- Everything's coming up ramen at 123 Ramen on the east side and Ajii on Bend's west side. Photo by Cyr Photgraphic.
A small history lesson for you, Benditos: It was 1958 when Japanese company Nissin rolled out the first iteration of the instant noodle—that phenomenon now well-loved by college students with only a microwave to feed them, and middle schoolers whose parents haven't quite taught them to cook anything else.
Fast forward, and behold! Instant noodles, cup noodles and a host of flavored ramen noodle packets often make up the bulk of the "Asian" aisle of less-inspired grocery stores. Round about 2000, a non-scientific poll from the Fuji Research Institute revealed that instant noodles were what Japanese people considered their best invention of the 20th century. In 2016, in a nod to the changing tastes of the consumer, Nissin reduced its sodium content by 15 percent in all flavors, removed all artificial flavors and took out the added MSG.
I say all of this for one reason: Because the storied history of the instant ramen noodle has shaped the expectations of noodle eaters far and wide. While "fancy" ramen shops continue to pop up in all corners of the globe (including Bend... be patient, I'll get to that in just a minute), the average consumer continues to expect her ramen, by and large, to be hella salty and pretty much devoid of anything but a few dried veggies and wheat-based noodles. Not at 123 Ramen, however.
"I wouldn't say that our broth necessarily fits in any particular category of Japanese ramen broth. It honestly isn't our aim to create a particularly Japanese experience at 123 Ramen," says owner Anna Witham, who recently opened the shop in Bend's Makers District. "My strengths as a chef are in creating diverse, beautiful and nourishing food. Steaming bowls of noodles and broth are a universally-loved food, something that resonates with most people. We are offering an eating experience that is meant to be nourishing and delightful to all the senses, and possibly to make you feel transported, but not necessarily to Japan."
At 123 Ramen, you can forget the heavy-MSG version that may have filled your belly in your college dorm days. In fact, it was the far lower level of salt that first stood out when I tried 123 Ramen for lunch last week. At this spot on NE 2nd St., in the former location of Bethlyn's Global Fusion, ordering comes in three steps.
First, choose either a beef bone broth with citrus and ginger or a veggie broth with mushroom and rosemary. Then pick toppings such as roasted pork, smoked duck, herb & lamb meatballs, poached eggs, a soy egg, sesame-miso spinach, kabocha squash, shiitake mushrooms or garlicky broccoli. There's also a choice of regular wheat ramen noodles or gluten-free yam noodles, and finally, a mix of pickled and fresh garnishes.
I chose a veggie broth with gluten free noodles and pork, and another bowl with beef broth with the regular noodles and shiitakes—all with kimchi on the side. The yam noodles' thickness and slick consistency offered a break from so many other GF noodles that are too thin and tend to get sticky.
"We chose them for their texture and ability to take on the flavors of the broth they are served with," Witham says. "They also have a haunting beauty that I found irresistible."
The other initial reaction: Could use some salt. I admit though, having been raised by Midwest people on a steady diet of "hot dishes" featuring cream of mushroom soup, my meter for what should be the appropriate level of sodium in foods may be skewed a bit. The pork, well-sourced from DD Ranch, was a good thickness, yet again, not overly salted—but a side of soy sauce fixed all that right up.
The beef broth, meanwhile, had nice earthy and umami flavors. The addition of the side of kimchi and more soy added another layer of salt and heat. Once that was settled, my Midwest taste buds, which obviously need the salt to be like the engineers in a battle, building the bridges that the rest of the army can cross in order to engage in the fray, were able to discern the subtleties in the dishes. Suddenly the veggie broth's rosemary was there, clear and clean. In the beef broth, I began to detect the notes of citrus and a little ginger. I slurped up both soups (I got the smaller "Ninja" sizes, so leave me alone!) with much spillage on my shirt, and no sharing with my co-workers.
123 Ramen is a cozy spot brightened by fun, funky art and the friendly staff, including Witham, known by many in Bend as a founder of Lone Pine Coffee and The Root Cellar. While starting a new endeavor can be a challenging thing that can require constant tinkering to the menu, the love, passion and reputation of the creator of 123 Ramen means it's likely to draw a loyal following.
Curious about the "other" ramen place we mentioned? Check out this article which features Ajii, the (newish) ramen spot on Bend's west side.
1289 NE 2nd St., Bend