Kukai Ramen & Izakaya in the Lake Hills neighborhood east of downtown Bellevue just opened in mid-December and has already gained a devoted following of patrons.
Their steaming hot bowl of ramen is the perfect comfort food for the Puget Sound region.
Kukai — a franchise founded more than 10 years ago in a swank shopping district of Tokyo known as Shibuya — has 18 ramen chains in Japan, and Bellevue is its first U.S. location.
The servers were friendly and prompt, and turnaround was 15 minutes from the time we ordered until our food arrived.
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Overall, the place definitely lives up to its reputation. But go right when it opens for lunch or dinner or be prepared to wait in a long line, especially on weekends.
The menu: Nine different styles of ramen. The most popular is tonkotsu shoyu ramen ($11) topped with two pieces of grilled pork, seasoned bamboo shoots, onions and bean sprouts with a garlic sesame oil in a thick, rich pork broth and special soy sauce.
The chicken shio ramen has a choice of thick ($10) or light ($9) broth, and is served with grilled chicken and vegetables. For a lighter version, try the yuzu (citrus) shio ramen ($11) or the vegetable ramen ($10) in a mushroom-based broth.
Extras can be added to any ramen including corn, half-boiled egg, bamboo shoots, chicken or pork chashu, mushrooms, bean sprouts, vegetables or roasted seaweed ($1.50 each).
Ramen alternatives include grilled chicken or pork “donburi” rice bowls or a chicken tofu salad ($4.50 for small and $9.50 for large).
A decent variety of side dishes ($3.50-$6.50) and a few desserts ($3.50-$5.50) round out the menu.
What to write home about: Our favorites were the tsukemen “dipping noodles” ($10) served with a separate hot bowl of either shoyu or tonkotsu broth, and the chicken shio ramen.
Some of the ramen come topped with a high-quality pasteurized half-boiled egg ($1.50), which is a must-have. A lower-sodium broth is available upon request. Kids can get filled up on the small rice bowls ($4.50).
The setting: A colorful, modern Asian art décor lined the walls, with seating for about 80.
Summing up: A chicken shio ramen ($9), tsukemen shoyu ($10) with extra noodles ($2), shoyu ramen ($9), chicken karaage ($6) and pork chashu rice bowl ($4.50) came to $44.36, excluding tip.
Mark Yuasa: 206-464-8780 or firstname.lastname@example.org