In a visit to a highly-rated chain, I’m reminded how every detail of the ramen experience matters.
The bowl was placed in front of me, and I knew. Could I really tell just by looking? I sent a quick photo (with no comments) to fellow Clubber David, and even he knew: this ramen wasn’t going to be special. And so began my recent trip to the Pacific Northwest. I was at Ramen Danbo in Seattle which had the most highly-rated Yelp reviews in its category.
The clues started with my gyoza appetizer. Sitting at the counter, I noticed the chef preparing an order and haphazardly dropping them on a plate. I hope this order isn’t mine! Well, it was. Entirely absent was the Japanese attention to elegant plating.
I took my first bite and was pleased the gyoza tasted far better than the presentation. The wrapper was light and slightly chewy with a nice charred base; the pork filling was very good.
Then my ramen arrived. I’d ordered the Classic tonkotsu. Something seemed flat. The visual distinctiveness of the individual toppings I appreciate in great ramen wasn’t there. The chashu seemed submerged in the broth, not gently resting on top. It was a pretty boring looking bowl.
Ramen Danbo says it serves “Fukuoka-style tonkotsu ramen” and this bowl looked much like the classic tonkotsu from the famed Ichiran, also from Fukuoka. So Danbo’s ramen holds to form, at least in the basic preparation. While Ichiran serves a good bowl of ramen (see my Tokyo review), my expectations were sky high and I left there disappointed. That same pattern was to repeat in Seattle.
Danbo’s broth was fine, but a bit salty and with little depth. The noodles were nice, served firm. The chashu was OK but a bit soggy. The egg was perfectly cooked. I’d call it a just barely OK bowl of ramen, but with a little more attention it could have been much better.
Service was perfunctory and spotty. Decor was modern and spartan. Chairs were wood and basic. Menu was via QR code. The cleanliness at the counter wasn’t at the highest levels. I had the overall feeling that things were being missed and standards ignored. Bathroom was just OK. Of course, the physical space of a ramen restaurant can often be lackluster. But if the ramen is great, those considerations seem to disappear. At Danbo Seattle, many of these elements just reinforced my experience of the bowl.
I arrived at 5pm on a Saturday and managed a seat at the counter. The place was packed with a line outside by 5:45, so this place is popular and well-regarded. With lines out the door, is it easier to slack off and lose track of your standards? Danbo’s ramen photos from Yelp and Google appeared far more delicious than what was served to me. Perhaps I came on a bad day? Might it have been the post-pandemic staffing problems many restaurants are experiencing?
I’m not saying a plain appearing dish always indicates a lesser experience, and you may disagree that the photo above looks “plain.” The tonkotsu at Ippudo in Osaka and New York had a pretty simple appearance but the flavors had complexity and the ingredients were at a much higher level. What I ultimately concluded was that a certain lack of care and finesse was apparent at Ramen Danbo.
Ramen Danbo has over 20 locations in Japan and outlets in Vancouver and New York in addition to Seattle. Since these observations are based on only one visit, I’ll give Danbo another try, but with a different set of expectations.
Luckily this was not my only ramen adventure in the Pacific Northwest. I was about to be surprised by a small shop where the care and attention to detail shined. Stay tuned for Part 2.
Ramen Club 5-Star Rating System:
Food: 2.25 stars
Service: 2.75 stars
Atmosphere/Comfort: 2.75 stars
1 star: weak
2 stars: just ok
3 stars: good
4 stars: very good
5 stars: superb or special