Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | ramen
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My most recent Denver ramen was at the original Osaka Ramen location in the RiNo district. I had the special Miso Ramen of the day with an order of kara age fried chicken. I grew up in Japan when I was a kid, and have vivid memories of bowls of ramen and soba noodles stacked high in bowls or boxes, being...

Miso Chashu Ramen at Sushi Spot in Boulder I was severely depressed a month ago, when I sauntered up University Hill from the University of Colorado campus for my semi-regular fix of ramen from Bento Zanmai, the fast foodish takeout counter aimed at the student population in a funky food court alongside a pizza joint and Thai, Middle Eastern and Nepalese counters, and found the ramen spot was closed. I was too upset to call Sushi Zanmai, the parent restaurant that also owns Amu, the super-fine izakaya. But today, as I pondered lunch options I decided to find out whaddup with the demise of Bento Zanmai. It's been closed, yes, I know, but what? Its entire menu is now being served just around the corner on the Hill at Sushi Spot, a slightly more upscale sushi restaurant that the Zanmai folks also own? Cool! I should say upfront that although I love sushi, I'm not big fan of the crazy variety of special rolls that have been invented to entice and entertain Americans as sushi became mainstream in the past two decades. To me, even a California Roll (which I know is these days commonplace in Japan) is a mutant invention. I mean really, rice on the outside? Avocado? Come on....

The Miso Lobster Ramen is the ultimate dish at Bones, the non-Asian noodle house in Denver. Erin and I have always been wistfully jealous of our friends in Los Angeles and San Francisco, for lots of reasons but not least the fact that they can eat killer ramen any night of the week. We have our fave ramen-yas in both San Francisco's Japantown and LA's Little Tokyo ("ya" means "shop"). There's also great ramen to be had on the East Coast -- I've slurped up wonderful noodles and steamy broth in New York City's funky little "Japantown" district on the lower East side In Denver, for many years we had only one ramen-ya: Oshima Ramen, which was good (albeit pricey) when it opened about a decade ago, and has over the past few years become increasingly dirtier and greasier, and the ramen less special and more bland. As it went downhill, it gave us less and less reason to drive all the way across town for a sad bowl of noodles. Some people (including some food critics who don't know better) think it's "the real thing" but uh, sorry. So Erin and I have made it a holy mission to find good ramen without flying to the coast, and some brave Japanese restaurants have met the challenge just in the past year or so. The best we've found in the area is Okole Maluna, a Hawai'ian restaurant an hour north of Denver in the tiny eastern plains town of Windsor, whose owners serve a killer Saimin (Hawai'ian-style ramen). There's a very good, very authentic ramen served in a little take-out food court in Boulder called Bento Zanmai. Although it'a a bit unorthodox, the miso-ginger ramen served at the late Hisashi “Brian” Takimoto's East Colfax restaurant, Taki's, is very good. And now, even the fast-foody Kokoro is serving ramen (but at only one location, on 6th and Broadway, and only after 4 pm). We keep hearing about a Korean-run Japanese restaurant in Longmont that we haven't made it to. But as you can see, we're willing to drive for a good bowl of ramen, so we'll get there eventually. Imagine our surprise, then, to find that there's been a veritable explosion of ramen happening right under our nose (is that a triple mixed metaphor?) -- and that it's not ramen made by Asians!

Bento Zanmai on the Hill in Boulder serves up tasty real ramen. We returned to Bento Zanmai today and got some good news: the shop, which operates out of a tiny food court on The Hill in Boulder, just across the University of Colorado campus at 13th and College, has extended its hours. The joint used to close up at 6 on weekdays and 3 on Saturdays. It unfortunately still closes at 3 on Saturdays (we got there just in time after seeing an early -- and cheap -- showing of Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" movie, a post to come). But it now stays open until 8 pm on weekdays. Joe Simonet, the affable young hapa who's a corporate officer of the Sushi Zanmai restaurant corporation that owns Bento Zanmai as well as Amu, the izakaya next door to Sushi Zanmai that's currently our favorite Japanese restaurant in the region, chatted with us about Bento Z.

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.

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.

Iroha ramen and gyoza I just had a great meal at our favorite restaurant in San Francisco's Japantown, Iroha. It's a noodle house that serves up a great deal: A lunch combination special of ramen topped with a couple slices of pork, and gyoza dumplings on the side. The restaurant is more crowded than usual, and filled with lots of non-Japanese who are here for the first time. That's because J-Town in general is hopping this weekend. It's the second weekend of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, or Sakura Matsuri. There are vendors with booths selling everything from junky trinkets to high-class jewelry, lots of food and stages of performers and martial arts demonstrations, all with a Japanese focus. But there's also a Japanese American undercurrent, with young people flocking to stores that specialize in anime and Jpop music. It's a cool mix of traditional and contemporary -- much like J-Town itself.

Hot stuff: Orochon Ramen lets you choose your level of heat. I opted for #3 and it was pretty damned warm.

When Erin and I were in LA last month, we ate dinner with her cousin Lisa Sasaki and her brother Eric and his wife Leah, at a very popular ramen shop, Daikokuya. The restaurant is one of several that specialize in Ramen on a block of First Street in Little Tokyo, just down the street from the Japanese American National Museum. The joint is hopping at all hours, with eager clusters of (mostly non-Japanese) people patiently waiting to enter, thanks to a couple of rave reviews including one from the restaurant critic from the LA Times, whose article is posted in the window. Luckily, we didn't have to wait too long to be seated. Lisa loves the combination specials: choose a ramen, and get a half-order of another entree, from tonkatsu pork cutlets and gyoza dumplings to fried rice. The fried rice was good, all right. Erin and I both thought the ramen itself (we ordered the chasyu ramen, topped with slices barbecued pork loin) was good but not awe-inspiring. The place was so popular and raucous, though, that it was simply a fun experience.