Ramen Kazama serves up no-nonsense noodles year-round

Shoyu ramen

Shoyu ramen

To properly eat a bowl of ramen, lift a big gob of noodles with your chopsticks, then slurp loudly. Even more loudly than you think is appropriate. Louder still! Think of the noodles as a delivery mechanism for the soup — a spoon made of noodles.

Some say if you take more than five minutes to consume a bowl of ramen, you're doing it wrong. The good people of Ramen Kazama will not hold it against you if you choose to keep a more casual pace. Just don't get your bowl to go. Ramen is not a takeout item; you want your soup on the noodles, not absorbed into them.

Like any good soul food, which is how chef and co-owner Matthew Kazama thinks of ramen, this is the kind of dish that is more than just sustenance. It's comfort, it's culture, it's warmth. It's also inexpensive and fast, and it's a trend that's likely here to stay.

Which is not to say it's easy.

Kazama arrives at the restaurant every morning to start a pot of broth big enough for him to climb into. "You could take a bath in it or something," he assesses. The broth alone calls for about eight to nine hours of coddling. Then, he tinkers with this batch to derive a handful of variations: Pork bone marrow, spicy miso, chicken, and curry ramens all require separate, specific care.

This is to say nothing of the additions of pork belly and soft-cooked eggs and the collection of other traditional garnishes. And then there are the delicate scratch-made gyoza (potstickers), the textbook-perfect karaage (Japanese fried chicken), and a host of other small starters. Despite its simple accessibility, this cuisine is a laborious one.

Karamiso “Magna” ramen

Karamiso “Magna” ramen

All of this for a man who never meant to make ramen in the first place. The odyssey chose him, not the other way around.

It all started when Kazama and his band (he is also the drummer of noted local punk band the Birthday Suits) played at the late Loring Park bistro Nick & Eddie. Eccentric restaurateur Doug Anderson asked Kazama if he wanted to make ramen for the restaurant, since he'd worked at Fuji Ya, and, well, he was Japanese.

"It wasn't very good," says Kazama. "It didn't go so well."

But he wouldn't be deterred. He kept trying: reading books, teaching himself, and ultimately doing a weekly ramen special at Fuji Ya that got a good following. And now, without any formal training, he's somehow the most recognizable name in local ramen. How did that happen?

Kazama grew up in Matsue, Japan, near Hiroshima, eating tons and tons of ramen. "My tongue still remembers how it's supposed to taste. Every time I'm working on it I'm thinking: 'Is this how it's supposed to taste?'"

Yes. This is how it's supposed to taste.

The broths are delicate yet powerful, like a long-learned grandmotherly recipe. They're soothing with the medicinal power of the fats, minerals, and proteins of bones and enlivened with aromatic vegetables, salt, soy, and miso.

Like anything with disputed origins, there is no such thing as an "authentic" or archetypal bowl of ramen. In Japan, styles vary wildly from region to region and even among prefectures. The ramen you eat in Tokyo might be altogether different from that in Hiroshima. Kazama, who eats loads of ramen on his visits home, is loath to choose a favorite.

So what is it about his that makes it our favorite?

We love that, aside from a small smattering of other dishes, including the aforementioned karaage and gyoza, ramen is all they do at Ramen Kazama. They don't do sushi, stir-fry, teriyaki, curries, or anything else. This is pure specialization at its best. The place is spare, the menu is tiny, and all of the enormity is in the cooking.

Take the Karamiso "Magma" ramen, where the broth is tinged with the funky, fermented tang of miso and the red-hot heat of chile paste, all crowned with ground fatty pork. Of course, the noodles in ramen are as much the main event as anything, and Kazama imports his from Japan. It's a particular brand he loves called Myojo; they're dense and firm to the tooth yet still graceful and subtle.

Traditionalists may prefer the shoyu ramen, which Kazama calls "old school." It's a pork and chicken broth he says you can expect in most ramen shops in Japan, regardless of region. Shoyu simply means Japanese soy sauce, which is used to season the broth. Here it's a relatively heavy yet clear broth, draped with fatty, gelatinous pork cutlet, the ubiquitous soft-cooked egg, bamboo shoots, nori (dried seaweed), and chopped scallion.

More advanced eaters might think of turning to the Tonkotsu, or pork bone marrow broth, a cloudy, almost opaque soup that coats the tongue with the richest of the rich broths. It's what remains when the bones all but disappear from simmering.

Kazama reminds us that ramen is not just wintertime eating. In Japan, where the weather also gets quite hot and humid in summer, people eat ramen all year long. "Your body will adjust, or you'll sweat it out," he says.

Summer ramen with a chilled broth

Summer ramen with a chilled broth

Either way, a hot bowl of soup in summer is a singular sensation. If you're not convinced, turn to the recently added Summer ramen, or "hiyashi chuka." The broth is chilled, and the noodles are garnished with tomato, cucumber, and seaweed and finished with citrus. This month they're also adding Tsukemen, where the ramen is served alongside the soup, to dip and slurp at your leisure.

Leisurely noodle slurping. Add it to Minnesota's list of cultural pastimes.

Pro tip: Ramen Kazama now has a patio with six tables, which adds 24 seats to the constantly crowded dining room. They've also added a lot of cheap beer selections by the can, and they'll soon be adding shochu, a Japanese rice brew that contains more alcohol than wine but less than spirits. 

Ramen Kazama
3400 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis