As I approach the ramen shop on the ground floor of the Galvan at Twinbrook apartment complex, I notice people are milling around on the sidewalk, some staring at the diners inside the restaurant, almost willing them to finish their meals. More hopeful customers wait inside a cramped vestibule. A young man, looking shell shocked, asks everyone to write their names in a spiral memo pad, which serves as his improvised waiting list.
What is this?, I think, Have I stumbled upon the Daikaya of Rockville?
In a sense, I have. Akira Ramen and Izakaya may not have a chef in the kitchen who’s as decorated as Daikaya’s, Katsuya Fukushima, the former chef de cuisine at Minibar. But it does have Shuichi Kotani, a Japanese soba master who serves as consultant to this minimalist 42-seat Rockville shop. Kotani has made a career out of soba noodles, teaching the painstaking process of making buckwheat strands to practically everyone, from Joël Robuchon to Gail Simmons. He’s also been quite pointed in his opinion on soba vs. ramen noodles:
“Buckwheat is very hard,” he once told the Village Voice. “Ramen is easier.”
But because America is full of ramen, not soba, slurpers, Kotani decided to expand his focus. He has taught the Akira team how to make its own wheat noodles, which immediately separates this suburban outpost from Daikaya and almost every other District-based ramen house that orders noodles from a third party, no matter how chef-driven it is.
Jerry Li, the student to sensei Kotani, serves as the resident noodlemaker at Akira. Li has had to learn fast how to prepare a boatload of ramen noodles without compromising their quality, not an easy task given the shop’s surprising rush of customers since opening in October.
One of the first bowls I ordered was a tonkotsu miso ramen, its noodles cut straight, like a cross between angel-hair pasta and spaghetti. Because they were prepared with alkaline salt — known as kansui in Japan — the noodles were springy, but not as firm and chewy as the best ramen strands. Later, after talking to owner Edward Wong, I learned that Akira’s kitchen had not been prepared for its early success and had rushed some noodles to the bowl without aging them for a day or two. Aging is what gives the noodles their chew.
“Now everything is better and in order,” Wong adds.
Later visits confirmed Wong’s declaration. A bowl of shoyu ramen concealed a tangle of curly noodles, each bouncy, chewy strand coated with buttery pork broth, whose surface had been speckled with sesame seeds and droplets of black-garlic oil. It was a modest ramen compared with some of the more baroque bowls you’ll find now in Washington, but its simplicity was its selling point: Each element played a role, combining to deliver a rich, silky, deeply satisfying slurping experience.
Tony Lin is the head chef of Akira’s kitchen, leading a small, tightly focused team that prepares several broths, including a vegetarian one, as well as more than a dozen appetizers, which venture well beyond those pork buns now common to ramen shops. Kotani and Lin constantly tinker with their broths, refining each one so it’s a luxuriant expression of its true animal nature. Unlike some shops, the Akira chefs do not intermingle species: Their pork broth is an aromatic concentration of pig bones, doctored with a minimum of vegetables and spice. Same with the chicken broth.
The vegetable ramen surprised me with its nearly translucent broth, built with onions, carrots, garlic, tomatoes, shiitakes and more. Impossibly, the broth felt full and creamy on the palate. Loaded with bok choy, wood-ear mushrooms and big blocks of tofu, the veg ramen packed a secondary note of seasoned wok. No, check that. It was a primary note: One of the bowl’s ingredients — I couldn’t really tell which — had been tossed in a wok engulfed in flames, leaving it toasted, almost burned. The flavor was an emcee who wouldn’t give the stage over to the main act.
Akira’s kitchen loves the flavor of seasoned wok. One cook spends part of his shift blackening slices of chashu pork with a butane torch as they lounge on the side of a wok. When he has time, he’ll torch those slices until the fat renders and the edges char, an irresistible combination, especially when swimming in the “volcano ramen,” whose pepper spice serves as an ideal foil to the pork. Other times, the chashu heads toward your bowl only partially torched, which makes for a dry, chewy piece of pork.
The appetizer menu remains a work in progress. The dark, lacquered slices of pork belly in the chashu buns would have won me over if not for the weird, watery notes of lettuce, which was tucked into the steamed bun. The gyoza pork dumplings were an unqualified hit, their crisped, paper-thin wrappers harboring a pork filling that buzzed with ginger. The okonomiyaki, a eggy shrimp pancake buried under a waving field of bonito flakes, was served atop strips of bacon, whose rendered fat spoke for the entire dish. The karaage fried chicken, the exterior crackly and interior tender, was served with a Sriracha aioli that was not fooling around.
Two months into Akira’s existence, and the shop still serves no alcohol. Owner Wong says he just completed the paperwork for a beer-and-wine license, which he doesn’t expect to have in hand for another month or two. The alcohol will no doubt make Akira even more popular than it already is, but it will have a downside, too. The drinks will encourage diners to linger, prolonging waits for those stuck on the sidewalk.
But the alcohol will also change the fundamental nature of Akira: It will shift from a Japanese-style slurp shop, fast and rewarding, to an American-style ramen shop, social and semi-oblivious. Few will fret, I suspect, that their house-made noodles may overcook in the broth if left too long. They won’t care that those chewy strands, a day or two in the making, can turn to mush in a matter of minutes.
1800 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md., akiraramen.com.
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Twinbrook, with a 0.2-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $6 to $10 for appetizers; $11 to $13.50 for ramen, with more for extras.