WHILE OTHER major cities are knee-deep in eye-meltingly delicious tonkatsu, Portland's ramen scene is still coming into its own.
Yet step down an alley off SE Hawthorne to a black cart with a built-in standing ramen counter, ring the bell for service, and you'll taste our ramen revolution headed in the right direction.
Opened in May, Umai is already on soup junkies' radar. Just two months in, it made the Oregonian's top 10 best new food carts list. On a recent visit, I sat next to a white guy slurping up long strands of toothsome ramen noodles—made in-cart daily—and plotting his return to Tokyo. Later, I parked next to another newspaper's food writer who was there for a Wednesday afternoon fix.
Umai, which means delicious in Japanese, is the work of Forest Carter and Austin Moore, both bluegrass musicians turned noodle maestros. Besides the fact that these dudes have beards and are in a band, there are other unmistakable Portland elements in the soulful broth: the chicken is Draper Valley, the pork hails from Carlton Farms, and—despite the very wheaty essence of ramen noodles—there's a gluten-free option, too.
The Umai ramen ($10) comes with three broth choices, shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), and miso. The shio is what truly sings here, imparting subtle comforts and a richness that builds. The shoyu and miso are also well executed. They'll appeal to someone who wants a more immediate flavor pop—it draws you in fast and leaves your tongue umami-tied when you inevitably drain the last drop.
No matter your base broth, each bowl is topped with slow-cooked shredded pork shoulder that's better than 90 percent of the carnitas in town. It's moist, pumped up with salty goodness, and boasts inexplicably crunchy edges that collide beautifully with a medium-cooked egg floating nearby. Vinegar- and soy-pickled shiitakes join the show, bringing along a raft of steamed greens that have a bit of bite. And those noodles are Asian al dente, even as they further cook in the hot broth. No matter what winds up in your shallow soup spoon, it's going to be a delectable mouthful.
A vegetarian version ($10) swaps out the pork for a lightly deep-fried eggplant karaage and remains every bit as complex, while a broth-less ramen ($9) is serviceable but loses some of its charm. Sandwiches, including a fried chicken karaage, bacon chutney, bok choy slaw, yuzu kosho aioli on a French roll ($8), are satisfying and pack the same intense flavors. They're also not as stellar as the soup.
There's a few promising ramen shops set to open in the coming months: Japanese chain Kukai is opening an outpost in Beaverton, while Biwa—whose bowls have always been one of most reliable bets in town—is unveiling Noraneko in Inner Southeast. Ramen may be all the brothy rage, but there's a clear demand: Umai stays open until 8 pm most nights, but limited prep space means they close up shop when the noodles are gone. Go early. Go often.
Wed-Sat noon-8 pm, Sun noon-3 pm... or until they run out of noodles. Picnic tables, stand-up covered ramen counter.