Let’s get the bad news out of the way at the beginning: Odds are good that you will wait for a table at Portland’s Pai Men Miyake, especially on a weekend evening. Yes, even now, in the middle of the off-season – when the only tourists you’ll see are lost ones.
If you visit the Japanese noodle bar during the earliest hours of the dinner service, you might luck out and score one of the few flexible four-tops in the open-plan dining room. Otherwise, the first available seat will probably be at the bar overlooking the kitchen, underneath a sharp steel sculpture that recalls the interior of a wind turbine.
It’s a testament to Pai Men’s consistency that it still pulls in crowds six years after it opened on the edge of the West End neighborhood. The space has also not lost a single volt of its electric (and hectic) atmosphere, which on a busy night means that it can be noisy. Indeed, between a room full of diners and a highly amplified soundtrack (usually old-school hip-hop or ’70s R&B), the room can feel like equal parts restaurant and bar, where nearly everyone seems to be enjoying a glass of sake, beer or wine.
On a recent visit, my dinner guests and I were no exception, and took advantage of Pai Men’s selection of local beers on tap. The night’s standout was Allagash Brewing Company’s James Bean ($7.50), a Belgian-style strong ale infused with cold press coffee, full of caramel, oak and toast aromas. This was a remarkable pour, and one that stood up well to strong flavors, like char on the deeply savory and minty Brussels sprouts ($8), seasoned with fish sauce and vinegar and served blastingly hot, straight from the fryer.
It was also a great match for the pork buns ($9). These folded, palm-sized rounds of house-made dough were steamed, then squirted with spicy gochujang mayonnaise and filled with a seared, horseshoe-shaped slice of pork belly. So far, so fatty and delightful. But the buns were topped with a green pepper relish that was jarringly cold – the temperature of a granita – as if it had just come from the freezer. And really, nobody likes icy buns.
Fortunately, the off-temperature relish was the only significant misstep among all the small plates we sampled, including tortelloni-like sui gyoza ($7), chicken dumplings served in a light shoyu (soy sauce) broth that, like a fortifying bouillon, thrummed with chicken flavor. Or the Maine crabmeat sushi roll ($16), stuffed with local, fresh-picked crabmeat (no surimi here), swabbed liberally with an almost nutty-tasting broiled mayonnaise glaze and wrapped in soy paper with black sesame polka dots. On top, little pyramids of tobiko caviar gave each bite a delicate crunch, like biting down on microscopic bubble wrap. It, like nearly all the other small plates at Pai Men Miyake, was top-notch.
In truth, the small plates are so good that it’s tempting to skip the restaurant’s signature noodles and make a meal of starters. Full disclosure: On previous visits, I have done exactly that, rounding out my meal not with ramen, but with a serving of the creamy hamayaki ($11), a scallop shell filled with sweet Kewpie mayonnaise-dressed crab and chopped scallops that had been broiled until it brown and bubbling. Slick with truffle oil and eel sauce, it is funky and rich, not to mention deceptively filling.
But sometimes, a hankering for noodles is impossible to ignore. It’s what got chef and owner Masa Miyake into the ramen business in Portland in the first place. “When I first opened, I wanted there to be ramen in Portland because it didn’t exist here then, and because I wanted to eat ramen!” he said, speaking with me and Miyake assistant manager Stephanie Goodrich. “If you go to Japan and there’s no pizza, and you want pizza, what do you do? You open a pizza place.”
Apart from satisfying his own cravings, there is also an evangelical aspect to Masa Miyake’s work at Pai Men. He wants to make Mainers love ramen as much as he does. That work starts with broth.
The restaurant offers several varieties, ranging from “assari,” the same light soy-based broth used for the sui gyoza, to ultra-rich, almost opaque “kotteri” bone broths like the one that forms the foundation of the Paitan ramen ($12) – a concoction that simmers slowly for nearly 24 hours before it can be used. Far and away the best of the ramen broths, it is a hypnotic distillation of pure chicken flavor; a single drop on your tongue is enough to trigger flashbacks of rotisserie birds pirouetting through your memory banks.
In each bowl of Paitan ramen, the kitchen serves half a mirin, sake and soy-marinated egg; shreds of sharp, pickled ginger the color of a candy apple; finely sliced scallions, and springy wheat noodles that the restaurant special-orders from a noodle maker.
In this and the seafood-based miso ramen ($11.50), there are also thick, horseshoe-shaped slices of hard-seared pork belly, not the more common, pale and melting chashu pork with just a little color around the edges. Extra crispness makes the pork belly feel like more of a focal point in the dish, which jibes with an observation made almost six years ago to the day by our then reviewer, when she scored Pai Men Miyake four stars and described its menu as both “meat-happy” and particularly suited to wintertime dining.
The same could be said of the Kimchi beef ramen ($14), served with well-cooked, curly ramen, and a tender, yielding braised short rib. The mellow beef broth, on the other hand, was dilute and unresolved. Worse, very few slices of kimchi graced this dish, which translated to a largely bland bowl of ramen – not what you might expect from its description.
There was plenty of flavor in the Tokyo Abura ($12), a carbonara-like, broth-free ramen served with charred cabbage and carrots, along with a single raw egg yolk that you pierce with your chopsticks and mix in to the noodles, allowing all the toppings – like chewy wakame seaweed and “menma,” fermented bamboo shoots – to adhere as you eat. The dish had a magnificent spicy heat, but eating it quickly turned into a chore, thanks to undercooked noodles, some of which had been boiled so little that they retained their chalky core. It’s hard to know what to make of a ramen restaurant whose best dishes have nothing to do with noodles.
What’s more, Pai Men is no longer the only game in town. These days, excellent ramen – made with fresh, house-made noodles – is served at Suzukiya on the very same street. But that doesn’t seem to worry Masa Miyake at all: “Competition means that ramen gets more popular. Competition brings us more customers. You always need competition or there’s no way to grow,” he said.
Perhaps he is right, and Pai Men’s rivals will drive the restaurant to make the small changes necessary to bring the quality of its ramen up to match the high bar set by the small plates and sushi. Or it may be that, sometime in the not-so-distant future, you’ll be able to score a table on a Saturday night with no problem at all.
Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at: