STILLWATER — The way Dean Chen sees it, there's no point in opening a restaurant unless it's a unique concept — or at least unique to the market.
The co-owner of Oklahoma's only full-scale shabu-shabu restaurant, Tokyo Pot, opened the state's only ramen bar, Main Street Noodle, 622 S Main St., in November.
The first thing to understand about ramen is the stuff you see sold by the box at Sam's Club or on sale five or six for a dollar at your local grocer isn't the ramen we're talking about. These are a dehydrated version invented in 1958 by the Nissin Foods corporation that went on to be voted Japan's most important invention of the 20th century in a poll — sorry Sony.
The reason the invention is seen as so important in Japan is because ramen is king of Japanese fast food.
And the dehydrated, college-student staple snacks are the reverse-engineered version of this Japanese favorite. Ramen's popularity in Japan and its lack of conduciveness to takeout led to the packages of dehydrated noodles with foil packs of flavor powder with impossibly high sodium content.
Ramen ya restaurants are as omnipresent in Japan as burger joints in the United States. And the oversaturation of burger concepts in these parts isn't lost on the Indonesian Chen, who moved to Stillwater from Temecula, Calif., in the middle of the 2000s.
“They all say they're different,” Chen said. “But they're not. Don't get me wrong I love pizza and burgers, I just don't think there are plenty of them.”
So, Chen, ever the market analyst, found something wildly popular in another country and brought it to ramen-starved Oklahoma. Chen hit the jackpot when he met chef Wes Wong, who had the technical skills to create authentic Japanese ramen.
Oklahoma City diners won't have to stretch too far to receive ramen, as conceptual cousin to Vietnamese pho: rich, ultrahot broth, various ingredients added, condiments to supplement the flavor and lots of noodles.
There are differences. The broth at Main Street Noodle is extracted from bones simmered 24 hours, but the added ingredients differ from pho much the same way Italian ragu or sugo shares common traits with French Sauce Tomate but differ enough to be deemed cousins rather than siblings.
The biggest difference is the noodles themselves. At Main Street Noodle, Wong serves four Japanese variations:
Tonkotsu: This base version uses broth made from pork bones, fat and collagen cooked for many hours, which suffuses the broth with a hearty pork flavor and a creamy consistency that rivals milk. This base is blended with chicken stock. The egg noodles are thin and straight, and it is served with boiled egg, kamaboko (fish cake), nori (seaweed), roasted pork and green onions.
Shoyu: Starts with the same base but with the addition of chicken broth and soy sauce, resulting in a tangy, salty, and savory yet still fairly light on the palate. It comes with marinated bamboo shoots, green onions, kamaboko, nori, hard-cooked eggs, bean sprouts, and roast pork.
Miso: This version uses the same base broth as all the ramen but with the addition of miso paste, which is made from fermented rice, barley, soybeans and kojikin. If you like miso soup, you'll love this version of ramen.
Curry: Here's a nontraditional version cooked up at Main Street Noodle in which the broth is infused with curry. While you might not find this one in Japan, you'll find it delicious.
Main Street Noodle also offers its version of pho and a soup with Korean kimchee.
“All the work is done the day before,” he said. “The broth is the soul of ramen, and it has to be done at least a day in advance to extract the flavors from the bones.”
After morning prep of other ingredients, all that has to be done is parcooking the noodles, which Chen said they import from Japan. He explained it isn't cost-effective to make the noodles from scratch daily.
“Our ramen is authentic,” he said. “But the biggest difference is that in Japan, the noodle is the king, and in this country people are more interested in the meat and the other ingredients we add.”
On the table, diners will find sriracha, hoisin and chili oil. Chen advises you don't dump the sauces into your soup. The Asian soup spoons offer ample space to dot them with condiments before dipping them into the broth.
“That way you don't change the whole flavor of the soup,” Chen said.
Appetizers include Takoyaki, which are bits of octopus mixed with a creamy batter, deep fried and served with shredded nori and a creamy sauce.
The gyoza contain chicken and pork and are served pan-fried with soy-based dipping sauce. The Croquette isn't at all Asian, but is tasty nonetheless. It's a mix of mashed potatoes and vegetables batter-fried and served with a mayonnaise-based dipping sauce.
If you go
Main Street Noodle is tucked into a kitschy space in an antique building in Stillwater's venerable downtown, between 6th and 7th streets. It offers sidewalk dining and service with plenty of smiles. Chen says only an international crisis can keep soup bowls from arriving more than five minutes after the order hits the kitchen.
If you drive up to Stillwater for the day, Main Street Noodle makes a great place to stop by for lunch, but it also is open for dinner. It's quick, affordable and guaranteed to warm your soul.
The restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and stays open until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.