The stockpots are a constant source of worry. Jason Dorweiler is considering training a security camera on them, 24/7.
“Sometimes I have some of the guys who live close to here come over in the middle of the night and check them,” he says. Perpetual stockpot observation is the inescapable life of a ramen chef.
It’s also one reason Dorweiler decided to eschew pork ramen at his tiny ramen shop, Tori, in St. Paul. Because of the size of the pork bones, he says he’d have to have four pots going at any given time, instead of just the two he needs for poultry stock. Two is plenty. These are 160-quart behemoths going all day, every day. If the stock runs low or runs out, he closes the shop. There’s no other way to run a legit ramen shop.
And Tori is legit.
Dorweiler says he believes many — possibly even most — ramen shops are using a “kit.” A kit that includes frozen soup bases, processed tare (seasoning), and noodles. All the shop has left to do is open the bags, heat, garnish, and sell. But many of those shortcuts include corn syrup, colorants, and preservatives.
So at Tori, they’re choosing the slow-foods way, the watched-pot way.
Growing up, Dorweiler’s Korean mom made him dry ramen packs doctored with additions and toppings like kimchee, eggs, and green onions. It was his comfort food.
“Ramen” as we currently think of it, a glorious bowl of rich house-made stock with hand-pulled noodles, fat pork cutlets, golden-yolked egg, and a pink swirl of fish cake, is actually a relatively modern interpretation. Though its origins are debated (it’s possibly a Chinese invention), ramen is simply noodles in soup. The dish became wildly popular only in the 1950s, when the technology for instant ramen noodles arrived. The ramen craze hit its peak along with other Japanese pop-culture fads in the ’80s and beyond.
You might even say that curly noodles in a brick is the true “authentic” ramen, and any elaboration is the derivative progression. But what a progression it is.
Ramen came to the Twin Cities late. Some of us are still wading through the terminology and the varieties, but essentially a bowl of ramen has but four components: stock, tare (flavorings), noodles, and toppings. In addition to those vigilantly watched stocks, Tori’s toppings are largely what sets them apart.
Here, you can have a take on a Thai-style Tom Yum soup in a ramen bowl, an earthy assemblage of brown mushrooms, the fragrance of Thai basil, and almost disconcertingly robust pops of citrus, thanks to fried lime leaf and lime oil.
The Bali Bali goes almost Middle Eastern, with silky tahini and sesame seed, but the mouth-numbing zing of Szechuan pepper zaps your mouth out of complacency. Both are revelatory bowls of soup, ones that seem to keep changing. Consider that each has at least eight other additions besides those mentioned here. Think of a bowl of grown-up Lucky Charms, where each treasure is in fact a new flavor, texture, sensation. I’ve never had anything quite like it.
When I get Dorweiler on the phone to talk about these captivating bowls, he’s maddeningly reserved. I’m eager to tease out his secrets, but he doesn’t tip his poker hand much at all. Here’s what I was able to ascertain:
Tori Ramen is zero waste. They use every little scrap of every little thing, which might explain the deep, soul-satisfying flavor of it.
Dorweiler always wanted to be a painter. Take one look at his bowls and it’s easy to see how his art comes alive on the surface of a lake of soup.
He’s also extremely honed in on the flavor spectrum of the Thai kitchen, taking special care to make sure everything has an element of salty, sour, and sweet. It tastes like an epiphany in the ramen bowl.
Though it’s a challenge, Dorweiler’s trying to source everything as locally as possible. Take for instance their use of burdock instead of bamboo, the former a wild-growing root that he’ll forage when he has the time.
Perhaps most exciting, Tori Ramen is taking over the noodle-making enterprise of Canton Foods. Canton, for a long time, was the only local producer of handmade ramen noodles, and if you wanted them from somewhere closer than California, it’s to Canton you would go. But the husband-and-wife team of Canton Noodles is retiring, and guess who’s getting their equipment and knowledge? Tori Ramen.
Even the promise of Canton’s equipment and knowhow would have many a chef gleefully singing from the ramen shop rafters, but not Dorweiler. He just quietly tells me that he plans to start a specialty noodle company, as soon as he has the art of noodle making down pat, and as soon as he has the time. No other local ramen shop is making its own noodles for the entirety of the menu because it’s too labor intensive. Dorweiler admits that early solo attempts were disastrous, so they’ve wisely turned to the experts.
Tiny Tori seats only a couple dozen diners at a time, and the format is designed to get you in and out, fast. Approach the bar, order and pay all in one motion, then wait. It only takes a few minutes for the bowl to arrive. And though there are only about 10 bowls on the menu at any given time, it feels like there are worlds to discover in each one.
In the Kor Dee Yuh, find fat fiery hunks of funky kimchee. The Torikotsu is a knee-wobbling chicken noodle soup to rival grandmother’s. The Best Seller, which happens to be vegetarian, presents a demonstration of how to cull meatiness out of seaweeds, mushrooms, and fermented foods.
Be sure to request the house-made hot sauce where habanero, jalapeño, and Korean-style gochujang come together and are fermented. Apply with an eye-dropper’s precision; the accompanying heat and flavor bomb in a couple of drops is quite simply mind-blowing.
At Tori Ramen, you get the idea that they are breaking through the ordinary progression of ramen culture, bucking expectations and putting pickled carrots and black garlic oil where fish cakes and ginger used to be.
Keep an eye on them. They’ll have their eye on the pots.
Click here to see our photo slideshow from Tori Ramen
161 Victoria St. N., St. Paul