Just across the vast Pacific Ocean lies a land of mystery and enchantment. It’s a place where the culinary vision of an entire people springs from the sea; where a food tradition centuries old can be found. And now, thanks to a few enterprising Portlanders, the epicurean traditions of noble Japan can be found right here on the shores of the Willamette River.
The rich tradition of the Japanese izakaya was the first introduced to curious Oregonians over a decade ago. In fact, we recently told its story. But with Biwa izakaya turning ten years old, owners Gabe and Kina Rosen decided it was time to branch out and bring yet another storied Japanese tradition to Portland. Welcome to Portland’s newest, and most innovative ramen house, Noraneko.
The Stray Cat
Portland’s southeast waterfront has been undergoing explosive change. As new residents flock to the City of Roses, this once-industrial area is rapidly turning into the new happening spot east of the Willamette.
“We wanted to stay in the neighborhood,” Gabe explains. “There is nostalgia here. We love the cool, authentic, older industrial Portland and the idea of being around the beautiful bridges and river.”
Once the location became available, it was time to figure out a name. It was then that their fascination with Japanese culture combined with their love of cats, and Noraneko was born.
“We were visiting Nagasaki and saw all these feral cats everywhere,” Gabe says. “They weren’t mean or anything, and we are kind of obsessed with cats, so I guess that’s where the name came from.”
Fortunately, this is one stray cat that will remain firmly planted. Although they opened during a slow period, business has picked up quite nicely over the winter.
“We opened in March and it was an unseasonably hot summer,” Gabe says, “so it definitely took a little while for us to get momentum.”
But once the frigid blasts of a cold, wet winter blew into our fair city, Noraneko began to hit its stride. “We were able to get some core regulars and, now that we’re into ramen weather, it’s been great. Lots of fun,” he says.
Now that they have gotten their legs, Gabe and Kina are letting their restaurant tell the tale. The corner location has ceiling-to-floor windows and a large, open layout. Wood accents and traditional Japanese decorations give way to an open kitchen and small bar space.
“We were going for a design that would be pretty casual, something fun driven,” Gabe says. “We wanted there to be sort of a 90s era nostalgic feel when you enter.”
But 90s era Japanese nostalgia wasn’t all they were going for. Although they had to work with the aesthetics of the space, they turned to a storied Portland tourist attraction for both inspiration and physical materials. “All of the wood paneling was a byproduct from the Portland Japanese Garden,” Gabe says.
An open ceiling with visible piping lends an industrial feel to the quiet comfort of a Japanese ramen house. Taken together, it all works quite well. The noise isn’t too loud, but there is a closeness that gives you the feel of a bustling noodle shop in downtown Tokyo. It’s the perfect atmospheric complement to the delicious ramen that is to come.
Everybody Loves Ramen
With the success of Biwa under their belt, the Rosen’s could have done anything, but they chose a ramen shop, which to anyone who knows them, shouldn’t be a surprise. “We were definitely interested in ramen and it has become undeniably popular now.”
For many of us, the thought of ramen is accompanied by pink packages, stale noodles, and forty-nine cent price points. And while this still holds true, Gabe set a higher standard for Noraneko. Although there is a built-in perception among many that Asian food should be cheap – on all levels – Noraneko succeeds in inexpensive food without sacrificing on sustainability.
“Noraneko is almost a completely from-scratch kitchen,” Gabe says. “The only thing of consequence that we don’t make are the noodles themselves, and we buy those from the best-known noodle factory in the United States right now.”
It’s an attention to detail that shows. But before you even take your first bite, enjoy some time with one of the many intricate beverages offered at Noraneko, something Gabe ensured was a primary focus.
“It’s a ramen shop, fundamentally,” Gabe says, “but it’s also a full-service bar. The juxtaposition of going in and eating at a straight forward ramen shop and taking a broad cultural approach to drinks is a cool thing.” We agree.
The evening begins with an interesting take on a traditional whiskey sour, called the yorkie. It’s composed of bourbon and lemon juice, topped with a thin layer of egg white foam, then completed with a drizzle of Payson bitters. The streak of red in the foam gives it a visual appeal, while the combination of foam, bourbon and lemon juice gives it the ultimate flavor flavor and texture profile.
Use the yorkie to wash down each bite from your starter chesyu plate, Noraneko’s take on traditional charcuterie. It comes with thick-sliced, braised pork belly and pork shoulder, both marinated in Chinese five-spice for a touch of earthiness combined with a slightly sweet aftertaste. Served with house-made mustard and kimchi, it’s a starter that won’t last long on your table.
Speaking of the kimchi, Noraneko makes it in-house out of daikon, green onion, garlic, salt, fish sauce and vinegar. After seven days of fermentation, it arrives at your table, and also disappears just as quickly.
Once you’ve made your way through the variety of starters, it’s time for the main event. The shio ramen arrives in traditional style. The chicken stock “starts with a whole chicken,” according to Gabe. Judging by the taste, there’s no doubt about the authenticity of that statement. The delicious broth is finished with sesame seeds, menma, sprouts, green onions and a little fish cake. A perfectly cooked egg gazes out at you from atop the broth. But don’t blink, because before you long you’ll be gazing at the bottom of an empty bowl.
At this point, you’ll likely be bursting at the seams, but don’t let that keep you from trying one of the most delectable of desserts. Vanilla ice cream, in-house made whipped cream, miso caramel, granola, and fresh strawberry preserve combine to provide a wealth of sweet flavors to finish out your meal. The cherry on top is – quite literally – the cherry in top.
Upon completion of an evening at Noraneko, you’ll realize that there are ramen shops, then there are ramen shops – of which Noraneko is one. “We could have done a cookie-cutter ramen shop,” Gabe says, “but that wasn’t so much our style.”
And it’s a good thing too, because Noraneko’s style is just what the southeast waterfront needed. Casual fun and bold flavors that won’t break your bank.
Noraneko is located at 1430 SE Water Avenue, Portland, Oregon, 97214. They can be reached at 503.238.6356 and are open daily from 11:00am – 2:00am. For menu information click here to visit their website.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is longtime journalist and blogger with over twelve years of professional writing experience. After a long career as an entertainment and political columnist, William now spends his time expounding on Portland restaurants, Portland plays and Android smartphone apps. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.