Photos and Words by Clinton Nguyen
Traditional Japanese restaurants seem a little out of place in Boston--they're almost always relegated to the far off corners of the city. You'll find them in the sides of Asian supermarkets, in tiny strip malls, or surrounded by municipal buildings that totally go against their provincial attitude. Yume Wo Katare happened to pop up one day in the dead of October, taking the former residence of Zing! Pizza in Porter Square--certainly an interesting choice given the proximity of Sapporo Ramen, a competitor in the Porter Mall. It opened to an eager and ready crowd and now, about a month after its opening, it's still wildly popular. Yume Wo Katare's hours are short and restricting: Tuesday to Saturday 6-10 p.m. It generally takes an hour or more to get a seat. Whether this wait is worth it for you is definitely worth considering--in a few months the lines will probably thin and be better managed but it's still testing the waters, and its success seems unprecedented.
When you're finally let in, you'll notice a few things. One is the wall that's completely covered in framed wishes and dreams, not unlike the handwritten wishes you'd find at a Tanabatafestival. They are nods to the meaning of the restaurant's name: tell me your dream.
You'll also notice a feeling of authenticity. Every worker there didn't hold back in speaking Japanese to you whenever they could. It was a no judgement zone--the wait staff was very patient and definitely not alienating. It was a very homey small kitchen vibe that closely resembles ramen houses in Japan. To my surprise the menu only had one thing. Yes, the menu is one bowl of pork ramen. You have the choice of pork (2 pieces, $12) or more pork (5 gratuitous pieces, $14), and some free toppings, notably chopped garlic, sebura (pork fat), or chopped vegetables. Toppings are free, but when you see the portion you'll get, asking for anything more is adding fuel to the fire. Once I gave my order, I sat down, waiting for the chef and proprietor, Tsuyoshi Nishioka to come out. Even late at night he was sprightly and lively. He asked a simple question that everyone was exposed to waiting outside. 「ニンニク入れますか？」 -- Do you want garlic? I said yes, and within less than ten minutes, there was a steaming bowl of ramen right in front of me.
I was confounded. Shamefully, as someone who's only been exposed to the Sapporo/Pikaichi variety with thinner noodles and less broth, the pile of basically everything shocked me. I learned later that the ramen that I was struggling to eat was called jiro-kei, or jiro-styled ramen, an offshoot style of ramen known for its ridiculous volume and number of toppings, its rich broth and savory pork slices. In Japan it's considered an accomplishment to finish one bowl entirely. I'll spare my embarrassing attempt of even getting past the tip of the iceberg, but here are some tips and caveats you should consider before you decide to go:
- DO NOT expect the usual ramen. Expect around 50% more than pho or the ramen served at Pikaichi/Mentei/Sapporo.
- Come on an empty stomach. Have a very light breakfast. Skip lunch. Prepare yourself mentally.
- Do not expect to finish it. In fact, don't feel bad for not finishing it. The restaurant employees would rather see you happy than pained to eat their food.
- Expect to not eat ramen for a while after this. Really.
If you're okay with all those, consider yourself qualified and ready. Yume Wo Katare's signature lays in its ramen broth. The broth is headed off by a pile of fresh bean sprouts, pork slices, and chopped garlic pieces. The noodles are buried under the pile of toppings and pork--so you'll have to wade in. The noodles are thick and chewy, but not unmanageable; they're almost twice as thick as spaghetti and leagues thicker than the usual ramen. Once you're a little past the noodles, it's the broth that really hits you. It's oily, rich, porky, smoky, and fairly salty. It is by far the best you'll get out of ramen in Boston. The garlic adds a tinge of sweetness to what would otherwise be an entirely salty and savory bowl. I hesitate to compare Yume Wo Katare's pork ramen to others. The noodles of all over ramen places in Boston are thinner, much less supple, and their broths are less rich and filling than what you'll get here. The heaviness has a price though: you won't be able to finish the entire bowl, broth and all, and you WILL most certainly feel satisfied, if not significantly less healthy afterward.
Yume Wo Katare is evidently not a casual foray into the Boston food scene, but it's definitely worth the experience, especially if you're unfamiliar with traditional Japanese cuisine. It shouldn't be a daily, or even weekly visit. Compare it to how often you can watch an IMAX movie compared to Netflix. It'll blow you away the first time it hits you, and it'll certainly show you how deep the bowl can go.
Yume Wo Katare 1923 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02140, just down the road from Porter Sq. Station. Hours 6-10 p.m. Tues-Sat. Cash only.