Oni not shy about delivering flavor and heat - Albuquerque Journal

Oni not shy about delivering flavor and heat

Shoyu Ramen, Oni’s signature dish, with pork belly, mushrooms and a slow egg. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

One of fictional candy maker Willy Wonka’s signature products was a magic gum that, when chewed, sequentially released the flavors of a three-course meal.

The broth of the Shoyu Ramen, the signature dish at Oni, reminded me of that. A mere sip reveals layers of flavor, from vegetables and aromatics to pork, savory and a little bit sweet, and finally, the fatty marrow. It’s the kind of alchemy that comes from skill, experience and patience. Be advised: it might spoil you for all other soups.

Oni chef and co-owner David Gaspar de Alba developed his craft at a Portland, Oregon, izakaya, the Japanese version of a tapas bar. Stints at Radish & Rye in Santa Fe and Artichoke Café deepened his devotion to local sourcing, and he found a kindred spirit in Daniel Linver while working at a farm in Corrales.

A special of Agedashi Ramen, tofu coated in potato flour and fried and served under a crown of bonito flakes. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

Gaspar de Alba and Linver launched Oni as a food truck in 2017 and rode a wave of success, including recognition as a “must-try food truck” from Food Network, to a brick-and-mortar spot last spring.

Oni serves as a bookend to the El Rey Theater on the south side of Central between 6th and 7th. There is a paid parking lot across the street and lots of metered parking on the streets nearby.

The high-ceilinged space is decorated with murals from local artists. A rendering of an octopus stretches its tentacles across one corner. The restaurant’s namesake oni, a horned ogre of Japanese folklore, leers from a mural above the bar. Apparel decorated with these figures is available for sale, along with an assortment of house-made chili oils, hot sauces and togarashi, the chili-based spice mix so common in Japan.

A weekday lunch hour saw a decent turnout, despite all the dire news around the omicron variant. Ordering and paying was done at a register just inside the door.

Oni’s menu is divided into small and large plates, with most of the small plates coming in under $10 and the large plates topping out at $15. Almost everything is of Japanese origin; exceptions include steamed buns and kimchi. Specials are written out in marker on a brown paper scroll by the register. Recent offerings included Kusshi oysters, sweet miso cod and smoked brisket ramen.

A couple of small plates announce that the cooks here are not shy about flavor and heat. A pile of Charred Edamame ($6), ordered for takeout, was painted with a rusty orange roasted garlic-citrus puree dotted with black sesame seeds. The sauce and the togarashi conspired to set the tongue ablaze, turning an often-dull appetizer into something memorable.

Shiitake Dumplings in fried garlic chile oil, one of the small plates at Oni. (Richard S. Dargan/For the Journal)

A plate of Shiitake Dumplings ($8.50) got a similar treatment. Under a shroud of vegetables, cut matchstick thin, and a slick, spicy coat of fried garlic chile oil, the mushroom-filled dumplings were as meaty as any pork-stuffed version. Like the edamame, it’s a familiar dish elevated to greater heights.

A special of Agedashi Ramen ($8) resembled an unopened Christmas present, the block of tofu piled with pale-pink bonito flakes like a gift box with a ribbon on top. The tofu was coated with potato starch and fried, leaving a crisp shell and a spongy heart that soaked up the tsuyu sauce, a rich, soy-based blend brimming with umami.

Four noodle dishes make up the large plates section of the menu. The aforementioned Shoyu Ramen ($14) gets its name from a Japanese-style soy sauce that is considerably more intense than what you’ll find on supermarket shelves. The broth was crowded with mushrooms and strips of smoked pork belly so fatty they melted in the mouth. A slow egg wearing a racing stripe of togarashi burst with one jab from the chopstick, lightening and enriching the sublime broth. The noodles were pleasingly al dente.

As the Shoyu Ramen captures the taste of pork, the Pecan Ramen ($14) does the same for New Mexico’s top commercial food crop. In the to-go version, the ruddy broth was served in one container; the other held a marvelous presentation of tofu strips braised in tamari soy, baked and then pan fried. The broth, more buttery than sweet, was fantastic, and the tofu added both flavor and textural variation.

Service was brisk and amiable, and the food came out quickly. Lest there be any doubt that he’s a passive investor in the business, co-owner Linver buzzed around the dining room, serving, clearing tables and answering questions.

Gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options are clearly marked on the menu – a refreshing, all-too-rare sight at area restaurants. Three of the four noodle dishes can be made gluten-free by swapping out the ramen for yam noodles.

Drinks include a selection of sake and a Japanese sweet potato ale.

After a few years on the road, Oni has found a home Downtown, and all indications are that it’s likely to become a fixture there.

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