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Eat & Drink » Restaurant Reviews

Ramen Revelations

West Valley's Tonkotsu Ramen Bar blends tradition with a dramatic flair.

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ALEX SPRINGER
  • Alex Springer

Though our midwinter has been a bit milder than usual, I am still committed to my go-to winter trend of eating copious amounts of ramen. I have my ramen staples around town, but I realized I hadn't fully experienced the ramen outlets of West Valley as much as I should. To rectify this, I decided to check out Tonkotsu Ramen Bar (1989 W. 3500 South, 385-202-5241, tonkotsu.us), arguably one of the city's most popular ramen haunts.

Tonkotsu is right in that West Valley sweet spot on 35th South where Korean grills, Latin markets, eclectic bakeries and sushi bars conglomerate. Its chunky, backlit sign makes it easy to spot, like a beacon guiding cold diners into its welcoming arms. The interior is a perfect mix of hip, casual and traditional; the murals that offered a nod to Katsushika Hokusai's Great Wave painting are a nice touch. Cool neighborhood? Check. Cozy interior space? Check.

So how good is that ramen?

We'll get to that. First, we need to talk about the appetizers, because the spirit of Japanese street food culture is alive and well at Tonkotsu. You've got the traditional offerings of tabaski ($9) and tori karaage ($7) for all your Japanese-style fried chicken needs. You've also got the deep-fried balls of octopus and pickled ginger topped with bonito flakes known as takoyaki ($8). None of these appetizers should be overlooked, but make sure you take the time to try the beef bulgogi fries ($10) and the Gyozachos ($7.50-$9), both of which represent the kind of cultural and culinary fusion that make dining out such a fun experience.

If you're a fan of Korean food, then the marinated and barbecued beef known as bulgogi is not unknown to you. Now imagine all that savory, gochujang-infused barbecue piled atop a stack of crispy waffle fries, and topped with melty cheese and wasabi mayo. I can't overstate the importance of waffle fries when composing a dish of loaded spuds, and this dish is why. The fries are primed to scoop up all that gooey goodness and deliver it to your mouth with a satisfying mix of flavors and textures.

And oh, those Gyozachos. If you've ever looked at a deep-fried gyoza dumpling and wondered if nacho cheese would improve the situation (hint: It does), then this is the dish for you. It's a great idea as far as bonkers food fusion goes, but upon digging into these, I realized the method to this madness. A regular plate of gourmet nachos typically has something like ground beef or shredded chicken on top of everything else, but it can sometimes be hard to get all the proteins on each chip every time. When you use pork or chicken-filled gyoza as your chip, however, you get an equal amount of protein every time. It's gastro-engineering at its finest.

I wouldn't begrudge anyone a visit to Tonkotsu just to check out their stellar appetizer menu, but that level of controlled chaos that seems to pervade the establishment is definitely present in their roster of ramen. A first-time visit should include the tonkotsu ramen ($14) from which the restaurant gets its name. Tonkotsu is ramen in its most traditional state—a creamy pork broth filled with slippery noodles, chopped scallions, a hard-boiled egg and a spiral slice of tender pork belly.

It's the namesake at Tonkotsu for a reason—they've made this recipe their own, and it's effortlessly replenishing to the soul. The distillation of pork flavor is somehow powerful while remaining understated. You can't escape it, but it doesn't overwhelm. Overall, it's a beautifully subtle ramen that would take years of eating to truly understand.

For something that does piledrive your kisser with powerful pork flavors, you'll want to try the WTF Is Wrong Ramen ($15). It's a riff on a Hawaiian dish called saimin, which is a riff on ramen, so the whole concept has a delightfully meta subtext. And Spam. Lots of Spam. The WTF consists of an entire breakfast smorgasbord—Spam, bacon, sausage and a fried egg—tossed with ramen noodles in a pork broth that gets a bit more overstated with all those additional porcine flavors. Subtlety is not an ingredient in this ramen, so fans of big, bold flavors will be right at home here.

Those who like to customize their ramen adventure have a wide variety of add-ons such as bok choy, kimchi, and mushrooms, which creates plenty of opportunities to build the ramen lineup of your dreams. Whenever you visit Tonkutsu, ramen should definitely be the priority, but their rice bowls are solid as well—like the katsu curry bowl ($12-13), with its choice of katsu-fried pork, chicken or tofu and richly flavored Japanese curry. All the same, anyone craving a heaping bowl of nuanced broth, perfectly textured noodles and a flair for unexpected fusion is going to have a good time at Tonkotsu.