Jeff Osaka on ramen mania, his ramen pop-up and Osaka Ramen, his new restaurant
"I don't know if I could have predicted how popular it would become," acknowledges Jeff Osaka, referencing the wave of Japanese ramen mania that's sweeping the nation. "Ramen is something I've been eating since I was a kid, so it's not new to me, but it seems like the nation has been leaning toward more casual, inexpensive and fast dining options, while still demanding quality ingredients, and I do believe the mania is here to stay -- and not just another fad," notes Osaka, the owner-chef of twelve, who's opening Osaka Ramen late this summer in a subterranean space in the Ballpark 'hood, where he'll share the building's real estate with Park Burger, Zephyr Brewing, Biju's Little Curry Shop and a pot shop.
"Opening a ramen shop is something I've wanted to do for a long time," reveals Osaka, who hunted for a space for more than two years -- and just got back from Los Angeles, where he at his way through several ramenyas. "Every time I go back home to Los Angeles to visit, I eat ramen, and while there are a couple hundred noodle shops in southern California, here in Denver, I can count them on one hand," he adds. And because of that dearth, continues Osaka, "there's room for more ramen in Denver, and I just want to fill that void and share it with others -- and yes, there's also the selfish aspect of it: I want it for myself."
His L.A. discoveries -- Osaka has been prolifically posting photos of his ramen stops on his Facebook page -- will likely translate to what he envisions for his own seventy-seat shop that will ballyhoo "mid-century modern" decor, complete with "Japanese pop culture" accessories, including light fixtures that mimic flying saucers and antiquated Japanese film posters. "One thing that's similar to the ramen shops in LA is that mine will be approachable," shares Osaka. "I want Osaka Ramen to be a place where you feel comfortable and a place you want to frequent; it will be fast without being fast food," he explains.
But there will be marked differences, too, especially when it comes to the ramen itself. "Although the staple will be ramen, there will be hints of Korean, Chinese and even Southeast Asia," says Osaka, who teases that he may also dish out soba noodles, traditionally served cold. "I may offer soba as a cold noodle dish during the warmer months, because it's a lighter, more refreshing option to the heavier ramen noodles, which are typically made with wheat flour," he adds.
And speaking of noodles, Osaka is procuring his from Canada and Australia. "The wheat here in the states tends to be a little softer, so the noodles can't develop the 'chew' I'm looking for, but the noodles that I'm sourcing hold up well and complement the various broths I'll be making," explains Osaka, who will serve five different broths, each, he says, with "distinct differences." Shio, a chicken-based broth that's the lightest of the five, is made with Japanese sea salt, while a second stock, also chicken-based, will benefit from the addition of shōyu, an ebony soy sauce that Osaka describes as "a little darker and richer than the mineral flavor of shio or sea salt from Japan." The miso broths, he adds, "will have nuttier, fermented notes of miso paste and sesame," and the tonkotsu, which Osaka considers the "highlight" of his ramens, is a "rich, fatty, flavorful pork broth -- it's almost indescribable -- cooked for at least 24 hours." The latter is a stock on steroids, and, done right, a rocket of deep, pungent flavors.