On a dark, cold night like one in the many months of them that lie ahead, the lantern-like glow of tiny but mighty Tori Ramen is nothing short of an oasis.
Step inside, and the steam from long-simmering pots of stock all but blankets the skin and nostrils.
When Ramen Kazama opened a year ago, it wasn’t just the fact that ramen was coming to town that excited the dining public. It was the south Minneapolis shop's devotion to specialization. That Ramen Kazama wouldn’t be doing ramen and sushi and curry and yakitori, too, was a revelation. The website even read: “Ramen. It’s all we do.” When it opened to great fanfare, it turned out that Ramen Kazama in fact does do a few other things (but happily, they're done very well).
Now along comes Tori Ramen, with a unique “porkless ramen” menu, and so far we love it. For one thing, ramen is all they do. Really!
Ten bowls, all of them with either poultry, miso, or vegetable stock, make up the brief menu, plus an even shorter list of beer and wine.
If you’ve ever been to a ramen shop in Japan, or New York City, or any city where ramen is taken for granted, you know that ramen is a fast food. It’s cheap, it’s quick to arrive at the table (as all of the preparation is done long before you sit down), and it’s pretty much designed to be a solo endeavor. This brand new New York City ramen shop, Ichiran, is actually designed with dividers between solo seats, so it’s just you and your ramen, commiserating. People are flocking to it by the hundreds.
But dividers or no, watch any pro ramen slurper have at it, and the bowl is gone within 15 minutes or less (which is also about the time it takes for the noodles to start to get soggy; you want your soup on the noodles, not in them). The whole endeavor is really designed to be a meal on the go, just not to go.
Tori Ramen gets that.
The place is tiny, and you order at the even tinier bar. Pay up, and wait for little more than a few minutes for your bowl to arrive. And what a bowl it is.
The “Kor Dee Yuh,” or Korean-style bowl, is marked by beautiful pops of color -- the bright orange of kimchee; deep vegetal green thanks to yu choy, a mild Chinese green; the fiery red of Korean chili paste swiped on the side of the bowl; and of course morning-yellow yolk peeking out of a soft egg.
The “Torikotsu” was wildly different, though no less satisfying, like a chicken noodle soup with way richer stock. It’s augmented with burdock, a root common in Japanese stock cooking, which renders things earthier, richer, almost buttery in texture.
The accompanying chicken in both bowls was delicate, slightly charred at the edges, and used almost as a garnish rather than the main event. Delicious.
The menu indicates that the top seller is actually vegetarian shoyu (soy sauce broth) with bean sprouts, seaweeds, and fermented mushrooms. They’re also layering the flavor in these vegetarian stocks and soups with clever additions such as black garlic emulsion (enormous umami), perilla oil (grassy and herbaceous), tahini (sesame), and sorrel (super tangy and acidic).
The price tag for all of this goodness is only $10 to $13 a bowl, and a couple selections can be had as a half order for $7 to $8. But remember to follow ramen etiquette and move along when your bowl is gone, making room for others. It's how they’ll keep prices low.
Tori Ramen is a lot more than just another drop in the bucket for our ever-growing restaurant scene, and its footprint is way bigger than the few dozen square feet it occupies. This St. Paul shop indicates a shift toward trusting specialists, and allowing them to perfect their craft -- instead of running the other way at the sight of a menu of only 10 items.
There’s a hell of a lot to be found in that porkless bowl.
161 Victoria St., St. Paul