229 Congress St., Portland
I grew up tricked into believing Oriental was a flavor. In my world, dehydrated carrots counted, kind of, as vegetables. I was a Top Ramen kid — as were many of you. That time is behind us now. Ramen is the nerdy high school girl who turned out to be a bad bitch, and totally hip, to boot. Ramen has grown up, too.
“Ramen is trendy now,” said Katsuaki “Kei” Suzuki, chef and co-owner — with his son, Cory — of Ramen Suzukiya, which opened on Portland’s East End this summer. He said almost every city in Japan has its own twist on the noodle soup, and within each city every ramen shop is trying to be more “sophisticated and complex” than the next. Suzuki grew up in Japan eating ramen at family-oriented Chinese restaurants (“ramen” derives from the Chinese “lo mein”), and he aims to serve an approachable take on the dish. This is “comfortable food,” he said.
The restaurant’s interior reflects its chef’s unpretentious approach. Seating is limited to a long, rustic, family-style table and a line of bar seats overlooking the Eastern Cemetery. On most nights, there’s a waitress who’ll take your order and bring your food, but you’ll always pay at the take-out counter.
The food at Ramen Suzukiya is likewise unfussy. Three types of ramen ($12) are offered: shoyu (soy sauce), miso, and Hakata-style, named for a city in Japan. They’re all served with springy, house-made noodles and the same three toppings: a slice of chas-shu (pork belly), half a soft-boiled egg, and a few leaves of baby bok choy, slightly wilted in the hot broth. The miso ramen comes topped with a jumble of cabbage, sliced paper-thin, and fresh corn kernels floating in the broth; the Hakata-style has a slippery sheet of wakame seaweed and a strip of nori, too.
Suzuki makes his own noodles and loves experimenting with different flavors: spicy noodles, pumpkin noodles, spinach noodles. The broth, however, is only partially homemade. The base is made in-house using a whole chicken, vegetables, seaweeds and bonito flakes (the lack of vegetarian options has frustrated more than few locals). Into that, store-bought tare, a bouillon-like sauce, is added to create the rich, distinctive flavors of ramen broth. A Japanese friend of mine raised her eyebrows at the idea of making noodles in-house, but not the broth (“Most places do it the other way around,” she said). Regardless, the outcome is luxurious.
Shoyu broth is “Oriental” flavor’s elegant cousin — a complex, meaty broth with an earthy taste of mushrooms. The miso broth is more refined, with a satisfying saltiness. The Hakata-style ramen has an incomparably rich tonkotsu broth. Traditionally made by boiling pork and chicken until the bones and marrow begin to break down, this broth is milky and murky with sediment, yet has a gelatinous sheen. This is the ultimate comfort food, and surely the style I’ll choose when winter’s chill arrives.
As an accompaniment, Ramen Suzukiya offers two or three rotating varieties of don bowl ($5, and only available with the purchase of ramen). These are small bowls of rice topped with fish, meat or vegetables. The beef don recalls a hearty American stew (“This tastes like my mom’s cooking,” I overheard a diner say). The sous-vide cod with soy dressing was much lighter, and the sous-vide salmon don, also dressed with soy and topped with scallions, was meltingly fatty and utterly delicious.
Suzuki looks forward to the day when Cory, a farmer, can provide most of the meat and vegetables served at the restaurant. Until then, he strives to source locally, including beers by some of the state’s favorite breweries. “This is not a Japanese Japanese restaurant,” Suzuki told me. “This is ramen that has grown up in Maine.”
Two bowls of ramen with don bowls on the side, plus a bottle of Allagash White ($6) and a tall can of Bissell Brothers Substance ($8), set two of us back just $48, before tip and tax. More expensive than Top Ramen, yes, but worth every cent. Sometimes it’s good to be a grown-up.
—Hannah Joyce McCain
Ramen Suzukiya is open Tuesday-Saturday from 5 p.m.-9 p.m.