Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | food & dining
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Bento Zanmai in Boulder serves wonderful, rich ramen. 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 bun dac biet and noodle soup are Vietnamese specialties of Peking-Tokyo Restaurant. Erin and I had dinner tonight at a restaurant we hadn't visited in a couple of years -- it's been too long. Peking-Tokyo Restaurant is located in the southern part of the suburb of Lakewood, across town from where we live. Back a decade ago, when we both worked a few blocks from Peking-Tokyo Express, as it was called, we ate there often. It had an interesting menu of Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai dishes. Despite its name, there were only a couple of token Japanese items on the menu (the name was a holdover from the business' previous owners). Erin's favorite was a noodle soup with two kinds of noodles, the Vietnamese rice noodles that are now familiar to fans of Pho (but this was before Pho was as common and popular as it is now) and thin egg noodles like the kind you might see in Chinese lo mein, or Japanese ramen. The soup is topped off with slices of chashu pork, shrimp, chicken and chunks of crab. My favorite was bun dac biet, a combination of grilled meat served on top of cold rice noodles, lettuce and cucumbers with a side of vinegary fish sauce. The meat includes pork, chicken, beef and shrimp, and an incredible and unique treat: a stuffed grilled chicken wing, plump with pork, flavorings and clear noodles. We usually ordered Vietnamese spring rolls for appetizers, and I'd usually order Thai iced coffee or ice tea as an energy drink before such things as Red Bull existed. We've tried both the Thai and Chinese food there too, and the flavor is full and the servings substantial. But both our favorite dishes are so superior that after a while it was hard to order anything else. We liked he place so much that we got our friend John Lehndorff at the Rocky Mountain News to go and review Peking-Tokyo Express. We learned the story of the family, the Wangs, who own the restaurant. We got to know one of the daughters, Melissa, and one of the sons, Tommy. I had assumed they were Vietnamese, but it turns out they're ethnic Chinese. Tommy and Melissa's grandparents had moved to Vietnam decades ago, but the family got caught up in the turmoil of the Vietnam war and ended up coming to the US with the Vietnamese "boat people" refugees in the late '70s, when Melissa was a baby. Tommy told us the heartbreaking story of their Aunt, who was murdered by Cambodian pirates as the family escaped Vietnam.

Special ramen at Taki I'm having leftovers for lunch as I type. Really good leftovers: ramen from Taki's Restaurant, an inventive, unique and funky dive of a Japanese joint on E. Colfax Avenue and Pennsylvania in downtown Denver's Capitol Hill district. It a block from the state Capitol, and three blocks from my office. Ramen is relatively new to Taki's. The restaurant usually serves udon, the thick Japanese noodle, or soba, the thin but brittle Japanese buckwheat noodle. The owner, Hisashi "Brian" Takimoto, who usually just goes by "Taki," (I call him "Taki-san" out of respect but he's too unassuming to think he deserves an honorofic and seem embarrassed by it, just began buying fresh-made and packaged ramen noodles from a company in California, and now offers it as an option. We've been in an unrequited ramen mood for weeks. We'd heard that a new spinoff in Boulder of the great Amu (our current fave Japanese restaurant and itself a spinoff of Sushi Zanmai next door) called Bento Zanmai on the University Hill served ramen during certain hours. But we tried twice to go there and the place was closed. I checked a short list of area Japanese restaurants that serve ramen, and the only two candidates I found were in Longmont, a small town northeast of Boulder. The one place in the area thar's known for noodles, Oshima Ramen in southeast Denver, had fallen off our list over the years for being expensive, less tasty than when it opened over a decade ago, and recently, kinda dirty (never mind Westword's surpisingly naive rave "Best of Denver 2008" award). Hisashi Takimoto has operated his restaurant for 20 years.We'll make it to Bento Zanmai someday -- they serve ramen only from 3-6 pm weekdays, and from 11am-3 pm Saturdays (they close at 3 on Saturdays!) -- but for now, I've been so desperate I made a package of instant ramen at home one night last week. It actually hit the spot. So when we decided at stop at Taki's for a bite the other night after attending a reception hosted by the Consul-General of Japan to mark the birthday (Dec. 23) of Emperor Akihito, we were jonesing. When taki came out front to greet us, we accosted him: "When are you going to start serving ramen?" "I can make it for you," was the reply. We almost kissed his feet. Well, not really. Have you ever looked at the shoes of anyone who works in the kitchen of a restaurant? Gross. It turns out he'd just started serving ramen as a daily special. They'd stopped for the evening but he boiled some noodles for us anyway, and it was a real treat.

Super Cr3w, the Las Vegas-based group of b-boys that includes Asian Americans, has won the top honors for the second season of producer Randy Jackson wildly popular show, "America's Best Dance Crew," on MTV. Congrats to the six-man group. We took a break from incessant Olympics viewing to watch the live MTV season finale program last night, and were holding our breath. An astounding 39 million votes were cast for these two finalists, a reflection of how huge the hip-hop dance culture has become. We wanted the other finalists, SoReal Cru from Houston, because they're all Asian Americans, two of the members are women, and one of the members said poignantly during the season premiere that their parents expected them to be lawyers and doctors but they wanted to pursue their passion for dancing.

The Bagel is a boisterous, old-fashioned kosher deli in the Old Orchard Mall in Skokie, where Erin and I eat every time we visit Chicago. I always order an egg cream, a soda fountain fave from New York that I've never been able to order in Denver. Erin's favorite is the Mish Mash, a gigantic bowl of chicken noodle soup...

Erin, Jared and I ate at a Benihana restaurant recently, and then learned just a couple of days later that Rocky Aoki, the founder of the Benihana chain, had died. I wrote about my experience growing up eating at Benihana for special family occasions, and how in recent years, the restaurant only has one connection to being a Japanese eatery: its food. The staff at the one we go to, for instance, used to have one Japanese woman chef, which was a rarity in the entire company, but she's been gone a couple of years now. The waitstaff and cooks are all non-Japanese, and as far as I can tell, the chefs are all Latino. They love to tell jokes about how they serve "Teri-juana" sauce (get it? Tijuana, teriyaki?). They no longer are sent to Japan to train with master chefs like they used to decades ago. But they are all trained well as entertainers, and come up with some amazing tricks with their knives, throwing food around and catching the morsels. The food's still good, which is why we go from time to time... probably once a year, if that. (YouTube has a lot of videos of dinners at Benihana, including the one above, of a birthday celebration. Most evenings at the restaurants are interrupted by the clatter of multiple birthday celebrations.) The diners likewise are no longer Japanase or JA families. The diners are almost all white; a couple of weeks ago, we were the only Asians in the room.

Erin, our friend Joe Nguyen and I dined the other night at Korea House, a popular restaurant in Denver (actually, Aurora, the eastern suburb, where the Korean community is concentrated). The dinner was part of an arrangement by Korea House to advertise in Asian Avenue Magazine, and we were there to write a preview of the eatery. We had the full spread of Korean barbecue -- Bulgogi (marinated sliced beef), Calbi (marinated beef shirt rubs, cut off the bone) and Spicy Chicken -- as well as some Soon Doobu (seafood tofu stew) and Bibimbab (meat and vegetables served with spicy sauce over rice). The food was good (I'll post a link to the advertorial when it's up) and the experience was fun.