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A gluttonous adventure in the Pacific Northwest.
Portland and ramen go together like flannel and Warbys, or caramel and sea salt. Take one part rainy Pacific Northwest weather, add a culinarily adventurous and budget-minded city and poof, ramen-mania!
Like many of Portland’s ramen bars, I’m a recent import to the city, so I visited six Rose City ramen-irrias to bring myself up to speed on this burgeoning ramen scene. My idea was to sample every shop’s shio, or salt-based broth.
Because I am stupid, and also because my editor put me up to it, I also chose to visit all six of these ramen restaurants in a single day. You’ll find it easy to believe what happens next, mostly because the science is settled on what eating that much salt does to the human body.
My first stop is Boxer Ramen in Northeast, a chainlet co-founded by Blue Star and Little Big Burger svengali Micah Camden in 2013. Such a marriage of creator and subject makes sense, because ramen is the original “fast-casual” cuisine (groan). Boxer’s generous use of hot pink and unfinished plywood for decor bestows Boxer’s small interior with a work-in-progress vibe.
To be honest, I scheduled my visit to Boxer first because I expected to be unimpressed. Instead, the tonkotsu-shio broth is simple yet rich, with a thick slab of pork belly and an egg topped with black pepper—giving the soup a “breakfast ramen” vibe. The noodles, as slight as the tattooed bros cooking them in the kitchen, come from purveyor Sun Noodle, a favorite among ramen cognoscenti.
I plow through a bowl and think, five more to go? I can do it! Boxer’s stuffed racoon, mounted paddling a tiny canoe on the wall, looks down on me and cheers me on as I walk out the door.
Nestled in an airy, industrial-chic space on North Williams among yoga studios and high-concept children’s toy stores, Kayo’s Ramen Bar is owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Kayoko and Matt Kaye. Their shio broth is clear and subtle; the pile of charred scallions and spray of greens and radishes atop Kayo’s thick, chewy noodles add a pesto-y note to the mix.
I appreciate the balance of light flavors, especially with four more stops ahead of me. As I slurp from a bowl using one of Kayo’s inexplicably gigantic spoons, I send an instant message to my editor. “I may not live to the end of this,” I say. “We’re not going to pay you unless you finish all the ramens, “ she responds. “Also, the plural of ramen is ramens, we just decided.”
Out in Beaverton—Portland’s Glendale—there’s no shortage of ramen, so I want to represent this in my noodle circuit. I stop at Japanese chain Kizuki. The 20-minute drive gives me a chance to digest and evaluate the life choices that got me to this point. Kizuki’s strip mall location, low-slung leather chairs, black marble counters and high ceilings make me feel like I am trapped at a hotel restaurant somewhere outside of Dallas.
Kizuki’s shio ramen is similarly middle-of-the-road. The bonito in the base adds a sweet note to the spicy broth, but the accompanying slice of pork loin is leathery, and the generous amount of thin noodles (yes, from Sun Noodle) dominate the bowl. It is also my third serving of the day. I glance at my reflection. My fingers are plump sausages and the skin on my face is taught, like a Real Housewife.
The sun has set as I walk into Marukin Ramen, another recent Japanese import, now with two Portland outposts. The bright fluorescent lighting and counter service at the SE Ankeny location--conveniently located next to Nong’s Khao Man Gai--doesn’t invite diners to stay long, true to form at many ramen bars. Marukin’s paitan shio chicken sea salt broth is thick and cloudy with a full finish. The noodles, crafted by a gee-whiz ramen machine imported from Japan, provide a pleasing chew.
Nestled among the car dealerships in what has become Portland’s “ramen district” of Inner Southeast, Marukin is the most traditional of any of the ramen bars I visit. The only nod to fashion are the high-and-tight haircuts sitting next to me, discussing their omega-3 intake, and The Bends-era Radiohead on the stereo. I feel how Thom Yorke’s face looks.
Spun-off from Portland stalwart Biwa in 2015, Noraneko is the fun-loving counterpoint to Marukin. The jokey menu belies the fact that the noodles, yet another product of the magicians at Sun Noodle, are fantastic. Chewy, with a heft and thickness that many of their Portland counterparts lack, they almost make me forget this is my fifth helping of ramen.
Noraneko is a big proponent of fixins, a suite of which come with every order, helping supplement Noraneko’s austere shio base. Wish you had a garlic press to add your own fresh garlic cloves? Your wish can be granted. A couple right out of Kinfolk sit at the bar next to me, oblivious to the fact that a white fisherman’s sweater is suboptimal for eating noodle soup unless you intend to wear both the soup and the sweater after the meal. I’m starting to fade. My mouth smells like garlic, chicken stock, and regret.
After a rain shower, I trudge to my final stop of the day. Afuri Ramen claims they opened here in Portland because of the quality and chemistry of the water; I think they should make bagels and prove it. Afuri feels like a real restaurant, a buzzy, grown-up establishment operating at a higher level than my other stops today. The hangar-like space, tarted up by oversize Edison bulbs and blonde wood, features the country’s only irori grill as the centerpiece of the open kitchen.
Afuri’s signature yuzu shio broth is justly famous: the yuzu adds a citrusy complexity to the spicy broth. The noodles, sourced from--where else?--Sun Noodle, are an intermediate thickness that would please fans of thicker and thinner noodles alike. Two gentlemen sit at the bar next to me, earnestly discussing “pre-Columbian” chickens and the mushrooms varieties grown in in Eugene while I work my way through a final tangle of endive and chasu.
After four eggs and what feels like gallons of broth and several pounds of noodles, I’ve scaled ramen mountain. I have questions, like: where does all the ramen-themed art, like Kayo’s noodle slurping Geisha, come from? And why do so many of these places try to reinvent the spoon? If I want to eat my soup with a giant wooden ladle, I’d bring one, I promise. What impressed me is the diversity of Portland’s ramen options. There’s ramen for novelty chasers, working stiffs, suburban shoppers and power lunchers, all in a city that isn’t big enough to support a professional baseball franchise. I preferred Afuri—with bonus points for impressing me on the last stop of the day—but it’s easy to see how all these bars support a noodle use case.
To them all, I say: I’ll shio soon.