A Bowl of Ramen and a Metaphor
Naruto’s promising, but unpredictable fare
To begin with, I was very hungry. In fact, I was so hungry that my mood was tipping toward anger. My partner, Diego, and I cut a route up a quickly darkening Central to the university area's Naruto. In what seems to be an aggressive move I'll never quite understand, Naruto, a relatively new addition to Albuquerque's ramen scene, opened practically right next door to O Ramen, the Studio Ghibli-accented ramen restaurant that has been around for a few years. The concentration of ramen houses across the street from UNM has raised hopeful speculation of the genesis of a “ramen corridor” … just keep your fingers crossed.
Naruto, which opened its doors in 2015, is the venture of Hiro and Shohko Fukuda, the family behind Santa Fe's successful Shohko Cafe. At Naruto (it's namesake, an adolescent manga ninja warrior. Yes!) the two are slinging authentic Japanese fare with an emphasis on tonkotsu style ramen—made with a pork bone broth—that's endemic to Kyushu, Japan's biggest and most southwesterly island. The small, colorful and handwritten food menu consists of several varieties of tonkotsu, a vegetable ramen, fried rice options and gyoza. Comparatively, their alcohol menu is extensive. Imported beers, a huge range of hot and cold sakes and plum wine. If you don't want to catch a buzz, your options are limited to fountain drinks or green tea.
There were few seating options left around dinnertime on a weeknight—so Diego and I cozied up to the bar, which looked inward toward the kitchen. Textiles and lamps made of wood and paper hung from the ceiling; bamboo screens divided the space nicely. Impatiently, I drank water from a cup frequently refilled by our very pleasant waiter and, in probably what was an annoying byproduct of having skipped lunch, I stared desperately at the kitchen staff while they worked.
Soon a large porcelain bowl of vegetable ramen found its way to my sliver of the bar. Floating in the broth was a heaping serving of slender wheat noodles, bok choy, black mushroom and red pepper. Nestled near the rim were three perfectly symmetrical slices of tofu. I wasn't tracking the sensations and tastes well in my feeding frenzy, but ever the critic, I noted that the broth was bland and very oily and the amount of vegetables, in a dish that relies on them, were too few. Diego was irritated by having to pay extra for spice, served on the side in the form of what the waiter told us was a jalapeno paste (that's the extreme hot option, $1 extra). His scrawl in the margin of my notebook in bulleted comments states: “tofu too soft, noodles overcooked.” My less nuanced take on the experience: a solid so-so.
Yet fear not, dear reader, that unhappy encounter is not where this review ends. Soothed by snacks, I went again to Naruto for lunch on a Monday. Emptier now, I had my choice of seats. From the menu's list of add-ons, I opted to add nori and kimchi to the $6.95 tagged ramen price. Seventy-five cents for two thin pieces of seaweed? Why not? $1 for kimchi? OK. This time around, the ramen was excellent. The vegetables—and they were plentiful—tasted fresh, unseasoned (that's not a criticism) and of great quality. The bok choy was almost buttery, the black mushrooms added texture, the red pepper was crisp. The kimchi was uniquely sweet. I would have happily taken a whole bowl and made it my main dish. Again, the waitstaff was exceedingly prompt, kind and accommodating. My food arrived quickly and when I was done, my check just as fast.
Despite the insights earned from the Fukudas’ years of running Shohko Cafe, Naruto, independently, is still a fledgling business. As such, it is good, but inconsistent. It seems that, while the front of the house has their end of the business in order, the kitchen is still figuring it out, particularly during busy dinner hours. There's tremendous potential in the foundations already apparent at Naruto. In the manga, the unassuming character of Naruto Uzumaki has the spirit of a powerful fox sealed within his body, it's what makes him special and is a wellspring for his power. There's a metaphor here that I'm grasping at, and it probably isn't hard to infer. Naruto has impeccable core ideals that may reveal it to be, down the road, great. For now, it is still the unremarkable village boy.
2110 Central SE
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11am-2:30pm and 5-9pm, closed Sunday
Vibe: Classy, but you can still wear sweatpants
Alibi recommends: Try the kimchi and utilize add-ons