Do you like Ramen?
Story by Dave Eckert
I don’t know too many people who don’t, but I have to say I only had a passing interest in it until I began researching this article. Now, I am obsessed, and I believe I have found my three favorite Ramen restaurants in the KC metro area.
For the uninitiated, or for those who are just curious, Ramen is a soup-like noodle dish that historians believe originated in China before making its way to Japan in the middle to late part of the 19th century. Now, of course, ramen is a staple of noodle shops throughout Japan, and in cities across the United States, including a plethora of ramen eateries right here in our fair city.
Photo courtesy of Boru Ramen
I began my ramen explorations in the Waldo neighborhood at the much beloved Boru Ramen. I counted no fewer than 11 ramen dishes at Boru, all created by Summit Restaurant Group Culinary Director Po Wang. I asked Wang what defined authentic ramen for him? “I don’t like using the word authentic very much, but it really is just doing honest food, with slow-simmered bone broth, seasoned toppings, and perfectly cooked noodles,” Wang shared.
Wang says he loves any kind of soup noodles because it warms the soul. As for the specific ramen he crafted for Boru, Wang says simplicity is the best method to achieve ramen success. “I look for a nice quality protein, and I take the time to slow roll the soup, which is the most important part next to the noodle,” Wang said. Po’s approach clearly works as Boru Ramen has developed a legion of devoted fans. “We’ve gained a cult following, I think, throughout the years, especially the spicy miso bowl. I think that’s our most popular bowl. It seems like people are addicted to the numbing sensation when they order that bowl,” Wang mused.
Photo courtesy of Aoyama Ramen
From Waldo and Boru Ramen, I head south and a little west to an intimate ramen restaurant Aoyama in the unlikely setting of Olathe, Kansas. More people recommended this family-run ramen temple to me than any other noodle shop in the metro, and after just one taste of the spicy Tonkotsu Ramen, I understood why.
During my visit, I spoke with co-owner Edward Liu about ramen, Aoyama, and how and why he wound up in the ramen restaurant business. “My partner and I worked in restaurants for years, and we just thought ‘Why are we working for other people? We have the experience. Let’s do it on our own and open our own restaurant.’ My partner, who’s also my best friend, called me and said he had a great location for a Japanese restaurant in Olathe, so I moved from Texas, and here we are,” Liu told me. That was five years ago. Aoyama is wildly popular – my wife and I dined there on a chilly Wednesday evening, and it was packed with a deliciously diverse crowd of singles, families with small children, folks out on a date night, you name it, all happily slurping Aoyama’s fantastic ramen. I asked Liu why he chose ramen for his restaurant. “It’s the noodles. I love noodles and eat them almost every morning. I’m from the northern part of China, and it’s tradition there to eat noodles for breakfast,” Liu stated.
Like any good ramen shop, freshness is the key to success at Aoyama. The soup is made fresh every day. The ingredients are chopped, sliced, and diced daily as well. And everything is assembled a la minute. Add in the cozy, family-friendly atmosphere, and fast, attentive, and knowledgeable service, and you have a real winner! But don’t take my word for it. Drop in for a bowl sometime. I’m betting that you’ll love it!
Photo courtesy of Ramen Bowls
One final ramen rendezvous brings me to Lawrence, Kansas and the brilliant ten-year-old ramen restaurant that is Ramen Bowls. I must have been living under a rock because it seems I was the only person in Kansas City who didn’t know about Ramen Bowls and the story of its owners, Shantel and Tim Grace. Shantel and Tim fell in love with Ramen in Hawaii. So much so that they wanted to bring an authentic version back to their native state of Kansas. It doesn’t get much more authentic than Ramen Bowls, which uses a $100,000 noodle-making machine with multiple $10,000 attachments to make different sized and shaped fresh noodles every day. Noodle maker Brian Chambers says he produces 2,100 noodle portions per week. Chambers says he believes Ramen Bowls is the only shop in the metro, perhaps the entire Midwest, that makes its own noodles. And, he says he loves it.
I tried the Hokkaido Tonkotsu Miso with Miso noodles and the Tan Tan Men. Both were superb, but the Tan Tan Men with its perfect spice level and the genius addition of the pork belly bits in place of a huge chunk of pork belly was just about as perfect as ramen can be. Perfect enough that I will gladly drive the hour from my Liberty home to Shantel and Tim’s Mass. Street home anytime! Cheers!