The image is easy to overlook in the bowl of “D.C. Miso” at Sakuramen — easy because, I suspect, most diners don’t look for impressionist landscapes floating on their ramen broth.
But once the server points out the abstracted meat-and-veggie image, it becomes hard to miss: Part of the National Mall stares up from your bowl, as if Giuseppe Arcimboldo had been reincarnated into a 21st-century ramen master. The real master at the newly opened Sakuramen in Adams Morgan, Korean-born Myungeun Cho, says she just “wanted to put a Washingtonian spirit” into her D.C. Miso.
The first (and perhaps only) giveaway to Cho’s visual trick is the strip of bamboo shoot, a miniature, edible obelisk clearly channeling the monument dedicated to America’s first president. From there, it would take an artist’s eye (or lots of hallucinogens) to grasp the rest of the picture.
The scattering of scallions are meant to recall the green grass of the Mall; the pink-and-white kamaboko fish cakes summon up cherry blossoms in bloom; and the slices of roast pork strategically placed underneath the bamboo-shoot monument can represent almost any patch of real estate on the Mall, whether the Reflecting Pool or the Tidal Basin. “You can imagine anything,” says Cho, wife of co-owner Jonathan Cho and sister of the other co-owner, Jay Park.
But what about the clump of shaved Monterey Jack cheese? What’s the symbolism there?
It seems that Cho, ever since moving to the States eight years ago, has asked locals what their favorite ingredient is. The main answers have apparently been — no surprise here — cheese and bacon. Because she wanted something healthier than fried pork belly, Cho went with cheese.
It’s her nod to the American palate, and what better choice than the aged curds that have became the elevator music of the cheese world, whose weapon-grade blocks can be found in supermarkets and convenience stores from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore.?
So do customers notice the broth-supported landscape in their bowls?
“Half of them, they got it,” says Cho. “Half of them, they don’t.”
Cho’s unusual take on ramen is an outgrowth of her unconventional path to the Adams Morgan ramen house. She says that she traveled around the world as a backpacker and landed, at one point, in Japan. “I fell in love with ramen,” she says.
With the help of some Japanese friends, Cho learned how to make ramen. Her bowls all start with chicken-based broths, which are typically simmered for hours with fruits and vegetables, lending the soups a light, sweet flavor. One of her bowls includes sliced rib-eye bulgogi and roasted kimchi, nods to her home country.
In winter, Cho expects to switch over to the denser, pork-based broth known as tonkotsu in the ramen universe. But in the meantime, she’ll stick with her current approach, hoping diners appreciate her light touch with broths — and her light touch with ramen presentation.