How do you make an exquisite bowl of ramen?
It all starts with the broth — the water, to be more specific.
Combine that with the endless innovation of local chefs (think of ramen as a blank slate for flavors and ingredients), plus the rainy-season comfort-food vibe ramen brings, and you’ve got a recipe for brilliance.
In May 2022, Afuri Ramen & Dumpling Slabtown become the fourth location in Portland (after Afuri Beaverton, Afuri Izakaya in Southeast Portland and Afuri Ramen & Dumpling Downtown). It’s their largest location yet and a blueprint for others to come worldwide. Four years in the works, the restaurant showcases the full process of ramen-making — from making the broth in the 110-gallon steam kettles to cranking the sheets of noodles out in the “noodle lab,” to prepping the dumpling fillings and finally layering all of the ingredients into an extraordinary bowl of ramen in the open-kitchen layout.
“Afuri doesn’t just serve well-executed ramens and clever sides, but they do so in a beautiful way,” says Rob Hobbs, aka Ramen Rob, a Portland ramen enthusiast who devotes his free time to sampling and photographing Portland’s ramen scene and ranking his favorites every year.
There are dozens upon dozens of amazing ramen spots in Portland and Oregon. Here’s why this restaurant in particular holds a special place in Portland’s growing ramen empire.
When Afuri chose Portland to be its first location outside of Japan, the company cited the purity of the local water.
“Reasons abound for us to introduce our style of ramen to the Rose City, however Portland offered us something no other U.S. city could; soft water from a pure source within close proximity,” the company noted. “Much like Mt. Hood, the Afuri mountain in Japan has long been revered as a sacred place of harvest; the unique geography creates ideal spring water, perfect for ramen making. Portland’s ecosystem produces nearly identical beautiful water to that of our Japan locations. This water quality combined with the bounty of Pacific Northwest local farms & producers, allows us to create the highest quality ramen and Japanese cuisine available.”
Six years later, there are now Afuri locations in California, Canada, Hong Kong, Portugal and Singapore, with more planned.
As with any lauded restaurant, consistency is key. Chef Yoji Harada is the corporate chef and oversees all of the Portland locations, having lived in the U.S. since 2003, working in sushi restaurants across the country. His favorite part of being a chef is interacting with guests and sharing his love of food. When he’s not working, he loves to fly-fish for trout, watch movies and drink sake and wine.
He has over 20 years of traditional Japanese cuisine and sushi experience. Yoji grew up in Japan and moved to the USA in 2003. He’s worked in sushi restaurants all across the US. Yoji met Taichi while working in Los Angeles, and moved to the Pacific Northwest to join us at Afuri. His favorite part of being a chef is being able to interact with guests and share his love of food with them. When he is not working, Yoji enjoys fly fishing for trout, watching movies and enjoying sake, wine and of course ramen.
Just before opening day of Afuri Slabtown, he showed us the steps to preparing the perfect bowl — a process that takes just under three minutes:
- Place chashu pork on the grill.
- Add tare (a reduction of broth, chicken fat and layered aromatics) to the bowl.
- Separate out the noodles and drop into a pot of water.
- Scoop broth into bowl.
- Remove water from noodles.
- Fold in the noodles and create a shelf for the toppings.
- Add yuzu and other aromatics and toppings such as meat, half a shoyu hard-boiled egg and a sheet of nori (seaweed).
- Present the bowl and enjoy.
Most ramen restaurants in Oregon are casual affairs in tiny spaces, and Afuri Slabtown is a bit more elevated, with its full bar and bright, sleek space including garage doors that open to inviting outdoor seating alongside a firepit for chilly days, and cozy counter space around the open kitchen.
You can also peek into the glassed-in “noodle lab,” where staff are literally cranking out the fresh noodles that will go to Afuri locations across the city. Dumpling preparation also happens here — dumplings are big on the menu, with soft-shelled crab, karaage (fried chicken) and other proteins nestled into the pillowy cushions. The menu changes slightly according to season, but one year-round standout developed just for Oregon’s locations is the hazelnut tantanmen, made with a spicy-savory miso broth of hazelnut paste and soy milk. It’s also vegan and packed with umami flavor, with miso cashew crumbles, leeks and shiitake mushrooms.
In mid-June 2022, the Afuri opens its next Portland venture, Tanaka Katsu Sandwiches — a downtown shop dedicated to katsu sandwiches (thin cutlets dredged in panko crust) in between soft, fluffy shokupan (Japanese milk bread).