Despite the uphill battle that most every brick and mortar is waging right now, Downtown ABQ has finally achieved a decent spread of tasty eateries. Don’t get me wrong, there have always been a few options on the periphery. But now, right on Central Ave., there are some serious contenders. Enter Oni, located right on the SW corner of Sixth and Rt. 66. (Oni, in Shinto—the Japanese animist faith that predates but also often melds with Buddhism on the island chain—are horned demon-like creatures. According to tradition, they guard the gates of Jigoku [Hell], terrorize people who are doing wrong … and occasionally feast on human flesh.) Oni started out as a pop-up and gained a loyal following by crafting hard-hitting and creative bowls that are ramen … but are not, in a strict sense, Japanese food. Oni instead serves up dishes that celebrate New Mexico, using seasonal and often locally-grown ingredients. The foundation is Japanese, but they have unabashedly taken ramen and other Nipponese dishes in their own direction.
And the thing is, ramen is not some sort of ancient, time-honored dish in Japan. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the Cantonese-style noodle bowls with slices of roast pork served by Chinese restaurants and street stalls in Japan morphed into what we know as ramen. You can still find ramen’s roots with relative ease in Yokohama and parts of Tokyo proper. I’ve sampled this ramen progenitor at a famous Chinese-owned spot in Akasaka, and it is likely as distant from our notions of Japanese ramen as many of the “ramen” spots that have popped up across the states over the last 15 years of ramen foodie hysteria. The fact that the ramen-hype has not really abated since the craze started stateside in the early aughts is plenty of proof that this is no mere fad. Ramen, in its endless iterations, is a damn tasty meal.
Thinking of all the wildly varied iterations of ramen I’ve consumed both in the states and Japan, I approached Oni’s take-out window, which was well set up for COVID-safe transactions. Oni’s menu is not lengthy, focusing on just a few types of ramen and some appetizers. A good sign. The co-owner, Daniel Linver, was very helpful while my girlfriend and I ordered from the street—even though their system seems to be set up primarily for online ordering. We went with the pork dumplings ($7.50), the beef croquettes ($7), the shoyu ramen ($13) and their weekly special: red shrimp ramen ($16). While waiting, we peered inside the slick new restaurant that Linver hopes to open up properly in the coming months. A stylish wooden bar runs along the walls under the windows with stools underneath, resembling a spread-out version of a classic ramen shop in Japan. On one side of the bar is a small selection of cassette tapes and vinyl records for sale; above it runs a black-and-white painted mural of all manner of people wearing oni-stylized demon masks and sipping sake.
We got our order in just 10 minutes. Five minutes later, after rushing home, we dug into appetizers that were still nice and hot. The pork dumplings, as we’d been told when ordering, were not Japanese-style gyoza; these boiled dumplings were more Chinese in nature. While not exactly a substantial serving, they were quite porky and packed a spicy punch, as they were literally swimming in chile oil. The beef croquettes were interesting. While they did not have the crunchy-outside/fluffy-inside that the Japanese value, they were intensely savory, filled with shredded and mouth-meltingly tender, locally-raised, grass-fed beef. The accompanying homemade “bulldog” tonkatsu sauce packs a huge kick of ginger, cutting through the grease of the deep-fried croquette.
And the ramen? I started with the classic shoyu style. Raising the bowl for my first slurp (you get more flavor!) of broth, I got an intensely smoky aroma. The first taste confirmed it: The broth was salty, smoky and didn’t pull any punches! In fact, it had so much smoke on it that it conjured up Texan BBQ. The noodles were more cooked—and therefore softer—than you’d find in Tokyo, but they worked well with the char siu pork (which also was a far cry from the classic version, as was the egg, poached in water instead of the semi-hard-boiled in soy sauce and mirin version that a more traditional place would employ). The addition of slightly-charred cabbage and asparagus worked perfectly with this smoke-bomb of a ramen bowl.
The red shrimp special, up next, looked killer. Each shrimp was encrusted in chile pepper, shredded nori and both black and white sesame seeds. The broth was packaged separately to reheat as needed and pour over the noodles, veg and protein. I was floored when I opened the broth. It looked like a deep-red birria consome! But the aroma was complex, the notes of N.M. red chile resting on a heavy dose of ginger with a rich stock lurking below. Charred cabbage, sauteed snap peas and fresh leeks provided a nice light counterbalance to the fiercely heavy broth and somewhat mushy noodles; I’m not so clear on what role the reconstituted shiitake serves here. But the shrimp were the real star. Oni has shown their stuff by taking quality wild red shrimp and pairing them perfectly with their unique and perfectly-spiced red chile shio tare seasoning.
While considering our order, I had asked my girlfriend, who is Korean American, if we should try a side of their Kimchi (a Korean preparation of fermented cabbage). She argued that serving a Korean dish at a “Japanese-inspired” place owned by non-Asians was “doubly colonial minded,” as the Japanese had committed numerous atrocities in Korea while ruling over those lands in the not-so-distant past. And, in the context of the most recent anti-Asian violence, in our nation, we discussed the myriad issues with purchasing “Asian” (albeit “inspired”) food from non-Asians during this pandemic, when so many Asian-American dining establishments in the U.S. have been forced to close due to a mix of COVID precautions and racism certainly fueled by comments from the ex-president. It was a conversation worth having.
My take on Oni: If you want authentic, quality Japanese Ramen please go eat at Magokoro. However, for fresh and novel approaches that undeniably celebrate local flavors and farmers, hit up Oni Downtown—and either way do not forget to slurp that broth for the full flavor experience.
600 Central Ave. SW Suite 100
Hours: Patio seating Wed. to Sat. 4-8pm; takeout window Wed. to Fri. 11:30am-8pm and Sat. 4-8pm