Whither the new ramen restaurants? Maybe we’re victims of the digital age where rumors and hype of restaurant openings hit the fan so far in advance that when they finally do open, it’s almost a non-event. Since last fall, Seattle rameniacs have been waiting for the opening of two high-profile restaurants—Shibumi and Jinya. We’re still waiting while staring at the “open soon” promises on the internet. Now, we hear that Santouka, a famous chain from Hokkaido, will be opening its first restaurant in Washington state in April, right here in Bellevue. (It has a big presence in Southern California, more locally in Vancouver, B.C.) I stated before that the greater Seattle area currently has a lackluster ramen scene, certainly not befitting a city of its size on the West Coast that has cultural and economic ties to Japan as well as a good-sized Japanese American community and enough Japanese nationals on work visas to stimulate demand.
When it comes to pass that the newbies do finally open their doors, Seattle will have taken a giant stride toward ramen legitimacy.
Meanwhile, in need of a ramen fix, three of us headed over to Kukai Ramen in Bellevue, a strong contender for the area’s best ramenya. When my wife and I ate there last July, we thought highly of the tonkotsu ramen (☆☆☆½) and tsukemen (☆☆☆). Today, arriving past the noon hour, along with our daughter we waited for a mere 10 minutes before getting seated.
My wife decided on the yuzu shio ramen, which piqued her interest on our last visit. Yuzu is a citrus fruit widely cultivated in Asia, especially Japan and Korea. It seemed unusual that any sort of citrus acidulation would be imagined as a natural complement to a meat-based broth. So it was a surprise that, rather than tasting tartness, the broth only had the fruit’s essence. One explanation is that yuzu zest was used instead, a common cooking technique for adding citrus flavor without the acidity. Condiments included a generous amount of yu choy, finely shredded green onions, spinach, mizuna and a pinch of dried red chile threads (silgochu in Korean). Kukai’s excellent menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) is house-made. The noodles were perfectly cooked. A large slice of roasted pork was tender though unremarkable. The only drawback was a layer of uncooked albumen near the yolk of the seasoned soft-boiled egg (ajitsuke tamago). This was a very fine ramen (☆☆☆½), unusual, savory, with intriguing citrus notes.
My daughter first picked the tonkotsu ramen from the regular menu. After the waitress left with our order, I noticed on the specials placard that miso ramen was available today. The waitress graciously made the change and recommended the standard broth instead of low-sodium that my daughter wanted with the original tonkotsu order. If it was not to her liking, there would be no problem in switching to the low-sodium version, a gesture that we all thought was very customer-oriented. As it turned out, the regular broth was fine. Miso ramen is a Hokkaido specialty—Kukai even went so far as to use miso from there. The noodles were slightly thicker than those used in the yuzu shio ramen and curly, rather than straight. Complementing this sturdy broth was a serving of sweet corn. Bean sprouts, slice of pork, menma and green onions completed the ingredients in this good ramen (☆☆☆).
My spicy ramen—whose hotness level patrons can choose among mild, medium (my choice) or hot—arrived in a milky pork-broth similar to tonkotsu but with the addition of a chile blend and garlic. As in the miso ramen, the noodles were thicker. Yu choy, green onions, bean sprouts, menma and a perfectly cooked egg ($1 extra) were nice additions. The pork slice had a slight off-taste that previously refrigerated or frozen pork can pick up. My rating: a solid ramen (☆☆☆).
Also doing business as an izakaya, Kukai has a limited selection of small bites, including edamame, gyoza, takoyaki, house salad and onigiri. We wanted to sample their two most popular: chicken wings and chicken karaage (deep-fried marinated chicken). The karaage came to our table first. Boneless chicken thigh pieces, battered with potato starch (katakuriko), were fried to perfection, served with a lemon wedge. Sprinkled with a squeeze of lemon juice, they were crispy, succulent and not in the least greasy, as fine a version as you’re likely to have anywhere (☆☆☆☆).
The wings were similarly faultlessly fried, also coated in potato starch, making them lightly crispy, a pinch of green onions adding color. A scattering of fried garlic bits on top greatly enhanced their appeal. What made these wings even more interesting was a pool of sweetened yuzu juice underneath, a tad sugary for my taste but nevertheless adding to a unique, unconventional and tasty appetizer (☆☆☆½).
With ramen to fill our stomachs, there were enough appetizers left to take home. Regardless of how the ramen newcomers fare, Kukai will likely remain among the best ramen restaurants in the Seattle area.
Kukai Ramen & Izakaya
14845 Main St
Bellevue, WA 98007
Maybe the better customer service is their worried response to the coming competition.
Perhaps. It was still a good gesture, one which we didn’t expect but appreciated.