If you want to start a fight among internet-savvy food folks, say that your chosen ramen shop or style is ‘authentic.’ It’s a loaded term these days, and I don’t mean loaded with furikake and six-minute eggs.
So when yet another ramen shop opens in the span of two years (we are up to four with one more on the way), a weary diner may ask “what makes this one any different?” The answer is that at Boru Ramen Bar there’s a delightful disregard for what is and isn’t authentic.
At its core, ramen is a simple food—a bowl of broth of any one of several varieties (pork, soy, chicken, clam, or even—gasp—vegetable)—that quickly cooks fresh curly noodles. Add a smorgasbord of toppings, and ramen bowls are tiny canvases for inspired chefs rather than the cardboard noodles of our college days.
Although most people think of Japan when it comes to ramen, there are several different Asian ethnicities with their take on the concept. The Korean-style most closely resembles it, although one could argue that Vietnamese pho is a close cousin as well. For the restaurant’s culinary director, Po Wang, who is of Chinese descent, and his executive chef Thomas Paradise, both of whom lived for a time in Chicago where Korean ramen is popular, Korean influences sneak in quite often.
The menu is extensive and includes not only ramen but also a full battery of appetizers, salads, rice dishes and bao, or steamed buns. Some of the more delectable components can be ordered on their own as well, such as extra noodles for remaining broth or an extra six-minute egg.
The appetizer list is a medley of foreign and familiar. Love poutine? Well, Boru offers the Korean version. The hand-cut sweet-potato fries are tempura battered and fried, then topped with pork belly, kimchi, curry-lime aioli and finished with an over-easy egg. It’s a decadent dish, one perfect for sharing, but it could also be a meal in and of itself.
Another favorite from the appetizer menu was the okonomiyaki. Is it a mouthful? Yes, but it’s also only the second place in town that I’ve seen this quintessentially Japanese street-food dish. The name means ‘grilled as you like it,’ explains the glossary on the back of the menu. The standard here is chockfull of vegetables and meats—smoked bacon, cabbage and nori, flavored with Japanese barbecue sauce and kewpie mayonnaise, then topped with the unearthly but delicious katsuobushi and bound with egg. Katsuobushi is a dried and thinly shaved bonito tuna, which undulates as it reacts to the moisture in the omelet. If you like fish, it’s great. If you don’t, don’t ask what it is and it’s still great as it adds a distinctive umami flavor, rather than fishiness.
Diners have four options for bao: pork belly, king mushroom, bulgogi and togarashi fried chicken. Steamed buns, or bao, are soaring in popularity but difficult to find, so these reasonably priced options are sure to please. The pork belly bao included a healthy portion of the fatty pork, a bit of hoisin mayo and scallions, then a quick pickle to cut the richness. They were not long on the plate.
But we came to Boru for ramen and ramen we had. I tried the namesake bowl (redundant since Boru means ‘bowl’ in Japanese) and wasn’t disappointed. The base blends two broths, pork and clam, for a rich umami flavor without the stickiness found in some tonkatsu dishes, which, depending on your preference, is a strength or weakness. Chef Wang said that the combination came from one of the restaurant’s early experiments with dumping several pounds of clams in pork broth for one of their pop-ups before they opened. Needless to say, it worked.
Boru, like most of the ramen restaurants in town, sources its noodles from Sun Noodle Company in Honolulu. The company makes more than 100 varieties of noodles, and the particular one that Boru chose has a bit more chew to it than others. They lend heartiness to the bowl that can stand up to the robust toppings.
Instead of pork belly, the Boru bowl stars braised pork shoulder, spicy takana (house-made spicy pickled mustard greens), and a six-minute egg. The pork shoulder was hearty, but chopstick tender, and the egg was soaked in the braising liquid. It was a supremely satisfying meal in a bowl.
For those that don’t get the ramen craze or just feel like something less brothy, the loaded fried rice is a worthy option. Fried rice is pedestrian, though, right? Not when it’s light, fluffy, and topped with pork belly, succulent shrimp and plenty of veggies, scrambled eggs, bean sprouts and scallions. With a squeeze of lime across the top, this was the best iteration of fried rice I’ve ever had.
If you can still find room, there are three desserts—all concepted by the executive pastry chef, Nicolette Foster. Purin is the Japanese equivalent of flan, but with a soft caramel layer over the custard. Lava cake is almost a standard, but the Matcha Molten version is served with green-tea ice cream to cool it down. The cotton cheesecake with yuzu sauce confounds the senses but delights the palate.
Cotton cheesecake is one of those mind-bending desserts that become popular on the coasts and then trickle down into the Midwest. Is it cheesecake? Technically yes, but it has a texture more akin to pound cake yet lighter and airier. It’s as if a pound cake and a meringue married. Add a drizzle of the mouth-puckering yuzu sauce, and it’s a fitting end to a non-traditional traditional meal.
Boru is owned by Domnall Malloy and Andy Lock, along with both locations of Summit Grill and Bar and Lee’s Summit’s Third Street Social. Their overriding welcome infuses the space, including the ’80s music videos playing in the background. The atmosphere is warm and inviting and even kid-friendly, complete with a kids’ menu.
But what do you drink with ramen? Whatever you like, apparently, because the beverage list is extensive. In addition to the traditional light beers and sake, the list includes soju—a Korean spirit that in 2014 outsold all others in the world—and a creative cocktail list.
I tried two of the cheekily named refreshments—the Samurai 75 and the Big Trouble in Little Waldo. The Samurai 75 is a take on the French 75 with the addition of jasmine syrup. It’s a perfect spring cocktail, floral without being perfume-y. The Big Trouble in Little Waldo is vodka-based, with matcha green-tea syrup and Calpico, a milky Japanese soda. It was creamy but with a bitter edge from the matcha that balanced the drink quite nicely.
Boru offers what some of the other shops in town don’t—a place to sit and stay awhile. Is it authentic? Who knows? Is it tasty? Absolutely.
Boru Ramen Bar is located at 500 W. 75th Street in Kansas City. Hours are 11 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Sunday.