SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Karai Ramen + Handroll, on Republic Road just east of Campbell Avenue, opened Monday.
Its owner said the restaurant serves Japanese ramen dishes, hand-roll sushi, rice bowls, steamed buns and even desserts like green tea crème brulée.
Jung Dongwook, who also goes by Young Jun, already owns three other Asian restaurants in Springfield: Haruno, Kai and Koriya.
Dongwook said she's wanted to bring the Queen City a traditional version of ramen for a while.
For Karai, she settled on a model that would mix the traditional Japanese dish — which arrived there from China in the 19th century — with appetizers, drinks, desserts and a very social atmosphere.
That's not quite the model of a Japanese ramen shop, Dongwook said. They're usually very small storefronts, and Japanese people often dine alone at a counter.
In the United States, she said coastal ramen shops tend to somewhat follow that model.
But for Karai, Dongwook wanted something more Midwestern. More Springfield.
"When you have different places, you have to (be) adjusting to different customs," she said, noting that in the heartland, people don't dine by themselves, or sit at tables or counters near strangers, as much as they go out with friends and family. Diners also want more seating space than a small ramen bar would typically allow.
Thus, she did the decor herself, choosing steampunk Edison lamps; booths and banquettes lined with Springfield Leather Company cushions; hand-cut, old-looking bricks; Japanese doorway curtains and even living wall hangings made of moss.
"Those are really my passion," Dongwook said. The moss helps filter the air.
But what about the food? For inspiration, she visited ramen shops in New York and California, marveling at the way crowds lined up for an hour at one West Coast store before even sitting down to order.
She even spent a two-week stint at a ramen noodle school in Japan.
Yes, that's a thing.
Why? She wanted Karai's version of the noodle-y Japanese soup to be made by the book.
What is ramen at Karai? Certainly, it doesn't resemble supermarket blocks of dried noodles packaged with MSG-laden seasoning. When a reporter mentioned that type of ramen, Dongwook made an "oooh" sound and wrinkled her nose.
"Real Japanese ramen is No. 1, broth, 2, noodle and 3, seasoning," Dongwook explained, noting that ramen dishes can have a variety of ingredients and garnishes: pork belly that melts in your mouth, a six-minute soft-boiled egg, cloud ear mushrooms, mung bean sprouts, minced ginger and other fresh foods.
Dongwook emphasized freshness and chef-craft. The broth that goes in her ramen soup, "tonkatsu," is bone broth simmered 24 hours or longer. (Karai also serves vegetarian ramen with vegetarian broth.)
Dongwook said her ramen noodles are freshly made and shipped in, not dried or frozen.
All this freshness and skill make for a restaurant concept that's not easy to assemble, Dongwook said: Ramen requires special equipment. And, as with Vietnamese pho or French demiglace, making bone broth is labor-intensive.
The quality of the noodles can also make or break a ramen joint.
"Lots of people, they try using not bone broth, but meat broth," she said, or they try to send out ramen made with frozen or dried noodles.
Karai's other highlight is a kind of sushi that's different from the sushi Dongwook has on her Haruno and Kai menus, where it comes as rolls ("maki" in Japanese) or in styles like nigiri (small pads of rice topped with raw fish) or sashimi (just slices of raw fish, with rice on the side).
At Karai, the sushi also comes as hand rolls, called "temaki" in Japanese. Traditionally, sushi chefs roll temaki in a cone shape using a savory seaweed paper, called nori. These rolls are finger foods that don't require chopsticks.
At Karai, sushi comes as a jade-green sheet of nori topped with rice and fillings, such as lightly seared white tuna or avocado. You pick up the seaweed paper and roll it around the filling in a cylinder instead of a cone.
Karai's ramen bowls are priced about $10; hand-roll sushi portions are about $7, according to the restaurant menu.
Other Springfield restaurants that sell ramen include Omo Japanese Soul Food, Skully's Food Truck and the recently opened Lucky's Market, which has a made-to-order ramen bar.
(Story shared by Springfield News-Leader. Read the original article here.)
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