Before John Ng sets out to make any ramen, he checks the four-day weather forecast.
“The weather is really important when you’re thinking about ramen," he tells me, while staff behind him frantically prepare for a busy Thursday lunch rush.
Will a heavy broth be difficult to digest if it’s hot out? What kind of stock would be better? What kind of protein? Chicken? Seafood? Only after he's considered these questions can he even begin to start to think about the noodles, of which there are hundreds of types.
These minutiae are the reason Ng got into the business of ramen in the first place.
“A crash course in ramen is a crash course in Japanese cuisine. It is about a true search for every single little ingredient.”
Ng and his wife Lina Goh transplanted to Minnesota from Californina about 13 years ago. After years of working as both an architect and a ramen chef in San Francisco, one of Ng's careers had to go.
As you may have guessed, he chose to give architecture the boot. “I was so burned out."
When Ng began to consider opening his own place, he knew he would have to start small. Ramen was not the trend then that it is now. At the time, Minneapolis could hardly conceive of a Japanese restaurant without sushi, much less one that focused on ramen or izakaya (the Japanese drinking snacks that are the basis for their Washington Avenue restaurant Zen Box).
So Ng and Goh found a tiny skyway spot and started selling bento boxes to the lunchtime crowd. It was fun, but in short order, they got bored.
“We were done by three everyday! We didn’t know what to do with ourselves in the afternoon. It was like, ‘Is this it?’”
The couple eventually found a larger space on Washington Avenue, with a kitchen big enough to let Ng pursue his passion for ramen.
And yes, they say, you need a big kitchen to tinker with ramen. At least they do, because in their pursuit of getting “every little thing” right, they quickly noticed that Minnesota was not set up to serve ramen chefs. Not at all.
Consider these facts: commodity pork bones simply will not do for ramen stock, because you need rich, clean, pure, deep, true pork flavor. It took Ng and Goh three years just to find a reliable source of Berkshire pork bones, out of Iowa, so that they could consistently make Tonkotsu (pork broth) ramen.
And with Christmas on the horizon, they’ve just received word from that supplier that they should not expect as many bones as they have come to need. Christmas hams are going to bite into their supply. So they gather bones from here and there, including tapping local charcuterie company Red Table Meat when possible. They are resourceful. They make do.
It’s also impossible to keep a steady supply of the high-quality, farm-fresh bright yellow yolked eggs. They can’t get the right kind of ponzu, or teriyaki, or tare (a seasoning that is based on a reduction of soy sauce) or even salt. So Ng makes all of these little things himself. He blends his own salt.
Because if he doesn’t, the delicate balance of every little thing will be thrown off.
Both Ng and Goh say that they can detect whether or not a bowl of ramen is properly balanced and layered or not just by the aroma alone. They travel the world every chance they get in pursuit of the perfection of this craft.
“Every vacation turns into a working vacation,” they say. Later this month they’re heading to Clash of the Ramen in Waikiki Beach where seven of the top ramen chefs in the world will compete. Ng and Goh will be assisting behind the scenes.
Maybe you recently attended their fourth annual Ramen Attack, a sort of Clash of the Ramen right here in our own city. They came to do this annual event because they noticed that there were few Asian-themed culinary block parties. They loved going to parties at Travail, Borough, and the Bachelor Farmer, so why not throw one themselves?
While orchestrating a block party has its obvious challenges (they say they begin each year about five months ahead, and hardly sleep at all in the weeks preceding it) you probably don’t know this: In addition to his own ramen recipe, Ng preps the ramen recipes for the visiting chefs. For two thousand people.
He puts together all of the basic ingredients including peeling countless cases of eggs, and slicing endless cases of onions, just for starters. Then, when the chefs arrive from New York and Tokyo and San Francisco, they bring their own special ingredients to finish the recipes and put their own personal stamp on them. It's what Ng and Goh call "the theory" of the ramen bowl.
Zen Box doesn’t close during the weekend event. They have to oversee the balance of every little thing.
The obvious next step is that they want to open a ramen shop. But they refuse to rush it. If you’ve been observing Zen Box over the past couple of years, you know they put out a ramen special every weekend. Consider it research. “We want to collect a list of ramens that customers really like. We want to do it right”
They realize that ramen is “trending” now, but they hate that word as it applies to their life’s work. “Everybody has a favorite pizza and a favorite burger. Ramen is comfort food just like that. It's classic."
Which isn’t to say they don’t sometimes question themselves. “Sometimes I wonder if we should ride the wave,” says Goh. “But we have to focus on the craft,” Ng chimes in.
"It's why you see us in here, day and night," says Ng.
See them at Zen Box, day and night, and this weekend for their special ramen. Watch their Facebook feed for clues to what it might be.