An international palette
STORY AND PHOTO BY CELINA KAREIVA
If you’re like most students, ramen was the bottom tier of your food pyramid in college, and the thought of paying anything more than a $1.50 for a bowl, is enough to make you scoff. But a new chain in the Lake Hills neighborhood of Bellevue may make you rethink that old college staple. Kukai Ramen and Izakaya, a Japanese chain that recently opened its first U.S. restaurant on the Eastside, serves delicious soft noodles in hearty broths with a mix of ingredients.
“We’re very traditional as far as flavoring goes,” said general manager Sharon Yousefi. “All the recipes are the same as the ones served in Japan.”
Kukai features menu items like tonkotsu shoyu ramen–pork broth flavored with yamaguchi, soy sauce and burnt garlic oil, served in a deep ceramic bowl with a whole egg, slice of meat and soft bamboo shoots. Also popular are the veggie tempura, pork chosu sandwich and green tea ice cream parfait.
Ramen, popular among Japanese businessmen, is often eaten as a quick and easy lunch on the run. Kukai has the same bustling atmosphere. The walls are decorated in simple stroke paintings, accented with reds and blues. When tables fill up during the lunch rush, diners are seated at the bar, often elbow to elbow with one another, and a view of the kitchen.
Since opening in December, business has been better than anyone could have expected. The Eastside has long lacked a ramen restaurant, said Yousefi; she adds that foodies were eager to build a base outside of the Seattle core.
Kukai has been a franchise in Japan for the last 10 years. It got its start in a popular Tokyo shopping district and quickly grew to 18 chains. Yousefi says there are already plans to open more stateside.
“We wanted to see if we could grab that audience,” she said, “since there really wasn’t a traditional ramen shop on the Eastside.”
And, Yousefi quickly corrects, Kukai’s noodles aren’t the over-processed straws steeped in broth most students are used to. Noodles come in three varieties and are freshly served. The restaurant is so serious about authenticity that staff were sent to Japan to learn each dish firsthand.
“The broth alone takes 10 hours to cook,” she laughs. “There’s really no room for mistakes.”
Kukai Ramen and Izakaya is open daily from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m and 5-9:30 p.m. at 14845 Main St., Bellevue. For more information, visit their website at kukai-ramen.com or call 425-243-7527.