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.