OK, I can stop whining. I’ve been on a ramen hunt for a couple of months. But I’ve finally sated my jones, with a trip top Bento Zanmai on the Hill in Boulder.
Unlike Los Angeles, where a row of ramen shops take up most of a block along Little Tokyo, and San Francisco’s Japantown, which has a several stellar restaurants that specialize in ramen, Denver is a ramen-lover’s desert island. We’re stranded in a place with no ramen in sight, and we’re left holding an empty bowl and a pair of chopsticks.
I overstate our condition. We used to go to Oshima Ramen, but it’s not as good as it was when it opened a decade ago. Plus, their ramen is pricey.
We’ve heard about a couple of Japanese restaurants north of Denver that apparently serve ramen, but we just don’t feel like driving that far. We’ll make the trip someday.
But when we were dining at one of our favorite restaurants, Amu, in Boulder (we live close to Boulder, so it’s not so far), we were talking with the owner, Nao-san, and we groused that he should serve ramen. He said, quite nonchalantly, that he was already serving ramen. Conversation at the izakaya‘s bar, where he was making up people’s tapas-like orders, came to a silent halt. The 10 people at the bar asked, in unison, “You make ramen? Why didn’t you say so?”
He explained that the ramen was available at his new restaurant, Bento Zanmai, at 13th and College in Boulder’s University Hill neighborhood. He warned that the ramen was only available from 3 to 6 pm — weird hours — but I was ready. I wanted ramen.
The next Sunday, we went to Bento Zanmai. It was closed, so we settled for a fine Thai meal at Siamese Plate, also in Boulder. Maybe they closed for Thanksgiving weekend, we figured. (What restaurant closes for Thanksgiving???)
The next weekend on Saturday, I called and asked for their hours. They’re only open until 3 pm on Saturdays. They make ramen all day on Saturday because of customer demand, but only from 3-6 on weekdays. Dang. We couldn’t make it that day.
I resorted that week to a package of quick-cook packaged ramen at home… and it tasted good, I was so desperate. Last week, we ended up ordering a very good ramen from Taki’s Japanese restaurant in Denver, but it was served in his healthy ginger miso soup, and though it was delicious, it wasn’t quite the ramen flavor I was craving.
The ramen we had today at Bento Zanmai was it.
We had attended an interesting all-day symposium at the University of Colorado, hosted by a journalism professor, where we discussed the future of diversity in the media. It was a thought-provoking day of discussion with a small group of reporters, editors and news directors from the local media. Afterwards, since we were just down the street from the Hill, we decided to try Bento Zanmai. Luckily for us, it was open.
We now know why it has such funky hours. Being just across from the University of Colorado campus, Bento Zanmai’s business ebbs and flows with the coming and going of the student population. It’s located in a sleepy little food court a few steps down from street level, along with Thai and Greek fast-food counters. Honestly, Bento Zanmai deserves its own stand-alone restaurant space.
The menu is surprisingly extensive — and surprisingly authentic, considering the three employees who seemed to be running the joint today were a big white guy, a Latino (I think) and Joe, the hapa manager who definitely knows more Japanese than we do (it turns out his mother is from Japan and he spent alternate years growing up living there).
For instance, there are three ways salmon is served, and they’re named with the Japanese word for salmon: Shake (shah-keh) Ponzuyaki with Japanese vinegar, Shake Shioyaki with salt and Shake Teriyaki. They also have ginger beef and teriyaki beef and thin-sliced grilled spicy marinated beef (yakiniku, a Japanese version of the Korean bulogi), a couple of variations of Japanese fried chicken, and the staple of most Japanese restaurants, tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet), along with its chicken counterpart.
As a nod to the collegiate clientele, there are a handful of beef-bowl type dishes, including two more exotic ones: Shake Chirashi (raw salmon sashimi and avocado over sushi rice) and Unadon, broiled fresh water eel over rice. There’s some basic sushi and a few fried noodle and udon (thick Japanese noodles) dishes as well. The ramen isn’t on the menu. It’s still a special.
Joe explained they have the Miso Ramen, which doesn’t have any meat but is served in a rich miso-based broth (it’s nothing like the miso soup you get in the lacquer bowls at Japanese restaurants), and Tonkotsu Ramen, ramen in a pork-based soup topped off with a couple of slices of chiarshu, or sweet barbecued pork. He said the ramen was popular but acknowledged it was a lot of work: “It’s really easy to serve, but it takes eight hours to prepare.”
We both opted for the Tonkotsu, which cost $8. I had visions of the 1985 movie “Tampopo,” which is a treatise on the struggle to create the perfect bowl of ramen.
Bento Zanmai did not disappoint. The soup was milky with a layer of greasiness that would give our doctor a heart attack. It was a rich broth so rich I asked the big guy, who Joe said was the chef in charge of the soup, if he’d boiled a whole pig all day. “Pretty much,” he answered with a grin. I told him he ought to watch “Tampopo,” and Joe said he’d burn the DVD for him.
The chiarshu was sweet and tender — good enough that it left me wanting about 10 more slices — and there was a selection of shredded vegetables like carrots and green onions thrown in, sprinkles of sesame seeds, and oh man, wonderful, toothsome ramen noodles that Joe says they import from Japan.
I picked up the bowl, Japanese-style, and slurped down the soup when I had exhausted the noodles. That’s the highest compliment you can pay to a bowl of ramen.
I’ve finally had my fix and I’m satisfied. But in my mind is the nagging thought that I’d like to try the other ramen, with the miso broth. Joe said they could top that one off with chiarshu if we want.
Something tells me it won’t be long before we return. But I sure wish they’e move into their own space, and open up for normal hours and serve ramen all the time.