“First, observe the whole bowl … savor the aromas. Jewels of fat glistening on the surface; shinachiku roots shining; seaweed slowly sinking; spring onions floating … Caress the surface with chopstick tips to express affection …”
Dialogue from the film Tampopo, in which the ramen master explains the ritual for eating ramen
Kazuhiro Sato is a chef with a mission. Six months ago, the enterprising Columbia restaurateur opened Menkoi Ramen House, the city’s first Japanese ramen-ya (ramen restaurant) in the heart of the Vista. The eatery is solely dedicated to serving generous portions of ramen – a flavorful, steamy-hot noodle soup that has reached cult status in Japan. Chef Sato spent the past 10 years thinking about the restaurant concept and laying the groundwork. Dedicated to promoting the Japanese food culture, he wants to change the way Americans think about this comforting one-bowl meal.
Most Columbians aren’t familiar with authentic fresh ramen noodles. Instant ramen packs and Cup Noodles are widely known, serving for decades as dorm room cuisine for hungry college students because it’s cheap and convenient to make. Only boiling water and three minutes are required to prepare those dehydrated noodle “briquettes,” and flavor comes from the accompanying packet of salty soup seasoning. It’s a universe apart from the chewy, fresh noodles prepared in ramen shops. It’s like comparing SpaghettiOs® to a just-tossed bowl of homemade Spaghetti Bolognese.
The birthplace of ramen is southern China, from where it migrated to Japan and was naturalized and integrated into Japanese society. Chinese merchants popularized the noodle soup in the port city of Yokohama during the Meiji era (1868-1912). It was dished up by Chinatown cooks and peddled through city streets in portable yatai carts. The Chinese import was thoroughly refined to suit the Japanese taste and spread to every region in Japan. The word ramen is thought to be a corruption of la-mian, the Chinese name for hand-pulled noodles.
Climbing The Corporate Ladder
Thirty-three years ago, Chef Sato traveled to the Midlands from his native home in Yamagata-Ken, in the Tohoku Region of Northern Honshu. He had planned a short visit to help friends launch Yamato Steakhouse, but he liked the area so well that he stayed.
Not yet fluent in English, he worked briefly as a dishwasher. Through hard work and perseverance, he climbed the ladder to success, and within five years he founded Sato Steakhouse on Beltline Boulevard.
Continuing in the spirit of entrepreneurship, Chef Sato opened Inakaya Japanese Restaurant on O’Neil Court. In an adjacent location, he opened Tsubaki – a karaoke bar with Japanese and French cuisine. He also owned a second Inakaya on St. Andrews Road but recently sold it to former employees.
Before coming to America, Chef Sato studied Nihon Ryori (Japanese cuisine) and worked in restaurants, including a ramen shop. In Shinjuku, Tokyo, he honed his skills by training in French restaurants with professional French chefs. Although the mastery of Japanese cooking is his culinary tour de force, Chef Sato prepares French, American and Italian food. Proficient in the pastry arts, he likes to bake apple pie, chocolate cake and pâte à choux (cream puffs), especially during the holidays.
Oodles of Noodles
The front window of Menkoi Noodle House glows with neon light; a colorful noodle bowl with chopsticks adds a whimsical touch. The name Menkoi is from the Northern Honshu dialect. It has double meaning: men is “noodles” and koi is “love.” The name is appropriate – what’s not to love about ramen noodles. Menkoi also is a country-style word that means “cute.”
Curious passers-by stop to read the sidewalk menu board near the front entrance. Touches of Japanese folk art enhance the pleasant space inside. The friendly staff enthusiastically greets customers, calling out “Irasshimase,” or “Welcome.”
By focusing on authentic ramen, Menkoi is garnering a legion of fans throughout South Carolina. Ramen aficionados drop by for lunch or dinner and are bowled over by the Japanese comfort food. On weekends, the restaurant stays open until 3 a.m. After an evening of partying, it is the perfect late-night spot for a restorative bowl of steaming-hot noodle soup and perhaps a side of savory dumplings.
Menkoi’s prices are reasonable – the most expensive dish is $8.50. There’s a choice of three appetizers, seven ramen bowls and beef curry with white rice.
A Rice Ball snack comes stuffed with a choice of salmon or bonito or umeboshi (plum pickle). Inari (zushi) is sushi rice stuffed into special fried tofu pouches, but first, the tofu is simmered in mirin, soy sauce and sugar. The rich umami taste is delicious, with a hint of sweetness.
Appetizers include edamame (immature soybean pods) and juicy shrimp-filled steamed Shumai dumplings. Where ramen goes, Gyoza usually follows. The juicy potstickers pair well with ramen, a favorite duo in the noodle shops of Japan.
The Ramen Broth
Great ramen is the result of a perfect balance of ingredients and flavors. It is simple, yet complex. There are numerous regional specialties throughout Japan with ingredients selected to please local tastes. Although ramen is ostensibly a fast food, skillful preparation has elevated the dish to an art form. Each ramen bowl has three components: the soup-broth, the noodles and the toppings.
By lunchtime, a giant pot of soup-broth is gently bubbling on the back burner in the open kitchen of Menkoi. The base ingredients are hearty pork bones, plump chickens and beef. An aromatic vegetarian broth is also prepared. Ramen is classified according to the seasoning that goes into a broth-base, and chefs add their own spin to each broth to personalize the taste. Menkoi’s seven soup flavors are: Spicy; Tonkotsu (pork bones); Shio (salt); Shoyu (soy sauce); Miso (bean paste); Chashu (roast pork) and Vegetable.
Chef Sato says that Spicy Ramen is the top customer favorite. Tonkotsu Ramen is a hearty dish with a rich-flavored creamy, opaque broth. It is a specialty in the Hakata-Fukuoka area of Kyushu Island. (Don’t confuse this with Tonkatsu – a fried pork cutlet.) The earliest ramen broths were seasoned with salt or soy sauce. Shio Ramen’s mild, clear broth and soft noodles are the specialty of Hakodate in Hokkaido – Japan’s northernmost island. Shoyu Ramen, a Tokyo classic, has a clear, brown broth seasoned with soy sauce. Miso Ramen’s robust, miso-flavored broth is also a Hokkaido specialty. Created in Sapporo in the 1950s, it was the first regional style to become a national favorite. Cold Hokkaido in the north and warmer Southern Kyushu have some of the strongest ramen-eating traditions.
Chef Sato uses fresh ramen noodles in the restaurant, custom-made by a California noodle producer. He prefers a thin, straight, alkaline noodle that has a pleasant chewy texture when added to the broth. When ramen was introduced to Japan, it became known as soba. By the mid 19th century, it was called chuka soba (Chinese soba), a name occasionally still seen in Asian markets. Ramen isn’t made with buckwheat flour like true soba, but with strong wheat flour, quality water and kansui (alkaline brine) or egg to give the noodles a golden yellow hue and enough elasticity to hold up well in the hot broth.
The Noodle Toppings
The third component of ramen is the noodle toppings. As important as the noodles and soup are, the toppings are the elements that pull the dish together, and they vary with the style of ramen. When arranged precisely, the colorful ingredients transform each bowl into a mini-masterpiece. Chef Sato includes chashu meat in all of Menkoi’s ramen bowls except the vegetarian choice. Chashu is Japan’s version of Chinese roast pork, except the seasoned meat
(usually pork belly or shoulder) is slow-simmered to succulence.
Menma is a tasty topping made from dried, sometimes fresh, strips of bamboo shoots simmered in a sweet–savory seasoning of shoyu, sugar and water or pork broth. Menma is also called shinachiku or “Chinese bamboo.”
Narutomaki is a delicious white fish cake. Each slice has a pretty pink or red spiral, said to resemble the magnificent whirlpools in the Naruto Straits. Other toppings include crisp nori strips, sliced green onion, bean sprouts and beni-shoga or red pickled ginger. Recently, toppings are trending like fashions; there’s always something new and interesting to try.
There’s also actually a fourth element of the ramen bowl – the array of zesty condiments placed at the table used to season the bowl of soup to taste. Diners can fulfill their noodle dreams at Menkoi and will quickly understand why ramen is one of Japan’s favorite foods.
How To Slurp Noodles
Follow these Japanese etiquette tips for noodle enthusiasts:
In the Zen spirit, it’s polite to give thanks for food by saying the short phrase, “Itadakimasu.” Think of it as saying grace.
Chopsticks are used for twisting, twirling and slurping the noodles. A Chinese spoon is used for the broth. It is also acceptable to pick up the bowl with both hands for sipping.
Noisy noodle slurping and broth sipping are considered appropriate etiquette. Ramen tastes better hot and these maneuvers help cool the noodles and broth, preventing a burned mouth. In addition, slurping is a sign of appreciation.
Japanese ramen fans practically inhale their noodles within minutes to prevent them from turning soggy in the broth. That’s probably the reason it’s called fast food!
At the end of the meal, don’t forget to show appreciation for the food by saying,“Gochiso-sama-deshita,” which roughly means, “Thank you for the delicious meal!”
Menkoi Noodle House is located at 1004 Gervais St. (at the corner of Park and Gervais)
Lunch: Mon. – Sun. 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Mon. – Thurs. 5 to 11 p.m.; Fri. and Sat. 5 to 3 a.m.; Sun. 5 to 11 p.m.
No reservations accepted.