The movie “Blade Runner,” set in a fictional version of 2019, shows a bleak future. With 2020 being defined by a global pandemic, record heat, and social unrest, the actual present doesn’t always seem much better than the world envisioned in the movie. One memorable scene involves a stop for a meal at a crowded noodle shop in a busy alley. The experience of a quick stop for nourishment in a bustling environment is hard to find with so many downtown workers at home for now, but Ramen Kagawa has bravely opened in the middle of all the malaise.
Ramen Kagawa’s location on First Avenue, just a block south of the light rail platforms at Van Buren, puts it next to Harumi Sushi and just a few doors down from a recently closed ramen shop.That’s probably all coincidence, but it does offer the restaurant a nice niche to fill, replacing one type of food that had gone missing in the downtown business district and, at the same time, complementing but not competing with the neighboring sushi restaurant. Together, the two unrelated establishments offer distinct forms of Japanese food side-by-side on the same block.
The restaurant has a large patio in front that remains strangely inactivated during these times when outdoor dining is often favored out of caution. The outdoor space seems too good to waste, so it can only be hoped that it will be put to use as the weather cools. Inside, there’s a basic, almost industrial look with concrete floors and sparse decor. A central high-top community table separates two rows of small tables, For those who dine in, the model is full service. For takeout, orders are picked up at the counter in front of the restaurant’s kitchen.
As the name makes clear, the emphasis here is on ramen; however, there are worthwhile appetizers to share and enjoy while awaiting noodles. Crisp gyoza stuffed with ground pork and boneless chunks of karaage, Japanese fried chicken, are popular fried starters, while ubiquitous edamame provide a lighter and simpler prelude to noodles. Also on the menu is takoyaki, a sort of pancake filled with chewy bits of octopus, an animal that is growing more popular for human consumption, even as the ethics and ecological impact of farming the species are debated.
In terms of the namesake dish, there are two primary ramen styles here. One is tonkotsu, the thick pork broth that can appear almost milky in appearance. Kagawa serves it with a slice of chasu, a disc of pork commonly paired with noodles and broth. The special tonkotsu ramen substitutes pork ribs for chasu. The other main option is paitan, a creamy chicken broth paired with sliced boneless poultry or an entire chicken leg in the case of the special paitan. Both varieties come in a spicy variety, and a vegetarian ramen with a dashi broth is also available.
The noodle bowls all have some vegetables, mostly napa cabbage, and a garnish of fried onions. A boiled egg or kernels of corn are available as add-ons. While seven varieties of ramen provide a different choice for every day of the week, Kagawa offers a number of other Japanese food styles, beginning with bento boxes. These incorporate some items lifted from the appetizer menu such as karaage, along with other protein choices like teriyaki salmon and tonkatsu cutlets of breaded pork. All bentos come with rice, seaweed, and a Japanese potato salad.
Other portions of the menu rely on rice, rather than noodles, as their carbohydrates. The curry entrees all feature a thick, ruddy stew with big chunks of potatoes and carrots within the mildly spiced sauce. Pickled ginger, crisp noodles, and a bit of slaw serve as garnishes. It’s a classic Japanese style, distinct from more fiery Thai and Indian curries. The curry can be enjoyed on its own, or combined with a tonkatsu cutlet or braised beef. There is also an option to add vegetable croquettes for an even more filling version of the basic meatless curry entree.
A gyudon rice bowl prepared with thin strands of marinated beef is enlivened with pickled ginger and scallions on top of the meat and grain. It’s one of the simpler entrees on the menu, but also a successful one. Since its opening in the summer of 2020, Ramen Kagawa has steadily added new items to its succinct menu, gradually expanding its roster of non-sushi casual Japanese cuisine. Another recent addition is a small, mildly seasoned curry bowl as a children’s entree. The focus may still be ramen, but the menu continues to reflect a variety of approachable foods.
There’s just one dessert here, but it’s worth trying. A simple slice of green tea cheesecake is light, airy, slightly tart, and not excessively sweet. It’s a modest size that one person can enjoy without being overwhelmed. Green tea, unsweetened and unadulterated, is offered in bottles, as is Mexican Coke. Green tea also finds its way into a Matcha IPA, one of a handful of Japanese beers the restaurant offers as part of its beverage selection. A small selection of sake varieties and even a canned highball cocktail containing whiskey and soda complete the offerings.
To say that this year has been a tough time for restaurants would be a considerable understatement. That makes the successful launch of a new establishment in the middle of a downtown environment suddenly drained of so much of its usual energy even more impressive. Ramen Kagawa may not fulfill Blader Runner’s exact vision of customers slurping their noodles in a dark, rainy alley in a fictional version of 2019, but it’s an impressive urban ramen outpost with its own cheerful feel we could all use in the middle of the turmoil of the real 2020.
111 W. Monroe St. #130, Phoenix AZ 85003