Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: Two Noodle Shops Opened Mid-Pandemic Do the Japanese Soup Right

Takeout ramen from Origami Ramen Bar in Ahwatukee.
Takeout ramen from Origami Ramen Bar in Ahwatukee. Chris Malloy
Four days apart in August, under the steady boot crush of the pandemic and the restaurant off-season, two ramen restaurants opened. Both are great.

The first is Origami Ramen Bar in Ahwatukee. Origami is the project Yusuke Kuroda started after being laid off in the spring from the national, reputable high-end microchain Nobu. He came to Arizona and opened a noodle bar — Origami also serves donburi, handrolls, a few fried foods, milk tea, and other offerings — to channel his reserves of dammed-up passion and energy that built and built in the early, idle, uncertain months of 2020.

Kuroda, an Osaka native, went to culinary school and got his start cooking kaiseki in his home city. It’s no surprise, then, that his takoyaki are first rate. Takoyaki — dough spheres cooked on special trays to a brown crust, the rich product shot through with bits of chopped octopus — are a food from Osaka. Growing up, Kuroda’s mom cooked takoyaki at home, and the version he makes, he says, channels those memories. His are hearty and soft inside, a rendition topped with a blizzard of shaved bonito, the pink flurries of cured fish kindling a pleasant sea tang.

click to enlarge Cake tops are piped with a basketweave of colorful strands, which are paste corresponding to each cake’s respective flavor. - CHRIS MALLOY
Cake tops are piped with a basketweave of colorful strands, which are paste corresponding to each cake’s respective flavor.
Chris Malloy
Despite his years at Nobu, an inventive Japanese restaurant, Kuroda proudly keeps his takoyaki and ramen traditional.

His rich miso ramen is excellent, the broth packed with a welcome concentration of flavor. Kuroda reaches these depths by simmering pork and chicken bones in a stock for a long time, about 12 hours. His calculated combination of miso, a union of red and white miso pastes from Hokkaido, seems to sap the fermented bean’s salinity so that you can experience its earthy subtleties and, in a way, briefly explore its full nuanced landscape of umami.

At Origami, paitan ramen is just as enjoyable. Its broth is made with mostly chicken bones but contains some pork for good measure. The fragrant result is creamy and decadent, but with all the humbleness and restorative power of a chicken soup. The one thing you might object to, depending on your feelings, is the chopped garlic heaped into a near-hill. Not me, though: like that Grinch who stole Christmas, I have garlic in my soul.

As good as his ramen bowls are, Kuroda might want to fine-tune his egg game. Mine were cooked far past the point of soft yellow goodness. The yolks were solid all the way to their chalk-yellow cores. This isn’t the fault of takeout, as plenty of other ramen shops nail the soft-boil on takeaway eggs. Shouldn’t be a hard fix.

When ordering ramen, you can tack on a donburi bowl for a few bucks. Easy choice. Kuroda’s chashu pork is succulent with a measured touch of sweetness. And though steep for two small portions, I’d consider pulling the trigger on the $11 cake box. It consists of two three-bite mont blanc cakes with minimal sweetness. They’re airy and perfumed with flavors like matcha or black sesame; the tops are piped with a basketweave of colorful strands, which are paste corresponding to each cake’s respective flavor.

Both are the kind of non-ramen items that set Origami a rung above your average ramen shop. Kuroda is flirting with expansion to other locations in the future. If he does, our Valley’s ramen and Japanese food scene would benefit.

click to enlarge Ramen Kagawa has been simmering in the heart of downtown Phoenix. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Ramen Kagawa has been simmering in the heart of downtown Phoenix.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
The second ramen shop, Ramen Kagawa, has been simmering in the heart of downtown Phoenix.

Though he excels in similar bowls and has rolled out a menu with a similarly tight (actually tighter) focus, Yuji Iwasa comes from a much different background. He grew up and went to a traditionally French culinary school in Los Angeles, then moved to Phoenix about 10 years ago, a bit later in his career, to be a corporate chef at PF Chang’s. Kagawa’s manager, Shunji Tohada, is a Hiroshima native who landed in Phoenix more recently.

My favorite ramen from Kagawa might be the standard tonkotsu. Broth makes ramen, and this broth is utterly on point. Sips bring a deluge of bone-warming pork flavor, a long, long bass note of nuanced animal goodness that carries you deep inside yourself. It is creamy and extravagant yet humble and ordinary — an exemplary bowl of noodle soup.

click to enlarge Tonkatsu ramen at downtown’s Ramen Kagawa. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Tonkatsu ramen at downtown’s Ramen Kagawa.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Iwasa thinks his studied, mix-and-match approach to stock is key. “Knowing how to make really good stock has become the backbone of our business today,” he says. Where he believes doing so will draw out more flavor, he incorporates European techniques into his stock-making and ramen creation. Still, his ramens remain largely traditional but for minor detours and flourishes here and there.

The tonkotsu might be improved, depending on your thinking, by upgrading the pork topping to chashu pork ribs. Cooked in the stock to fortify the broth cauldron, charred a little on the outside, these pork ribs present a logistical obstacle to the eater. They are on the bone, so you need to get in there with your hands a bit. On one visit, the ribs were a little tough, though they had been in a steaming-hot takeout container for a decently long car ride before sampling.

Kagawa’s paitan ramen is a memorable version. It has a wonderfully creamy broth, achieved, Iwasa says, by “cooking the heck out of the chicken carcass and the chicken feet” while in the weighty steel stockpot “to get the gelatin out.” After a cycle of turning up the fire and boiling, lowering the heat, and letting it rip again, an ornately creamy whitish stock emerges. This one, too, is really nice. My only complaint might be that the egg (beautifully molten and gelatinous) has a coating of sharp sweetness and soy punching through, almost too much for the fine chicken broth. This, though, is nitpicking.

Kagawa makes the kind of satisfying ramen that, once the deep soup season comes to Phoenix, I crave again a few hours after finishing a bowl. Though the local ramen scene is getting crowded as new joints elbow in, if I lived or worked within a five-minute radius of either of these shops, both would be in my regular lunch rotation.

Origami Ramen Bar
4810 East Ray Road, Suite A-1
Origami classic (paitan) $13.50
Rich miso ramen $16.50
Fried takoyaki $9

Ramen Kagawa
111 West Monroe Street, #130
Regular tonkotsu ramen $11.50
Regular paitan ramen $11.50
Beef curry rice $11.50
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy