One-Hit Wonder: a performer, group, etc., that is popular or successful only once for a brief time. – Merriam Webster’s collegiate dictionary, www.merriam-webster.com
The ramen burger was created by Keizo Shimamoto, a former finance guy who got his bell rung by the financial crisis of 2008 and turned, in those upside-down times, to the more stable world of food service. He learned to make traditional ramen in Japan. Then he mastered it. Then he twisted it.
Like any innovative food idea, it would evolve over time, a splash of that in Japan, a touch of this in New York, but the tried-and-true original version of the burger went like this: beef patty, slice of American cheese, spring greens, tomato, shoyu sauce, all sandwiched between two buns made entirely of ramen noodles. In 2010, his ramen burger bubbled up to the surface of a documentary about ramen, then went banging onto the food scene in Brooklyn and, later, Los Angeles and Japan. Lines out the door, blogs roaring wild exultations, hashtags and Pinterest recipes and the whole deal.
Once the bandwagon had started rolling and everybody had jumped on it, there was the inevitable falling out that counter-culture things experience as they make the transition into just being culture. People started in with the “what’s all the hype about?” and the “not worth the wait.”
Slowly, the world moved on. Ramen burgers fell off menus and out of the spotlight, gone the way of all the one-hit-wonder foods that came before it. Flash, sparkle, poof. Which raises the question, what was all the hype about? And was it worth standing in line for?
For a long time, I didn’t have the answers to those questions. I had missed the ramen burger craze entirely. At the time, I was much younger, and I wasn’t nearly as focused on food. I thought wine tasted ketchup-y. I put chocolate syrup in my coffee. Only much later in the development of my palate did I even hear about ramen burgers, and by then I wasn’t anywhere I could get one.
Or so I thought…
Lunchtime on a Tuesday, and I was folded over the bar of Tokyo-Ya Ramen with a laminated menu in my hands and a rumble like a tropical storm forming in my gut. The waitress came to me for an order, and as I did a final, cursory sweep of the menu to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything, I realized that I had.
Corner of the page, in unassuming print like a washed-up old singer hiding out in the back of the bar.
“You have ramen burgers?” I said.
She nodded, and I jettisoned my original order on the spot.
“I’ll have that.”
And she went to get it.
It came to me wrapped in a paper sleeve, surrounded by a gaggle of salted edamame. Steam reached up off it like in the cartoons, tickle of the nose, come hither, and I yanked the burger out with a flourish.
The patties aren’t what you might expect them to be when you first look at them. It wouldn’t be crazy to assume that a concept like the ramen burger had been thought up by a stoned college student who had run out of bread and slapped an uncooked top-ramen brick on either side of a meat patty. This is simply not the case. The noodle bread in this dish is actually boiled noodles, pressed into a ramekin, doused in egg batter and fried or baked. The result is a springy texture that is wild without being off-putting and a flavor that perfectly lends itself to the smoky chashu pork it encloses.
Tokyo Ya Ramen makes the Japanese variation of the sandwich, subbing pork for beef and mayo for cheese. Sprigs of mixed-green salad give a kind of freshness to the powerful flavors of the meat and noodles. A thin slice of tomato further contributes to that lightness, adding a careful touch of sweet to the equation. Finally, a mayonnaise sauce rounds it all out. Dulls the acidity of the tomato. Smooths out the smokiness of the pork.
I ate that burger with the atavistic glee of a fanboy in the front row of a Dexy’s Midnight Runners concert. Fist in the air, I’m going to live forever, and when it was all said and done, I was left with an empty wrapper and a smile on my face. I had just spent my lunch with an old celebrity, a one-hit wonder. The “Ice-Ice-Baby” of the food world. I’d put my money down and let it up onto the stage and it had rocked my face off.
Worth the hype and the wait.
Get your own Ramen Burger at Tokyo Ya Ramen, 31507 Pacific Highway S., Federal Way.
Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.