If you're like me, when you think of "ramen" you think of the instant variety. Those weirdly light bricks of curly noodles, with their foil packet of bouillon, salt and MSG, are to be found in the cupboards of college students, harried parents and office workers everywhere.
Those are cheap (10 for a dollar in 1989, even in pricey NYC), quick (on the table in under 5 minutes), filling (or, to put it another way, fattening), and, let's face it, tasty (especially when served with a soft cooked egg and a copious amount of hot sauce). Through late-night study sessions, periods of empty-wallet syndrome and a few hungover mornings, instant ramen has seen me through some trying times.
But instant ramen doesn't hold a candle to the real thing. It's like the difference between a truly great pasta Bolognese and a can of Spaghettios. And the ubiquity of those crinkly little packets and plastic foam cups has, for years, pushed the real thing out of the spotlight (in the United States, that is).
Which brings me to Ramen House by Saijo. More than one reader brought this newish Fireweed eatery to my attention and, when a long walk on a nippy, rainy day put me in the mind for soup, I grabbed my daughter for an exploratory visit.
We picked a spot near the window in the spare but pleasant dining room and enjoyed a perfect view of the half-built La Luz del Mundo Church (aka "the wedding cake building"). It's a rather … singular view.
The menu is, happily, simple. I've grown a bit weary of restaurants that cast their net too wide. Menus that offer Japanese dishes alongside Chinese classics and Korean specialties often shake my confidence, leaving me to wonder what the kitchen actually does best. At Ramen House, the menu is focused. A list of ramen soups lines one side of the menu, and a manageable list of Japanese entrees (mostly of the breaded and fried variety) lines the other.
We started with an order of gyoza ($8.50) because, apparently, this was the next stop on my family's "Eat Every Dumpling in Anchorage" tour. These were a worthy entrant. Stuffed with flavorful ground pork and shredded cabbage, these were fried to a deep brown and had a satisfying crunch to each bite.
The ramen soon followed presented, steaming, in oversized bowls. I opted for the chashu ramen ($13), which is a simple, deeply satisfying soup. A heaping tangle of noodles swims in a savory, light, clean-tasting broth. Topped with a soy-marinated, hardboiled egg, a smattering of aromatics and a generous portion of thinly sliced roast pork, this is a complete meal in a bowl with elements that work beautifully apart and together.
My daughter's shio ramen ($13) was a bit more complex, teeming with vegetables like thick chunks of cabbage, and thinly sliced carrots, onions, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts. The vegetables cook in the steamy broth and maintain a pleasant interior crispness. These soups feel wholesome — filling but not heavy. And the noodles are perfect — tender but firm — not moments away from becoming mush like the instant noodles I'm used to. I'm looking forward to a winter of working my way down the soup side of the menu.
I returned with my husband the following week and had to exercise self-control to not order soup again. But in the interest of balanced reporting, we opted for different appetizers and main course choices from the entree list.
We began with the Yoko-nigiri ($5), elegantly described on the menu as "Spam rice ball" and an order of chicken karaage (basically, Japanese fried chicken, $8). The nigiri — Spam, egg, and rice wrapped in seaweed — is basically a Japanese breakfast sandwich. It was simple and tasty.
The chicken karaage, however, was a bit disappointing. Though fried to an admirable crispiness and strongly redolent of garlic, the batter itself lacked seasoning. I was looking for missing flavor and for something salty or even sweet to dip it in.
There was no seasoning problem, however, with my husband's chicken curry katsu ($15.50), which was richly flavored with an assertively earthy curry blend. This is the kind of curry that hits your sinuses rather pleasantly without burning your tongue. Served with a sliced, fried chicken cutlet and a heap of rice, my husband was well satisfied.
My pork katsudon ($15), a fried pork cutlet sliced over a seasoned rice bowl and topped with an egg, is the kind of homey dish I imagine being served in Japanese households every day. The crispy breading contrasted nicely with the creaminess of the egg and, as I ate it, the whole dish became mixed up, stew-like and comforting. I should note that most of the meat entrees seem to be breaded and fried, so if you're trying to avoid the "batter" portion of the food pyramid, you might want to stick with the soups.
Service is efficient and friendly and the front of house appears to be family run. Both times I was there, the owner dropped by our table to inquire about our meal.
Ramen House by Saijo is a humble little spot serving simple food well. And, with the recent nip in the air, the leaves turning yellow and a touch of morning frost on the grass, now is the perfect time to tuck into a big bowl of steaming noodle soup. Find your favorite now. It might help get you through the winter.
There's nothing wrong with keeping a packet or two of instant ramen in your pantry to remind you of your youth. But you're all grown up now. Shouldn't your ramen be too?
Ramen House by Saijo
Hours: 12-3 p.m., 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Location: 149 E. Fireweed Lane
Contact: 907-272-2016 and Facebook