My Lovely Tasting Assistant™ (LTA™) and I checked out Kukai on Sunday for lunch. She ordered the tonkotsu shoyu ramen, and I ordered the yuzu shio ramen. We figured that way, we'd be able to experience a rich, cloudy ramen alongside a clear, lighter ramen, and experience a broader spectrum of what Kukai has to offer.
Overall impression: this is a real ramenya-- the soup and noodles here are not an afterthought. The soup and noodles, I feel, are the best I've tried in Portland. I especially appreciate that they have noodles of different thicknesses for different soups (the richer tonkotsu ramen had thick noodles to grab onto more of the soup, while the clear yuzu shio ramen has thinner noodles). Does Noraneko do this, too? I don't recall. The soft boiled egg in mine was properly cooked, while the egg in my LTA™'s soup was slightly underdone, unfortunately.
Now for the bad news-- the shoe leath-- er, I mean chashu. Though to be fair, the restaurant says this is by design. Their signature lean, thinly sliced chashu is marinated and then grilled (not braised, like the more traditional fatty pork belly style), and it becomes tough and chewy in the process. In addition, the chashu had very obviously been cooked, cooled, and reheated again as it had that telltale "warmed over" flavor. This chashu reminded me of the bad old days in Los Angeles, when Asahi Ramen on Sawtelle was the only game in town-- they served tough, reheated chashu like this, and it sent me into all kinds of unhappy memories. l honestly thought it was a mistake, and with this being a soft opening I mentioned it to my server. The manager came over to explain the concept to me. She also graciously comped me a pork belly chashu upgrade ($2 extra). This was certainly much closer to the traditional chashu I've come to know and love in ramen over the years-- however, while it was moist and tender on the fatty outer layer, unfortunately it was sort of dry towards the center. It was a huge improvement over the original, but they do need to tweak this as well. The best chashu I've had is consistently moist, tender and succulent throughout.
We also tried to kaarage salad, and the fried chicken was the tastest I've tried in Portland. Although the salad was fine, they dressed the fried chicken also and it came out not as crispy as we would have liked. Next time, we'll order the salad and kaarage separately. And we'll certainly try the agedashi tofu-- that looked absolutely wonderful.
All in all, this is a fantastic starting point and I hope Kukai takes this as constructive criticism it is meant as, and only improves. They are a refreshingly welcome addition to the ramen scene here in Portland.
NB Was delighted to see that they have a branch of this ramenya in Taichung, Taiwan-- birthplace of my LTA™! (Though she's not from the fancy Xitung district, where the shop is located). Next time we go back home to visit the family, I'll be sure to try it and see how it compares. In a similar way that American Chinese food is often adapted to American tastes, Taiwan has a way of adapting foreign restaurants to local tastes, so it can be hard to get a Japanese-tasting bowl of ramen there.