It’s hard to keep up with all of the poke and ramen places popping up all over town. As for the latter, Capitol Hill seems to be getting the newest spots, and I had been meaning for some time to make it to one of its latest, a place that’s growing a cult-following despite—or perhaps as a result of—its no-frills, no-fuss menu and atmosphere. Though it’s part of a Hong Kong chain, you’d never guess it. There are no sleek tables or other fast-casual signposts. In fact, Betsutenjin Ramen (954 E Union St., #102) borders on homely. It’s like an ugly deli without all of the cold cases, but with a TV blaring Japanese shows, two tables, and a bar with unfashionable stools and a lineup of Japanese flavored sakes, fruit juices, and beers. The whole place seats just 22 and, at 5:30 when one of the staffers raises the bamboo curtain and another comes out to enthusiastically welcome guests, there’s a small line forming—even on a rainy weekend night after the Thanksgiving holiday.
The menu itself, with terrible photos printed on an ugly laminated page, offers four items: two types of ramen, gyoza, and a lobster salad. So, what’s all the hype about? Before eating there, I’d read about how the restaurant prides itself on not using MSG or milk in its ramen (the former adds flavor or umami while the latter is used often to dupe people into thinking that the pork bone broth is richer than it really is). Pork (Hakata-style) ramen is supposed to be made by letting pork bones simmer for hours and hours, until it yields a creamy, lush broth—and here they claim to do just that, as well as adding the marrow and letting it all work its magic inside a pressure cooker. The result is a broth so white you’d swear there was milk in it; it’s milkier-looking in fact than any ramen I’ve ever seen. Think clam chowder territory. While it does impart a rich mouthfeel (almost oddly so) it was unfortunately lacking a bit in flavor; more precisely, salt.
Ditto for the prawn miso ramen. I loved the pink flecks of shrimp shell and how the taste of the prawn was so forward, the broth so precisely briny. Yet it too was lacking salt. While there are plenty of condiments to add additional flavor—from fresh garlic to fermented spicy bean sprouts, Japanese chili powder to pickled ginger—I actually had to ask for some salt, something I’ve never done at a ramen place before. Is that because there is no MSG in it? Perhaps. I don’t pretend to be a ramen connoisseur, but I know when something is under- or over-flavored. As for the noodles, they are thin and al dente, as they should be. Mushrooms, scallions, seaweed, thin slices of fatty pork, and soft-boiled eggs with beautiful orange centers round out the bowls.
The soup, which you can order on its own ($11.25 for pork, $12.95 for shrimp), can be turned into a combo for a few extra dollars by adding either gyoza (pan-fried dumplings) or a lobster salad. The gyoza are ho-hum and the lobster salad has that imitation “Krab” salad flavor profile and texture you get in poke bowls, and for which I have a soft spot. This one, too, has big chunks of the lobster, and comes with nori seaweed slices to sandwich it in. We also ordered a yuzu-flavored sake in the bottle, which they ironically serve in a little Champagne bucket with ice. It was a nice burst of flavor; I might start stocking up on these at Uwajimaya.
The whole affair, from seating to bill, took about 25 minutes tops. The restaurant is clearly designed for a quick-and-dirty meal, though the friendly staff manages to somehow convey warmth and not make you feel like you’re being hurried out, even though you are.
I appreciate tightly curated menus when there is something really special being offered and, while I respect the restaurant’s commitment to a pure version of ramen, at the end of the day I spent far too much time doctoring it up. I’m open to being disagreed with though (this city has a rabid ramen fan base), and I’ll likely show up again to re-test my palate.