Dining review: Merging fresh trends with tradition, Kami Ramen offers balanced bowls
May 18—The only people I know who don't love ramen are the ones who haven't tried it yet. After all, of all the dishes in the world, ramen is the most eager to please. Endlessly customizable, with its wide varieties of broths, meats, toppings and noodles, ramen offers something for everyone. Spicy and savory, mild and creamy, or light and brothy, this quick-change artist of a dish is quickly replacing our collective memories of cheap and cheerful Styrofoam bowls of salty cup noodles and foil packets with dehydrated onion and carrot flakes.
I've been wanting to try Kami Ramen since before they got their permanent digs in Spenard and were operating as a pop-up at Roti, the late and lamented Malaysian bakery. They quickly found a hungry audience, and now they're ladling up the goods in their own cozy space where diners sit shoulder to shoulder wielding chopsticks and slurping noodles.
The menu is comprehensive and reads like a Ramen 101 cheat sheet. The broths are pork, chicken, mushroom or miso-based and you can choose from a long list of toppings or extras, from slow-braised pork and chicken chashu, to sweet corn, to meticulously prepared soy-marinated ramen eggs. There are a few surprises on the menu as well, but my dining companion Maureen and I were feeling traditional, opting to share a plate of edamame ($6) and some gyoza dumplings ($7) before moving on to the spicy miso ramen ($16) for her and tan tan men ($15) for me.
The edamame were a nice and simple start. The sweet, sticky, sesame studded soybeans are a bit fussy to shell so it's hard to eat too many and spoil your appetite for the main event. The gyoza do not have the same built-in speed bumps. The dumplings, filled with juicy ground chicken, spices and vegetables, are pan-fried to crispy perfection. They're served with flair — hanetsuki-style or "with wings" — flipped from the pan while held together with a layer of crisp glutinous lace. It's both lovely to look at and fun to crackle apart and eat.
Maureen's spicy miso had just the right smoky heat to add depth to the gentle earthiness of the miso/chicken broth. The elegantly composed bowl is topped with chashu chicken, a chiffonade of Japanese onions and, of course, ajitsuke tamago, their slow-cooked eggs marinated, according to Kami's Facebook feed, in a "love potion." The result is an umami-rich bite with a custardy, jammy yolk that you can eat greedily — as I do — the minute the dish hits the table or, if you're patient, enjoy it as it melts slowly into your bowl, thickening and enriching the broth. There are no wrong techniques here.
My tan tan men, adapted from the Szechuan dish dan dan mian or more commonly, dan dan noodles, is served in a creamy broth thickened with sesame paste and heaped with ground pork. The dish is also topped with a slick of chili oil and the combination, at first bite, was far too rich. It was a rookie mistake on my part. After a robust toss with my chopsticks, the flavors dispersed, balance was restored, and the dish was delicious.
The tangle of noodles in each, made elastic and buoyant through the use of kanzuri — a combination of specific alkaline salts that give ramen noodles their distinctive texture — aren't so much the star of the show but the stage itself, the backdrop against which everything else shines.
I returned a couple of weeks later with my daughter in tow. We started with a plate of crispy, rice flour-battered mochiko chicken ($7) and an order of tobiko mayo french fries ($5) with its happy harmonies of sweet and salt, spice and cream, all brightened up with the brininess of roe. It was like an elevated Happy Meal. And it definitely made us happy.
For her main course, my daughter chose the spicy tonkotsu ramen ($16) and I opted for the shio ramen ($15). Hers featured a savory broth made with pork bones that are slow-simmered until creamy. The soup is topped with slices of smoky pork belly, green onions, ramen egg, dashi and a swipe of the spicy sauce that made Maureen's dish so smoky and warming. Mine, topped with grilled chicken chashu, was the lightest, mildest and cleanest-tasting of all the soups we tried. It is the soup I'll be craving the next time I catch a cold and need a bowl of sinus-clearing comfort.
The dining room is a fun and fresh space with large windows providing lots of natural light and views of the dubious charms of a busy Spenard intersection. But the quarters are close. Tables are packed quite tightly from one corner to the other. There is bar seating where single diners can watch the chefs putting together the complicated bowls — a convivial and entertaining use of space.
Which leads me to a quick refresher on ramen etiquette. Manners and common sense dictate that you eat your ramen quickly. Traditionally, it's considered perfectly polite to begin your bowl even before others at your table are served. The reasons for this are three-fold. First, you want to eat your noodles while they're at their best and not growing mushy in the hot broth. Second, you can taste each distinct component of the dish before they begin to melt, meld and harmonize in the bowl — indeed, every bowl of ramen offers a different first bite from the last and that's part of its allure. And third, eating quickly means making room for the hungry diners waiting patiently — or not — for a seat and a chance to dig into their own bowls. That said, we aimed for a late lunch and had no wait for a table. The dining room was quiet by the end of our meal and our very attentive servers continued to cheerfully refill our teacups and water glasses long after our lunch was cleared away.
Kami Ramen's menu is a marriage of fresh trends and tried and true tradition, of Chinese and Japanese influences, of assertive spice and mellow miso. Ultimately, a bowlful of ramen is a complicated ecosystem that requires culinary precision and homey hospitality to be in perfect balance. Happily, Kami is serving up both.
3807 Spenard Road
Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m.