Tonkotsu Ramen at Ai Sushi (Bellevue, WA)

While I was getting my Hawaiian meal at Island Grill (see below), my wife was ordering tonkotsu ramen from Ai Sushi, also located in the Crossroads Mall food court. Let me first start off by saying that I’m always wary when a restaurant that does not specialize in it offers tonkotsu, a ramen that requires time and effort to make.  As an aside, I admit to having more doubts when the cook is not even Japanese (although this obviously wasn’t an issue at a ramenya in Santa Fe nor is it at Fu Lin). Some chefs proclaim an enthusiasm for making tonkotsu, with very disappointing results, as was the case at Bo Ramen, a pop-up that sprang up last year. It was a disaster (☆½) here at Ai Sushi.

Tonkotsu ramen from Ai Sushi
Tonkotsu ramen from Ai Sushi

The pork slices seemed more like teriyaki-glazed chashu (as char siu is called in Japanese), uncharacteristically lean and disconcertingly sweet. Health considerations aside, pork in ramen typically are slices of the belly, unctuous and tender, the best of which should almost melt in the mouth. The half egg was fully cooked, normally an odd thing to complain about, except that the ideal that Japanese ramen chefs aim for is a hard white tinged with soy sauce and barely set, runny yolk, clearly not the case here. For sure, this is not a deal-breaker but not authentic either. The noodles themselves were good, with fine texture.

The broth is tonkotsu’s raison d’être. The best versions are very porky in flavor, fatty, gelatinous and milky in consistency, with a hint of ginger and other aromatics. It takes almost an eternity to make, genuinely requiring at least two days over a burner, which if you think about it is impossible at a restaurant nestled in a food court inside a mall that closes up every night. Special exemptions for restaurants? Maybe, but I doubt it.

Ai Sushi‘s broth is a total, unmitigated disaster. It is thin, oddly flavored, out-of-balance, with no luxuriance or weight typical of the broth. It isn’t even a good, ordinary ramen broth. Swill is a better word.

Ai Sushi
15600 NE 8th St
Crossroads Mall Food Court
Bellevue, WA 98008

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