Columbus Park Ramen Shop is as good as eat-it-and-beat-it food gets

%{[ data-embed-type=”image” data-embed-id=”” data-embed-element=”aside” ]}%

%{[ data-embed-type=”image” data-embed-id=”” data-embed-element=”aside” ]}%

Do you take ramen seriously enough?

I’m not sure that I do, but new circumstances seem ready to reshape my opinion of the kinky wheat-flour noodles that have always reminded me of a bad perm. In U.S. cities bigger than this one, diners no longer think of ramen as a cheap, prepackaged foodstuff, and other parts of the world have long known it as a rich, nuanced dish.

Anywhere, though — as with anything worth tasting — it’s all about who’s in the kitchen.

At Columbus Park Ramen Shop, Kansas City’s “first authentic ramen shop” (so says the two-month-old business’s website; no disagreement from me), the right people are in the kitchen: chef Josh Eans and his wife, Abbey-Jo, along with this venue’s head chef, Jon Ponzer.

I knew that the steaming bowls in this petite, 24-seat café would bear virtually no resemblance to the compressed, vacuum-sealed noodles that generally cost less than a candy bar. But here I must confess to some subconscious resistance to wholly committing to what Josh Eans calls (almost sheepishly, to his credit) “artisan ramen.”

“The stuff in the stores isn’t really ramen,” Eans explained to me last week. “It’s cooked, then deep-fried, then dehydrated. That’s why, when you prepare it, it tastes like squishy, overcooked pasta.”

Squishy, overcooked anything is not the stuff of successful Kickstarter campaigns and hourlong waits for a seat. Columbus Park Ramen Shop exists due to the former and has, from day one, exhibited the latter, adding up to a persuasive pro-artisan-ramen argument. (Full disclosure: I donated a small amount to that campaign, eager to see what the Eanses could do with the space next to their still terrific — and terrifically popular — Happy Gillis.) So I resolved to set aside old college-food biases and give myself over to a brave, slurpy new world.

The noodles used in the four kinds of ramen served here taste fresh indeed. They come from the Sun Noodle factory in New Jersey (which also supplies U.S. ramen mecca Momofuku, in New York City), and they are far from squishy. And, anyway, you determine your own noodle fate by doing as Columbus Park’s posted “rules of ramen” mandate: Eat ’em fast.

The rules are only slightly tongue-in-cheek. Customers are required to sign in when they arrive, kicking off a wait that might last more than an hour. “In Japan,” Josh Eans told me, “it’s not uncommon to find these tiny ramen shops with only 10 or 12 seats and a line of customers around the block. That’s one of the things about ramen. You can wait an hour to get into a ramen shop and be done with your meal in 10 minutes.”

It’s a commuter food there. Here, the combination of novelty and execution have made the Eanses’ version a destination dish in a car-dominated city — and something of a learning curve. Fast, Josh Eans will tell you, is how ramen is supposed to be eaten. “I wouldn’t come here on a first date,” he told me last week. “We don’t mean to be inhospitable, but if everyone is on board with how things are done here, we can move everyone through pretty efficiently.”

In other words: Eat it and beat it. (Of course, it’s good faith and good taste not to linger too long while others are hungry, but you’re also working against the dish’s natural inclination to congeal.)

For single diners — and Columbus Park Ramen Shop gets plenty of those — that’s great. (And, as of last week, takeout is available.) For parties of three or more, it’s more challenging. Only three four-top tables are inside this former garage, and snagging one is like grabbing the brass ring on a carousel. It’s worth waiting, though, if you want to try everything — something that’s not hard to do with its limited menu.

There’s a single starter, a dish of house-pickled vegetables (on my most recent visit: cabbage kimchi, pickled turnip slices, bean sprouts and shiitake mushrooms). It’s a wee plate, but the kick it delivers — salty, spicy, tangy — is an ideal overture to any of the four noodle dishes.

Those ramen choices (served in hand-thrown bowls made by local ceramic artist Paul Mallory) complement one another’s flavors without compromising their separate identities. The only nonmeat version, centered on a lush broth of mushroom and charred leeks, delivers a satisfyingly fleshy texture with a generous array of roasted and pickled mushroom slices. It’s a hearty one-bowl meal (more so if you ask to add an egg) and, right now, a bracing cold-weather dish (more so if you have a “chili bomb” added to it).

I was surprised by the sweet notes in the kimchi soup, prepared in a chicken-dashi broth with a “Chinese-style” sausage (think anise) made for the Ramen Shop by the Broadway Butcher Shop. The sugar in the broth balances the fiery, vinegary kimchi (made in-house) for a supple mixture of sour, sweet and hot. It’s easily my favorite of the bowls (so far, anyway).

The best-selling ramen bowl is the Shoyu, a country concoction in the chicken-dashi broth, with pieces of braised Amish chicken, a marinated farm egg, pickled shiitake and scallions. It goes down like a cure for something, its warmth as comforting as a wool blanket.

The classic Japanese tonkotsu bowl is a fragrant and robust heritage-pork stock with braised pork jowl. It could stand alone as a meal even without the noodles, the pickled bean sprouts and the scallions. With those elements, though, it’s a dish of surpassing richness. Finish it and you will not be hungry.

Just finish it fast. That’s the authentic way to eat ramen (even if it’s hell on note taking). And the quicker you get through, the quicker you can return for another bowl.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews