aurora cafe: vegan ramen, it exists!
Time and again, I receive emails from readers asking where to find vegetarian ramen. Such a thing does in fact exist, at least in instant form. Those looking for a vegetarian ramen shop, however, might as well be hunting the incredibly rare, thought-to-have-been-extinct Sumatran rhinoceros that finally popped up on jungle-cam a few days ago. Indeed, after a bit of arduous searching, I managed to turn up the noodling equivalent of an albino three-headed version of the beast, not vegetarian, but vegan ramen, deep in the wilds of Nakano in Western Tokyo.
Aurora Cafe is a recurring event more than an actual ramen shop; its vegan shoyu and Hakata-fu ramen can be found but once every two weeks, in the most unlikely of locations. The “restaurant” operates as part of a rotating calendar in a coffee shop space hewn from a converted apartment. Japanese culture has never been particularly friendly to meat-free eaters, but I had never imagined one would have to go so deep underground for a bowl of Moby and Thom Yorke-friendly noodles.
But that’s a part of its charm; for in a city in which everything edible has been commercialized, packaged, and marketed to within an inch of what had originally made it special, a little bohemian effort goes a long way. And surprisingly, at least with Aurora Cafe’s vegan shoyu ramen, the results should be quite acceptable by any grease-stained, grumpy old chef’s measure. Featuring a meat-free mushroom and shoyu soup, it’s an entirely healthy, tasty alternative to the endless quantities of chicken and fish and pork and lard that are the basis of your typical bowl of ramen. The mushroom soup is sweet, the curly, egg-free noodles boast a good chew, and the vegetable-only toppings of green onions, bamboo, bean sprouts and wood-ear mushroom are academic.
Alas, I had left the shoyu to my buddy and fellow noodle fiend Keizo to slurp, and had instead opted for the suggested osusume or house specialty, the Hakata-fu (Hakata-style) ramen, which couldn’t quite manage the same verve. The chef and apparent proprietor behind the day’s vegan fare, a modest Japanese woman with a pint-sized daughter in tow, had recommended the fake “pork bone” soup, made with soy-milk. To a disciplined vegan, it might well make a delicious broth; but to this indulgent heathen’s jaded palate, the soup, infused with sesame oil, seemed nutty at best and flavorless at worst, the kind of veg-friendly approximation of a dish that might put off otherwise curious omnivores. Sure the soup was thick, but with patties of fried tofu standing in for chashu, I’m not entirely sure who the dish is meant to appeal to. Die-hard tonkotsu lovers probably wouldn’t go near it, doubtless vegans aren’t fans of pork bone to begin with, and not even a generous grating of himalayan rock salt could manage to salvage flavor from where it hadn’t really existed in the first place.
Aurora Cafe is on to a great concept; the mother-daughter team might be the entirety of the meat-free revolution in Japan for all I know, and the shoyu ramen and the accompanying brown rice bowl are both executed with aplomb. I might be more impressed with vegan cuisine in general, however, if chefs didn’t try quite so often to emulate popular meat-based dishes. Come now, vegan tonkotsu-style ramen is a wholly unnecessary idea. Stick to what gets you to the dance; mushrooms are loaded with savory umami flavor, and a well-done mushroom shoyu would be more than enough to get me coming back for a healthy, conscientious alternative to eating animal.
|the shoyu is excellent, light, crisp, and full of the sweet, earthy flavor of mushrooms. the hakata-fu quasi-tonkotsu soup, though thick, is little more than sesame-infused blandness. i'm not sure i should score the fake pork bone; i'll be merciful and rate this one for the shoyu.||8|
|the flat, wavy noodles have a great texture and chew, and would make a decent strand at many a japanese ramen shop, vegan or not.||7|
|can't say i was really feeling the fried tofu 'chashu,' some things are better left un-approximated. that said, the vegetables were fresh and good, as they should be.||6|
|the vegan ramen set menu comes with a bowl of brown rice topped by shiitake mushrooms and other fresh vegetables. grind in a bit of the himalayan rock salt, and it's delicious.||8|
|this hipster cafe in a converted apartment complex is remarkably unpretentious and shabby in a good way. i wish a bohemian aesthetic was more commonplace this in japan, although they could do to sponge paint the walls.||7.5|
|vegan and vegetarian ramen are long-overdue concepts. if only more shops would take up the mantle and realize there's an entire untapped market of meat-free eaters ready to get their slurp on. aurora cafe is a start, and not a bad one at all.||8|
@ una camera livera