SINCE I STARTED writing this column two years ago, my editor has encouraged me to try writing in an engaging "speaking with you, not at you" style. Although the assumption that I can actually be "engaging" is problematic, I think I'll finally give it a try—I've only got a couple of chances left. This is what I would say to a friend about Boxer Ramen, the three-month-old shop located on SW Stark's precious little Union Way alley.
You should order their tonkotsu-shio ramen (all ramens are $10). It tastes deeply of bacon and onions and pork and garlic that's been roasted so long it's black. If there are two of you, you should also get the big plate of okonomiyaki tots ($6), which are hot tater tots drizzled with spicy BBQ sauce, a pink chili-mayonnaise, chives, and smoky bonito flakes that flap in the withering heat like a mountainside covered in birds that are slowly going to sleep forever.
There, that was tidy. I have recommended to you the absolute best way to make use of this restaurant (and, yes, I do use a lot of "death on a mountainside" imagery when talking with my friends). Only a man with a ghoul gnawing at his heart could find fault with that meal.
When you want to branch out from those dishes, get the spicy red miso ramen. There are only three ramens and a curry on the menu, so it will be easy to find. Floating in this respectably hot bowl of enticingly red, thick, smoky broth will be two slices of the aforementioned bacon. The cooks at Boxer—one of them explained this process to me in such elaborate detail that my mind wandered—buy whole applewood-smoked bacon bellies, simmer them in broth, marinate them, roast them until they have a thick, sweet, brisket-like bark and rosy pink interior, then slice them and put them in your soup. It seems that they do this because no matter how good char-siu (the typical sliced pork you find in ramen) can be, it is not applewood-smoked, American-style bacon. They have a point, although for $10 a bowl, I would like them to make that point three times instead of two.
Boxer's shiitake-shoyu ramen earns points for its broth's clear and pure shiitake flavor, but its lack of complexity compared to the other two was as stark as the street outside. It's also the least fatty of the soups. In ramen this is not necessarily a good thing—academic lovers of ramen claim that a slick of fat across the top of the broth keeps it hotter longer, like a liquid lid (in addition to its mouthfeel, slurp facilitation, and flavor duties). Heat is (nearly) paramount in the ramen chain of cares. Speaking of heat, they also cook their eggs just hard enough that they don't run, which some may find a shortcoming, but I liked the texture with the tiny mince of soft, braised bacon fat that's floating around in the tonkotsu and spicy miso ramens.
The broth of the vegetarian curry ramen was smooth and rich with coconut milk, and respectably complex from lemongrass and more of the blackened garlic oil. If you're a vegetarian in the Boxer house, though, you had better appreciate heat: From the first sip, the spice index was pegged at nearly jalapeño level.
Completing the menu is a bright and refreshing ohitashi ($5)—a small, but meant-for-sharing bowl of ribbon-cut Swiss chard and sesame with sweet dressing and walnuts.
It is claimed the noodles are brought in from a vaunted purveyor, but I would still like them to be a little more toothsome when first set down. If the same noodle is going to be used in all four dishes, as it is here, it deserves finer tuning. Quantity-wise, I always felt like I ran out three bites shy of satisfaction.
I understand the 30-seat dining room used to be quite a bit noisier, but, like all near-retirees, I am cantankerous and yowly on the subject of loud dining rooms, and even when it was packed I had no problem with it. Low, backless stools are fine for sitting, but impossible to linger in, which is good ramen-house design.
Service on three visits was quick, remarkably knowledgeable, and friendly to the point of actual charm. The cash-only aspect of a brand-new and expensively built restaurant is irritating, but I would imagine the rent on this swanky little boutique alley is stunning, and penciling all the costs in is not unlike playing Operation with a set of hot molecules.
One final note: Leftover ramen cannot be sent home with guests in folding takeout cartons. Liquids require lids. My friend's passenger seat, and my poor groin, still smell like curry.
Mon-Fri 11 am-9 pm, Sat-Sun noon-9 pm. Five excellent taps and sake available. ATM inside. Heated, covered alley for waiting.