When I asked my parents if they wanted to eat at Ajii Asian Kitchen with me, they asked me what kind of food they served. I explained it was a Japanese rice and noodle place that specializes in ramen from Chef Joe Kim, the brains behind the delectable 5 Fusion & Sushi Bar. They looked at me like I was the stupidest person they had ever met (which is probably accurate) and my mom said, "Jared, I spent years eating Top Ramen. Why would I go get that in a restaurant?"
It's a valid question, but the ramen dishes at Ajii are about as far from that type of ramen as you could possibly imagine. The menu backs away from the fusion aspect of 5 Fusion and doubles down on the Asian, making each dish we tried flush with complex flavors without tasting like anything else I've tried in Central Oregon.
The location is unassuming: the Westside Safeway shopping center near Taco del Mar and Starbucks. The interior is simple, modern and comfortable. The lack of flashiness is smart because it once again places the impetus on the quality of the food as opposed to a creating a space that's so trendy that people forsake quality for comfort. Chef Kim says, "I can make the traditional healthy and affordable food that I love. People can relax and enjoy it on site, yet it's just as good taking to eat in your own home."
We started with the O-ko-no-mi-yaki, a savory Japanese pancake that can be filled with veggies, kimchi, chicken or steak. It was also filled with onion, cabbage, bean sprouts, carrots and bacon after being topped with a kewpie sauce, nori and bonito. The kewpie (a rice vinegar mayo) combined with the nori (edible seaweed) and the bonito (dried, fermented and smoked tuna) danced across the top of the pancake, making the dish look like it's teeming with delicious life. It was so trippy that my dining companion was talking about acid flashbacks.
The O-ko-no-mi-yaki was tasty. It was heavy on the onions, which normally would overpower the other disparate elements, but somehow it worked. The kewpie ties everything together and acts as the glue for a dish where each bite tastes completely different than what came before.
I also ordered the spicy miso ramen, filled with a mild pork broth, noodles, pork sirloin, pork belly, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts and egg. The spice level was dead on, with the initial taste having a solid bite but without too much finish—which could overpower everything else in the bowl. The pork belly was so tender and sweet it tasted like candy and the sirloin was shredded almost like pulled pork. The Japanese herbs and spices in the broth soaked into the pork so perfectly that each bite of the dish became sweeter and more savory. The noodles were also delicious without any of the gummy chewiness that Japanese noodles get if they're over or undercooked.
My dining partner had the vegetarian Ajii curry with green papaya, carrots, onion, bok choy and brown rice. The curry flavor was light with a strong coconut base that blended well with the papaya and bok choy. The rice soaked up that coconut like something fierce, making the dish almost seem like a dessert by the end. Depending on your regional preferences of curry, the Ajii curry was very much of the Japanese persuasion and not very comparable to Thai, Vietnamese or other Asian curry flavors.
Ajii makes everything pretty simple. You order up front and get your food brought to you quickly. Everything had such a different flavor profile that anyone interested in Asian cuisine or Chef Kim's signature excellence in sourcing quality ingredients will find something to love. In Bend, restaurants come and go like the seasons, but based on how busy it was just a few weeks after opening, Ajii should be here to stay.
Ajii Asian Kitchen
320 SW Century Dr. Suite 410, Bend