Disappointment and Surprise in the Pacific Northwest: Part 2

I’d given up on really good ramen on this trip, until a gem on Whidbey Island made my week – and my wife’s too!

Leza and I had been to Whidbey Island before, a lovely place off the coast of Washington state. Dining options were limited in the town of Langley as many restaurants hadn’t come back from COVID restrictions. Then I came across Ultra House, a ramen spot a few minutes walk from our hotel. A noodle house seemed out of place in this neighborhood, but the reviews were great. Having been burned by my prior well-reviewed spot, I was cautious.

Ramen spot – in an unlikely island setting.

There was a short wait at lunchtime on a weekday, but luckily we managed an outdoor table – a plus as the delta variant was taking hold. A cheerful waitress greeted us, setting down some complimentary edamame as an “apology” for the long (it wasn’t) wait. 

Six condiments for your personalized experience.

A few items caught my eye: a wooden basket with six condiments and, blessedly, an actual printed menu (I’m getting bored with the QR code menus; a rant is coming soon). For my wife, who’s not (yet) a ramen aficionado, this menu was a welcome addition: clear and informative, well laid out, with a legend for the more common ramen ingredients.

Ahhh! An actual clearly printed menu!

We ordered gyoza, which we would share. I ordered – surprise! – the tonkotsu with garlic oil on the side.

When the gyoza arrived, the contrast to my Seattle ramen experience was clear: the dumplings were carefully placed on the dish, alongside a string of yuzu paste and a side dish of Ultra’s custom gyoza sauce (soy, sake, chili). They were excellent: light wrapper and rich filling, with a charred crust. The yuzu and special sauce were nice touches, more than a standard soy/vinegar dip.

Gyoza with Denis’ custom dipping sauce and yuzu paste.

The ramen arrived and I noticed the attention to color, contrast and placement of ingredients. The slice of spiraled fish cake (naruto) was a bit old school and welcome. The broth was very good, slightly creamy with some complexity and good mouth feel. The layering of ingredients for the broth, as shown in this promotional video, speaks to the care they take in the product. As I added the black garlic oil to the broth, it came alive even more. 

Ultra’s signature Tonkotsu with garlic oil on the side.

Noodles were yellow and rich, served at just the right firmness. Chashu was tasty. The egg was a weak element; fresh, but overdone and didn’t appear to be cooked in a soy blend. The vegetables were perfect and crunchy. All in all, a really good, well-prepared bowl of ramen. 

Ultra has an extensive beer selection including regional Japanese craft beers I’d never seen before. The sake list also looked impressive. Chairs outside were bare metal but comfortable. Chairs inside were mostly those ubiquitous metal stools (no backing) found in many street food vendors in Asia. 

Owner and chef Denis Zimmermann.

Atmosphere and fun details: I had a chance to chat very briefly with owner and chef Denis Zimmermann, born and raised in Japan. His passion to bring an authentic Japanese experience to his restaurant is evident in the many fun touches throughout the place: a wide selection of Japanese candies, packaged snacks, toys and mementos from his years in Japan. Kitschy, but in line with what David sometimes calls “wacky Japanese culture.” I loved it. For more background on Denis’ vision, do check out that video

Fun Japanese products and atmosphere.

Another Surprise! An unexpected bonus was seeing my wife “get it” about my ramen obsession. She’s heard me talk about it for years, but as she’s mostly gluten-free, Leza was never interested in joining the Club. With her first taste of the broth I could see the lights go on. “Wow, that’s good!” Then a taste of the menma and shitake; “I really like these veggies.” As she slurped some noodles, I could see her enthusiasm build. 

Another ramen lover is born!

Normally I never share a bowl of ramen, but hey – she’s my wife! But it was a joy to see her enjoy something I love so much. Her final comment, as I added a bit more garlic oil: “This gets better as you reach the bottom of the bowl!” Oh, to be understood!

We both left Ultra pretty high on the experience: good ramen, colorful atmosphere, warm, friendly service and the superb attention to detail missing on my last outing.  If you’re ever on Whidbey Island, it’s the only ramen game on the island – but it’s a good one.

https://ultrahouse.us

https://www.yelp.com/biz/ultra-house-langley


Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:

Food:                                  3.50 stars

Service:                               4.25 stars 

Atmosphere/Comfort:      4.00 stars

RATINGS LEGEND:  

1 star:   weak

2 stars:  just ok 

3 stars:  good      

4 stars:  very good      

5 stars:  superb or special

Tokyo Ramen Festivals This Month!

2018 Tokyo Ramen Show.

Next week two ramen festivals overlap in Tokyo. If you’re there, go for a taste of ramen styles throughout Japan.

The annual Tokyo Ramen Show begins this week, running October 24 through November 4 at Komazawa Olympic Park. This overlaps with the month-long Dai Tsukemen Haku competition to crown the best tsukemen ramen in the country, running through November 3. 

On my trip to Japan last fall I discovered, last-minute, that I’d be there for the Tokyo Ramen Show. What luck! The show is outdoors in an open-air promenade setting built for the 1964 Summer Olympics (some 2020 Olympic events will be held there). The show features 36 different ramen purveyors – 18 for the first six days, then the next set of 18 over the remaining 6 days. It’s free to get in, and only costs $8 USD for a ticket that entitles you to one bowl of ramen.

This is a stellar opportunity to taste some of the regional differences in ramen all in one place. The lobster ramen seemed compelling, as did the all-meatball bowl. But how to choose among 18 different booths!? Just like visiting a “ramen street” in a Japanese city, I used the standard technique: find the longest line and stand in it! It turned out to be a Sapporo-based restaurant (didn’t write down their name).

The dish I had was an “aged miso ramen.” The actual serving bowl was plastic – unfortunate, but I suppose necessary for this venue. The broth had red flakes and appeared very spicy hot. But, tasting it, there was only subtle heat that, for my taste, was just enough. The semi-clear miso-based broth was delicious with a rich flavor. The noodles were firm (thankfully common in Japan), and the pork slices – for which I had to pay extra – were thick and flavorful, though not particularly juicy. 

Aged Miso Ramen – Sapporo style.

All in all, it was a good, well-balanced, lightly spiced bowl of ramen. It certainly wasn’t one of the best I’ve had in Japan, but worth the visit to the festival, especially for the fun of it. I’m not calling this an actual review, but I suppose I’d put it in the range of 3 to 3-1/2 stars (out of 5).

Fun for the kids.

I didn’t make it to the Dai Tsukemen Haku competition, but I’ve seen it covered on YouTube and elsewhere. Take a look at this 2016 video from Ramen Adventures.

A lesson I learned is to plan ahead next time, as there’s no way you can sample so many bowls in a day. And everyone served standard bowls, not the half-bowls you see offered sometimes. So I’d come in the morning, have a bowl; then take a walk before my second bowl in the afternoon. Going with some friends and sharing tastes is a better idea.

Yōkoso! (Welcome!)

An enthusiastic ramen shop promotion in the Kaito-ku section of Ueno in Tokyo.

Merriam-Webster says a gourmand is someone “excessively fond of eating and drinking.” A gourmet is “a connoisseur of food and drink.”

So into which category do ramen lovers fall? We’d have to say somewhere in the middle. Ramen, leaving the instant kind aside, is a very basic pedestrian dish in Japan. However when you consider the care and time that goes into the broth, for example, and how certain chefs have elevated a bowl to the level of fine dining, gourmet isn’t far off.

How thin, or thick, did this restaurant slice the chashu? Did it have a char? Does the richness and complexity of the broth have staying power throughout the meal? Do the noodles go beyond good enough to having a texture, flavor and mouth feel that make them special? These are the kind of distinctions and conversations we tend to have about ramen. 

So three friends thought we’d form our own club, first as a joke. Then it got a bit more serious. Inspired by Ramen Adventures and others who write or make videos, we decided to add our voices to the conversation. 

Yes, the “club” is just the three of us. We live near San Francisco. No rules or dues in this club. Not sure how often we’ll post, and topics may vary beyond just reviews. At some point, we may open up to comments or guest posts. Let’s see how it all evolves. Welcome.