ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ramen. To the stereotypical college student, it comes in a budget-saving cellophane package bearing amber waves of grain, fried and then dried before being sold for less than a quarter.
It’s unfortunate that such a revered Japanese dish is often first experienced in the form of a barely edible processed food.
Luckily, at a place like Gen Kai, right next to Talin Market, Albuquerque diners can try ramen far closer to its roots as a nourishing soup as tasty as it is hearty.
Throughout Japan many variations of ramen exist, but the base is a long-simmered broth with chewy wheat noodles and a bevy of toppings from hard-cooked eggs to seaweed and fresh scallions, along with slices of the meat that was used in the stock. Excellent ramen is all about that broth – deep flavor that only comes from hours of cooking with fresh seasonings and ingredients like pork or fish.
Tonkatsu ramen is the variety with a revered pork-based broth so rich it ought to have a viscosity rating. Gen Kai’s Tonkatsu ($9.50) is just average, but a good start for those new to the dish. The broth is not overly rich, with wavy, slightly chewy noodles. For a change of pace, try the Okinawa Soba ($8.50), which combines pork and fish broth resulting in a soup with lighter flavors.
In its light and colorful yet casual dining space, Gen Kai has a lot to offer beyond ramen, starting with bento boxes and sushi. Sushi rolls and nigiri sushi are available; I like the Fire Roll ($10.50) – spicy tuna, cucumber and a chile mayo drizzle on top. Donburi bowls ($7 to $11) deconstruct the idea of a sushi roll by serving up a bowl of cool rice with pickled ginger and your choice of toppings from teriyaki chicken to spicy salmon.
Hot entrees venture into curry, another beloved Japanese dish. It’s a far cry from fiery Indian curries and more like a gently spiced brown gravy as dipping sauce for the meat. You can have your chicken or pork boiled, but the best preparation is the Katsu Pork ($9.50), a breaded and fried pork cutlet, served sliced with rice and a ladle of curry sauce with a mild bite. This is comfort food easily enjoyed by any proclaimed meat-and-potatoes fan.
For the college student still lingering in your budgetary past, you might say that packaged ramen compared to the real deal is like holding up a store-brand toaster pastry against a from-scratch cherry pie. They are similar – on a surface level only. Gen Kai is doing well by introducing us to something far better than those cellophane memories, one bowl at a time.