordoned off by strategically placed shelves of dry goods. At 6:53, I stumbled into Sachi Sushi.

Behind a small counter, the owner stood cutting fish, occasionally stirring pots. He was aided by an assistant, who took orders, ran food and cleared a handful of lacquered wooden tables, adorned with fake potted plants and crammed with diners. I approached the register, quivering with excitement. "Ramen," I whispered.

The grinning owner gave me an apologetic look. "Sorry," he said. "We were very busy today. No more ramen. Come back next week."

Hungry and desperate, I ordered a bowl of salmon chirashi. As I ate the fat pieces of velvety orange fish mixed with wasabi and a healthy dose of soy sauce, I tried not to think about the gas and time I'd wasted. The salmon was good, but something I could have had in just about any decent sushi joint along the Front Range. Including Sushi Tora, the former employer of Sachi Sushi owner Tsukasa Hibino.

A native of Osaka, he's been in the United States for thirty years, many of which he spent cutting fish at Sushi Tora, a Boulder mainstay. Five years ago he decided to open his own restaurant, which he put in a small corner of the Niwot Market. Here he offers nigiri, sushi rolls, donburi (Japanese rice bowls) and specials from his home country, including ramen.

Hibino often runs the place by himself, making all the dishes and chatting up his customers in heavily accented English. Although he had help the day I first visited Sachi Sushi, Hibino's good-natured presence was enough to make the humming coolers, the fluorescent lights and the bakery that shares the wall with Sachi melt away. Despite not getting a taste of ramen, I was charmed.

The next Sunday, I didn't want to risk missing the ramen, so I called ahead, and Hibino assured me that he wouldn't be running out of soup that day. I wasn't taking any chances, though, so a friend and I headed there for lunch.

I was practically salivating as we rushed through the front door of the quiet market and made a beeline for the back corner. Hibino was there, wearing the same friendly grin, talking to four people lined up at the small sushi bar. Finally, he turned to us. "Ramen," I panted. Hibino pointed to a handwritten sign displaying the daily offerings, and we selected shoyu ramen, made with soy sauce, and shio, made with salt. We grabbed a table and arranged our cups of green tea as well as chopsticks and spoons retrieved from the counter. And then Hibino was walking over, balancing two steaming bowls of soup in his hands.

They were beautiful. Opaque broths covered a mass of noodles, dense enough to balance a bevy of ingredients near the surface: cuts of fat-laced pork, strips of black seaweed, half a hard-boiled egg, bits of scallion, a sprinkling of sesame seeds and a star-shaped slice of pink-swirled narutomaki, a fish cake that added more color than flavor to the bowl.

Sachi Sushi makes Kyushu-style ramen, one of the most popular varieties in Japan — and my favorite. It's characterized by thinner noodles and a cloudy tonkotsu broth, made by boiling pork bones for hours to infuse the liquid with heady flavor and velvety collagen, making it deeply aromatic and savory. At Ippudo, it's almost hearty enough to stand alone, making your lips sticky with animal fat as you sip it. The noodles bathe in it, fattening slightly and getting toothsome and slick as they soak up the liquid in the bowl.

With my first twirl of the soup at Sachi Sushi, I realized that, as at many ramen shops, the noodles were good, but they weren't hand-cut. However, the shoyu broth was homemade, dark brown and milky with emulsified fat and gelatin. Salty and filling, it was balanced by the slowly expanding nest of pasta, with its hunks of soft pork and the fresh zing of scallions. I ate that shoyu ramen until I thought I might explode — and then I ate some more, as if I hadn't eaten in months and wasn't certain I'd get another chance. Because I really had been starving for ramen, and this was a blissful reprieve.

I wasn't as thrilled by the shio broth, which was flavored with salt instead of soy sauce. That made it not just lighter in color but also lighter in body. The real problem, though, was that it was dangerously close to being too salty.

Still, as far as I'm concerned, Sachi Sushi could stop selling everything on the menu besides shoyu ramen, and I'd still be there every Sunday. Because as I finally placed my spoon face-down next to my very empty bowl, I knew I'd found what I'd been looking for.

Sachi Sushi is the real deal.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk