The biggest Asian restaurant opening to hit the Eastside since Din Tai Fung has been that of Kukai Ramen & Izakaya. Kukai is a highly successful ramen chain in Japan. The Bellevue branch is the first in the States. No sooner had Kukai opened its doors than the lines started forming. For weeks, you could never get immediately seated, exacerbated by its limited weekday hours when their doors close for 2½ hours in the afternoon. And forget about weekends. You need to have the patience of Job to get a seat. About a month and a half ago, we attempted to go but were confronted by a line outside. We skipped it and went elsewhere.
Today, we were in the area and decided to give Kukai another go. This time, we got seated immediately.
The first thing that we noticed upon entry was the noise level. I’ve ranted before about restaurant cacophony; Kukai is right up there with the worst. We got seated at a two-person table, barely inches away from diners on either side of us. Our waiter informed us that the most popular ramen in Japan is the tonkotsu and the most popular izakaya item, the takoyaki.
For me, the choice was obvious—the tonkotsu. My wife wanted cold noodles to temper the hot weather we’ve been having lately. Her choice was the tsukemen, cold noodles and accompaniments that are dipped in a broth served on the side. Her choice of the broth was tonkotsu, the others being shoyu (soy sauce) and chicken. You would think that the tonkotsu of both our dishes would be the same, but you’d be wrong. I’ll comment on this later.
The tonkotsu ramen (☆☆☆½) broth was delicious, salty, not as porky nor milky as the most genuine versions, but tasty nonetheless. The ramen noodles were perfectly cooked, al dente, and kept their toothsome texture almost to the end. Virtually a hallmark of a great ramen accompaniment is a seasoned half-cooked egg (ajitsuke tamago) with a firm white and creamy yolk, the way the Japanese prefer it. Served whole, Kukai’s was almost perfect with a yolk that was a half congealed. Also included were bean sprouts, pork chashu, shredded green onions and rings of dried red chile. At $11, tonkotsu ramen is not an inexpensive noodle soup.
Diners have the option of choosing a “traditional” or low-sodium broth. Even though I like to watch my sodium intake, the issue of ramen’s saltiness (both fresh and packaged) really comes down to the broth where almost all of it is concentrated. The obvious strategy is not to finish the broth once everything else is eaten, though the temptation might be great to polish it off.
The noodles of the tsukemen (☆☆☆) were flat, cut like a thin fettucine, an interesting variation that worked quite well. They were accompanied by menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) and yu choy, all topped with finely shredded dried seaweed. They also came with slices of pork chashu, like my tonkotsu ramen. The meat was from a larger cut than usual, tasty but the texture somewhat dry. A surprising twist in the dipping broth was a citrusy zing that turned out to be really appealing with this style of ramen.
Additional toppings are available for $1.50 each, which in some instances is excessive. Seriously, additional bean sprouts or scallions for $1.50? An egg is not included in many ramens.
Both these ramens were quite good, among the best in the entire region. Based on Kukai’s success here, there’s little doubt that the chain will open more restaurants elsewhere. For next time, an intriguing option to try is the Yuzu Shio Ramen. For small plate snacking or a lighter meal, there is the izakaya menu.
8-23-13: On a return visit, I ordered the shoyu ramen (☆☆☆½). Again, the noodles were perfectly cooked. The broth, again salty, was nonetheless delicious with a slight sweetness. I will have to try the low-sodium broth next time. Gyoza (☆☆☆), clad in a thin skin, was nicely browned and flavorful.
|Kukai Ramen & Izakaya
14845 Main St
Bellevue, WA 98007