Several years ago, a chef friend in Japan gave Mark Kondo his secret recipe for ramen. For Kondo, who had always had a passion for ramen, the gift would be life-changing.
Now, he's the owner and cook at the Valley's first, and as far as we can tell, only ramen food truck, the two-year-old Yatai Ramen. He runs the mobile eatery with his wife, Judy, and the occasional extra staff member when necessary.
Kondo says the secret to the truck's success is in the recipe he inherited.
"We cook the broth for a really long time," he says.
So just how long does "a really long time" mean? Twenty hours for each batch, to be exact. The result is a damn good bowl of ramen, but it also means that Kondo can only go out with his truck three days a week. And at least one of those is usually taken up by a corporate event.
Kondo says the nature of his work means he must be very selective with the locations he chooses. To watch the 64-year-old move throughout the tiny mobile kitchen is impressive to say the least. He's quick and nimble, cooking with only a pair of chopsticks and a free hand. There's no mistaking his formal training — he got his start at the original Benihana in New York in the 1970s and has since been a sushi chef at several different restaurants — but regardless, the popularity of the truck coupled with its infrequent appearances can easily be overwhelming for the two-person team.
Kondo, who was born and raised in Southern Japan before moving stateside (he came to Arizona from Connecticut in 1988), says he cooks ramen in the style typical to the region in which he was raised.
To put this ramen in the same category as the kind in the store-bought pouch would be slanderous. Kondo says all his ingredients are made from scratch, whether by him or a supplier. His noodles come from Sun Noodle, and the rest of the ingredients come from a combination of local Asian markets and grocery stores.
The 20-hour broth is filled with cuts of well-marbled beef, chicken, a hard-boiled egg, bean sprouts, peppers, and a variety of other spices and veggies. Ginger and deep umami flavors pervade. This is not some gimmicky alternative take on ramen but the real deal. And there's no mistaking the time (Kondo says he's spent five years and counting perfecting the recipe) and effort put into the broth.
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The menu also includes traditional Japanese chicken curry (which Kondo says is popular with Japanese expats), yakisoba noodles, and teriyaki chicken, but the real star, and most popular option, is the ramen.
Not surprisingly, Kondo is looking into opening a ramen restaurant. He says he could use the increased space to add different types of broth and types of ramen. He's particularly excited about the prospect of being able to add a miso broth to the rotation, which he says requires much more space than he has currently. He says he could also use a restaurant as a home base, from which he could dispatch his food truck.
With Phoenix's limited brick-and-mortar ramen offerings, we have a feeling many would gladly welcome a Yatai storefront to the mix.
For more information, check out Yatai Ramen Facebook.