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Thursday, April 29,2010

Real ramen rocks at Bento Zanmai

By Clay Fong

Rmen gets a bad rap in the United States, especially since most of us are only familiar with the instant dime-a-pack variety, weighted down with a surplus of salt and MSG. This is too bad, as authentic ramen has about as much resemblance to the starving student version as fresh-squeezed orange juice does to Tang.

Fortunately, those that want to sample the real McCoy can at Bento Zanmai, a sibling of the downtown sushi spot, nestled in a basement food court on the Hill. One can easily imagine this as a University of Tokyo hangout, and this joint’s apparent popularity with overseas students gives it the imprimatur of authenticity.

Bento is the Japanese term for box lunch. Options in this category range from the $7 bento portion to the jumbo sumo size for $10. Entrée choices include teriyakis from land and sea, Tatsuta Age, or fried soy-marinated chicken, and tonkatsu, deep-fried pork. Sides range from seaweed salad to classic gyoza dumplings stuffed with meat and fried tofu. Donburi rice bowls are also available, including those topped with chicken and egg, and curry.

Bento Zanmai
1310 College Avenue, #260 Boulder 303-4-BENTOS

Without question, the star attraction are the noodles, particularly the meticulously prepared ramen. Happily, the other Asian pastas are worth dipping a chopstick into as well. One standout is the $6 curry udon, an endearingly thick concoction that’s more of a stew than soup. This Far Eastern curry differs from its Indian cousins by virtue of possessing more sweetness than fiery heat.

These wide diameter noodles’ al dente texture and weighty nature make for a satisfying repast.

It’s also worth noting that this bowl is available for takeout, while ramen is not.

The modus operandi here isn’t to simply warm over some noodles in a bowl of bouillon-based broth, but to prepare each bowl to order. Those desiring the speed of a microwave Cup O’ Noodles may find their patience mildly taxed, but its well worth the wait, as musician pal Jack discovered.

He ordered a generous $9 bowl of the negi miso ramen — negi translates to leek, although the menu describes it as Tokyo green onion. No matter what you call it, this ingredient added a mellow note to the pungent broth, which possessed assertive but not unpleasant notes of soy with a hearty wine-like tone. For some palates, this strong flavor might wear thin after a while. On the other hand, a mild broth wouldn’t have complemented the tender bits of pork nearly as well.

My $8 miso ramen was brighter in flavor, making it easier to appreciate the snap of the ginger garnish and the near creaminess of a broth-infused hardboiled egg. These noodles were tender without being rubbery, and possessed greater heft than that of insipid ramen packs. My choice of chicken was the ideal match-up for the delicacy and freshness of the steaming soup.

Often with noodle soups, my inclination is to leave a fair amount of broth remaining after polishing off the pasta. In this instance, the broth is literally good to the last drop, and this warming fluid is a perfect prescription for warding off the cool weather blues. As a matter of fact, a bowl of Zanmai’s offerings would be just the ticket if one feels under the weather, as its properties aren’t merely sustenance-giving, but also restorative.


Clay’s Obscurity Corner Ramen’s roots

Ramen`s popularity in Japan didn’t really take off until after World War II. Until that point, most treated it as a specialoccasion dish with Chinese origins. However, the post-war era was also a time when the United States heavily exported flour to Japan, and Taiwan-born Momofuku Ando saw an opportunity. Ando felt flour could be called upon to create an instant and more culturally appropriate meal of noodles. In 1958, his “chikin ramen” hit the streets. Ando died at 96, after citing golf and almost daily consumption of instant ramen as keys to living to a ripe old age.

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