HANG ON to your spoon: We're in the middle of a soup-nami.
The last few months have brought a brothy bounty: There's the heralded arrival of Kukai Ramen & Izakaya, a Japanese favorite whose tonkotsu (pork) ramen brings the faithful to their knees. And last month's opening of Rose VL on SE Powell means you can finally score the best Vietnamese soup in the Pacific Northwest at dinnertime. We also got a bone broth shop with Salt, Fire & Time, because this is still Portland. Go forth and slurp.
Kukai Ramen & Izakaya
11830 NW Cedar Falls, Beaverton
We've finally got what was coming to us: our very own outpost of a revered Japanese ramen institution.
Kukai is in a fancy-ass new strip mall in Beaverton (also home to a barre studio, an expensive pet food store, and an "integrative pharmacy"), and it's worth every penny to get out there. Start with the faithfully executed takoyaki ($5)—six deep-fried dough balls of tender octopus, served with sweet/savory okonomi sauce and heat-shimmering bonito flakes. But don't fill up, because the ramen is big enough for three Japanese schoolgirls... or one doughy American.
The menu helpfully includes little thumbs-up icons next to the most popular choices, and they don't steer you wrong. The garlic tonkotsu shoyu ramen ($12), is a soup so fortified the broth is cream-colored. It combines enough garlic to slay sparkly Robert Pattinson with a soy sauce and pork base that absolutely coats the mouth with umami. Further decadence includes the velvety yellow yolk of a soft-boiled egg and delightful al dente noodles. Similarly, the Chicken Rich ($11) is everything that a can of Campbell's chicken noodle soup aspires to be—instantly comforting and nourishing, with tender chicken pieces luxuriating in the bowl.
Add a slice of fatty pork belly chashu ($2), traditional white fish cakes with pink spirals, or one of the $1.50 additions to customize the miso, shoyu, and shio (salt)-based options. And, while it's still warm, capitalize on the tsukemen ($10), broad noodles traditionally served cold on a plate, which are then dipped into a hyper-concentrated tonkotsu broth.
Kukai already has a minimum 15-minute wait every night. But with Japanese efficiency, they'll text you when your table is ready, so you can spend time wandering the strip mall, wondering what the hell an integrative pharmacy even is.
Rose VL Deli
6424 SE Powell
For some obsessives, the day you finally try that last rotating daily soup from Southeast Portland's legendary Ha & VL is akin to what a vinyl nerd must feel when she locates the first stereo pressing of the Beatles' "Please Please Me"—rich and proud. But then, it's followed by existential emptiness: What's next?
Rejoice! The original owners of Ha & VL, Ha Luu and William Vuong have returned to the game with a 4 pm to whenever-they-sell-out soup spot. There are many Ha & VL favorites ($9.50 each), like Monday's shrimp cake noodle soup that contains multitudes, and the fantastic Vietnamese turmeric yellow noodle soup, available on Saturdays. (Don't try to get soup on a Tuesday at either restaurant. That is the day of soup rest.)
Collectors will be there for new rarities: Sunday and Monday's fish noodle soup—now with a tom yum-inspired broth—all tartness and pop with fish cakes, white fish fillets, tomato, pork, and vermicelli noodles. VL special noodle soup is an inspired kitchen sink of ingredients: shrimp, fish balls, ground pork, sliced pork liver, and sliced barbeque pork with rice noodles and (moar!) pork broth on the side. There are also banh mi and even a few rice-based daily specials. They're good, but you know why you're really there: soooouuuppp.
Salt, Fire & Time
115 NE 6th
This is an actual email I sent to a friend after visiting Salt, Fire & Time, a new gluten-free Paleo spot in inner Northeast:
"I just had lunch at a new place that only serves BONE BROTH, AKA STOCK. (And they don't even season it or add herbs.) Five dollars for about 10 ounces, plus oodles more if you want add-ons like 'medicinal mushroom' or 'chicken hearts.' I have a sodium headache because seasoning it means the salt just settles at the bottom and makes it undrinkable. HULK SMASH AND NEVER GO BACK. Fucking bogus food trends make me so angry. This and juice cleanses can go eat a giant bag of pasture-raised dicks."
I hated bone broth from the day I read about its woo-woo claims that simmering bones from grass-fed animals for 72 hours with a bit of apple cider vinegar to "extract nutrients" makes it healthier than grandma's stock. Still, I was prepared to go to Salt, Fire & Time and say it was very tasty stock—if only that were the case. Unfortunately, it arrives as an oil slick of bland liquid. Want some for home? How does $18 for 32 ounces sound?
Fellow Merc contributor, food historian, and fantastic home cook Heather Arndt Anderson joined me, and said: "The odd thing is the stock tastes like they didn't use two of the three ingredients in their name"—there was no salt involved and it didn't taste like they roasted their bones before simmering. She concluded: "People should just stick with pho and ramen." Yuuup.