Krunkwich Ramen House9/2/2015
Maverick chef Sam Auen opened Des Moines’ first ramen house, Krunkwich, last spring and 105 years after Japan’s first ramen house. Japan may own the genre today, but Chinese immigrants delivered it there. The unique ramen noodle requires kansui (a mineral water that contains sodium carbonate, potassium carbonate and phosphoric acid). The lakes of Central Mongolia are rich with those chemicals, so ramen likely developed there. The dish became a national obsession in Japan after cheap American wheat flour flooded the market following World War II.
In 1958, Momofuku Ando invented the instant ramen noodle. A survey by a major Japanese news service declared it the greatest invention of the 20th century. Several generations of students and starving artists would subsist on Ando’s product, which today can be found for as little as 30 cents a package. The challenge for ramen houses is to create a version that can justify a price 30 times higher. Juzo Itami’s hilarious 1985 film “Tampopo” chronicles the cutthroat competition between ramen houses. That movie would inspire hundreds of ramen houses to change their names to Tampopo (“dandelion seed” in English).
Krunkwich may be the first Des Moines café focused on ramen, but other places have worked hard on the dish. Akebono 515 and Gateway Market Café have superb versions. Gateway has given up making its own noodles, though, after failing to match the elasticity of the best commercial noodles. Auen is not one to back down from a challenge. He experimented with ramen broths and homemade noodles for years before opening Krunkwich.
His small café in the East Village is a casual self-service place. Music has been remarkably mellow on my visits. Artwork looks like a cross between Japanese ramen logos and Hello Kitty. Ramen is made by combining stock with tare, usually in a 10/1 mix. Tare is traditionally made with shoyu (soy sauce) or miso (soybean paste) along with other ingredients like ginger, dashi (kelp and dried fish), sake, vinegar, spices, oils and garlic. Because of the possible combos, it’s claimed that no two ramen houses serve the same recipe. Every region in Japan has a different basic style, too.
Auen gets this. He wants people to go to Los Angles and ask for Des Moines-style ramen. He makes chicken tare. That’s out of the box. Cashiers told me it’s sort of like bouillon. I was also told that all soups were made with a basic broth of beef bones and vegetables. Chicken, vegan and gluten-free ramen surely are not. All but vegan and curry ramen are served with nori (seaweed), green onions and fish cakes. After that, Des Moines-style takes form. Soups come with chicken, smoked or gluten-free tare. House ramen is made with pork belly and pulled pork. Chicken ramen was served with roast chicken, deep-fried corn on the cob, miso and Napa cabbage. Laksa curry ramen, the most distinctive I tried, came with yellow curry, pickled onion, a vinaigrette of citrus and cilantro, fresh cilantro and choice of chicken or tofu. #$@&!! ramen included sesame pork, pulled pork, kimchi, jalapenos and 99 sauce. Advertised as the hottest dish on menu, it was surprisingly mild. Also on the menu were gluten-free, vegan and Korean styles, plus one that included every ingredient in the house.
Noodle stir fry dishes were made with both ramen and rice noodles. I enjoyed a pork belly and mushroom version. From the tater tot menu, I ordered a kimchi style with a Korean cornucopia of ingredients, plus miso whiz. I was glad I ordered this combo of miso and cheese sauce on the side. Banh mis were also served.
Bottom line – Krunkwich’s noodles taste homemade without losing the distinctive elasticity of ramen.
Side Dishes: Thrillist named Toppling Goliath of Decorah “Iowa’s best brewery”… Beerhouse will introduce a new menu for football season. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.
Krunkwich Ramen House
621 Des Moines St., 867-3674
Mon. 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.,
Tues. – Fri. 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.