By Niki D’Andrea
One of my friends is from Japan and has worked as an artist in Phoenix for several years. The entire time she’s lived in the Valley, she’s looked for – and lamented the utter lack of – really good authentic Japanese cuisine, especially ramen.
A few weeks ago, she raved about a place and posted several swoon-worthy photos on Facebook depicting a variety of dishes: spring rolls, donburi (rice bowls) piled with fish and seaweed, pot stickers with ponzu sauce, boiled eggs bobbing in big bowls of ramen. But she didn’t say where she was, resulting in a barrage of comments along the lines of “Where is THAT?!”
THAT turned out to be Nishikawa Ramen. Located in a strip mall at 1909 E. Ray Road in Chandler, this unassuming, family-owned establishment touts itself as the “first authentic noodle bar in the East Valley.” The food is indeed authentic Japanese, but the ambiance is more modern American – the restaurant’s door handles are in the shape of chopsticks, the walls are painted a sprightly pastel green with the occasional Asian art flourish, and the music emanating from the eatery’s speakers is alternative rock à la Muse, MGMT, and The Killers.
Fans of Japanese rice wine will find the sake selection pretty rockin’, too, with a full range of flavors from the super-sweet Hana white peach version to the ultra-dry and slightly bitter Ryo junmai ginjo sake. A nice middle ground can be found in the unfiltered, milky SCB Crème Nigori. A handful of Japanese beers and sodas are also available.
Nishikawa Ramen’s gyoza makes a great shared starter. The savory, pan-fried dumplings are perfectly plump and stuffed with pork or chicken, and they get an extra zing from a hearty dunk into tangy, citrus-based ponzu sauce.
Five ramen bowls are offered, all pork broth-based. On our visit, we ordered the miso ramen (pork broth, pork chashu, green onion, corn, seasoned egg, sesame, and noodles) and the Yokohama-style ramen, which had the same ingredients as the miso, minus corn and plus bean sprouts and nori dried seaweed. Despite having similar ingredients, including two pieces each of chashu (sliced and soy-braised pork), the ramen bowls tasted very different from each other. The miso had a light and creamy umami taste, while the Yokohama bowl was darker and earthier with a slight ocean flavor. The noodles in both were superb and hung from our chopsticks with steamy grace.
The only dessert item on the menu is red bean or green tea ice cream with mochi (small pieces of rice cake). We got the green tea ice cream, which was rich and delicious but studded with small gummy candies that distracted our palates almost as much as the whipped cream. The ice cream might be better served on its own.
Service is friendly and perfectly paced, even when the restaurant is busy – and it often is. Since opening in June 2016, it’s built a reputation among ramen fans and earned a four-star rating on Yelp. And our Japanese artist friend has finally found her culinary home.