AFURI, the latest cult Japanese chain to hang a shingle in Portland, draws lines of tourists and locals alike to its modest kitchens across eight locations in Tokyo (and one in Kanagawa), where locals pay 980 Yen (about $8.66) to order its signature yuzu-based ramen.
In Southeast Portland, the lines for Afuri’s first US outpost are no different. But here, locals have the pleasure of paying $15 for that same famous yuzu broth. In fact, until it was pulled from the menu last week, Afuri’s chicken paitan ramen may have been the only bowl of ramen in the country with a base menu price of $20 (it’s been replaced by an $18 bowl of tonkotsu).
Afuri chose Portland after an extensive search, owners said, because the pH balance of the city’s Bull Run water closely mimics the water they use for their broths at home. With its cavernous, low-lit ambiance, a completely open kitchen with Japanese robata and irori coal-fired grills glowing merrily, and a full range of izakaya dishes, Portland’s Afuri is a far cry from its sister restaurants in Tokyo, where customers order one of just a few options from a machine at the door.
Afuri’s arrival is the latest aftershock in a seismic wave of restaurant openings that shifts Portland farther away from its reputation as an affordable eating city. This is not a knock on ambition or fine dining, but rather something to take heed of as we go forward—especially if higher prices don’t equate to a finer dining experience.
Each visit to Afuri has put us in the proximity of someone who is someone: Blazers center Mason Plumlee was tucked in near the back, other food critics were swarming, and I waved hello to several other mucky-mucks in the food industry. Afuri has no reservations and a strict policy of not seating a table until every member is there—even if they’re just parking the car. Waits can stretch to an hour-plus, but go before 6 pm and it’s easy enough to walk in.
It’s clear Afuri is striving for greatness, but it’s still got a lot of growing to do. The menu centers on the yuzu shio ramen: a light, subtle potion that’s oceans apart from a bone-heavy shoyu or tonkotsu. After ordering it twice, the reduction of seaweed, dried seafood, citrusy yuzu, and other secret ingredients remained unremarkable, featuring a single slice of chashu pork, half a dashi-marinated soft boiled egg, and a housemade noodle that’s far thinner than most ramen noodles, withholding that satisfying bite and spring we all crave. If it were the under-$9 bowl in Ebisu, it’d be a great alternative to meatier broths; for $15 I’m taking a hard pass.
The rest of the ramen ($14 to $18), included a too-rich tonkotsu and a super spicy soy broth, are serviceable but not better than those at other recent import Marukin Ramen. Vegans actually make out with the best bowl: an eight-month aged black bean miso bowl ($18) that wafts truffle oil so fragrant that the smell seems almost visible. With thicker noodles, beansprouts, and oodles of quartered mushrooms that pop in your mouth, there’s no need for meat—a rare feat for ramen indeed.
Pause here for sake from the extensive list: Spring for the $24 After the Drizzle flight, with an array of dry, crisp rice wines highlighted by the Red Snapper Draft, a bright, unpasteurized blend with berry notes. There’s also Asahi and Sapporo, but the Afuri Yuzu Farmhouse Ale made by next-door neighbors the Commons brewery (where you should spend your wait for a table) is a solid sip.
Bouncing around the rest of the menu reveals surprises, some good and some bad. Do not bother with the sushi—you can tell the ingredients are top notch, but the sloppy dollops of roe on the signature Afuri roll ($18) with big eye tuna, along with other rolls we tried, were no more pleasing taste-wise than a sushi train roll. Opt for the yellowtail with jalapeno ($15), a fan of sweetly fresh fish layered with yuzukosho vinaigrette, avocado, and micro greens and flowers.
The pinwheel of gyoza ($9) arrives with a satisfying lacy crisp coating on the bottom, linking the pork, chive, and scallion dumplings together, a frying technique achieved with potato starch and a kitchen station dedicated to their creation. Karaage chicken ($9) is lightly fried and excellent with the citrusy egg salad dip, but skip the $15 stack of pork belly tempura, a fatty cut that does not improve with a soggy application of breading.
The irori and robata coal grills were on fire, literally and food wise: Skewers ($3-$4) were uniformly satisfying, with small samples of moist chicken thigh or breast, or tsukune meatballs of minced chicken and yam, ready to be dipped in an unctuous yakitori sauce made with Oregon pinot noir and topped by a saucy raw egg yolk. The gindara ($18) was also a stunner: black cod marinated in miso, it has a flare for the dramatic, plated with waving bonito flakes and a still-smoldering stick of wood from the grill. (Fun fact: If you ask the runner what you’re supposed to do with it, clearly gesturing toward the ember-tipped non-edible on the plate, he may answer “cut it up and eat it” as he walks away).
There’s so much more to the menu that I literally don’t have the column space (don’t get the bland $8 soft tofu; do splurge on the $12 duo of chef’s spoons; dessert isn’t necessary). That’s precisely the problem: with more than 40 menu options, there’s little by the way of specialization or the spectacular. Afuri is undoubtedly the most expensive and ambitious Japanese buildout this town has seen. I’m not against that (and I will find and shank anyone who mentions the cost of instant ramen in the comments), but I am hoping it becomes worth it.