For the vast majority of American eaters, the word "ramen" implies a pale brick of instant noodles wrapped in plastic, and packaged with a silver packet of salty beef, chicken, or shrimp bouillon. It is the bargain-priced, sodium-saturated food staple that has kept countless college students from starving. The Maruchan brand is so popular they still get away with selling an "Oriental Flavor" product.
Okinawa's new digs near the viaduct
For those accustomed to Cup Noodles and various other forms of instant ramen, the soup they dish up at Okinawa Teriyaki is a revelation. It is a thing of beauty served in an earthenware bowl, with a mound of grilled meat roughly the size of Mt. Fuji heaped atop the wavy, relatively thick noodles, and a garden's worth of fresh vegetables nestled beneath the cloudy, egg-infused broth.Situated at the corner of Western Avenue and Spring Street (across the street from Seattle Weekly's offices), Okinawa has become a no-frills downtown lunch destination since relocating from a smaller, shabbier space just around the corner last year. Encountering lines that stretch out the door is not uncommon during the rush from Noon to 1 p.m., and savvy diners will phone in orders ahead of time. That said, the restaurant's system of ordering at the register and taking a number to your table for service is efficient enough that dropping in for a half-hour eat-and-run is doable - but not with the ramen.
The teriyaki is served up quick, and for $6.95 the massive platter (or Styrofoam container full) of rice, chopped lettuce, and dark meat slathered in sweet, sticky sauce might be enough food to sate Takeru Kobayashi's hunger. They also offer yakisoba, and an assortment of potstickers and other fried items. The ramen varieties include chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, and katsu (aka breaded, deep-fried pork.) They take a few minutes longer for the kitchen to prepare, and cost slightly more than other menu items, with prices ranging from $6.99 for veggie to $9.99 for tofu and shrimp, with any soup made "spicy" for an extra two bits.
The spicy upgrade doesn't pack much punch, but a spurt of Sriracha sauce adds enough oomph for capsaicin-cravers. Apparently adding sauces and condiments to ramen and other prepared foods is a faux pas in Japan, and dishes should be eaten as they are served. However, the culture also dictates that it is polite to slurp ramen as loudly as possible to signal that the soup is tasty, and has been served at the proper, piping hot temperature. And at Okinawa, be prepared to slurp extra loud.
Okinawa Teriyaki, 1100 Western Ave, 447-2648, DOWNTOWN.