By Mark Nixon
There is something Zen-like about chopsticks. They act in pairs yet perform as one, dancing dreamily from plate to mouth, the trance broken only by the unmistakable sound of slurping.
I sat in East Lansing’s Sapporo Ramen & Noodle Bar the other day, watching others deftly lead their chopsticks while I fiddled and fumbled and failed to get my chopsticks onto the dance floor. That’s when I had my own revelation: Chopsticks are an evolutionary dead end. True, this puts me at odds with billions of chopstick wielding people. But I’m channeling my inner Trump at the moment, looking for simple answers like walls and other nonsense.
Forks are simple. Forks are the future. Forks will make America great again! And this is where my wife verbally slaps me and declares in flawless Japanese, “Dame da yo.” She’s scolded me thus many times over the years. Roughly translated, it means “you worthless (choice of noun).”
Judy is a sensei, a teacher, in more ways than one. She teaches Japanese language and, for her worthless piece of husband, has been a personal guide to the culture and cuisine of Japan. So before we dive into the food at Sapporo, please know that Judy worked diligently during our two visits to prevent me from being a worthless so-and-so as I tussled with language, culture, chopsticks and heaping bowls of ramen.
First, there was Tako Yaki, described on the menu as “octopus balls.” I snickered. Judy rolled her eyes. Tako Yaki ($7) is pieces of octopus meat mixed in a batter, fried and served with a smoky katsu sauce and Japanese mayo. (Japanese mayonnaise is far better than the American version; you can get it at local Asian markets). I liked the Tako Yaki, and the sauces made it sparkle.
Even better are the pork-filled gyoza ($5), pan-fried dumplings served with ponzu sauce, a soy-based vinaigrette.
Our third appetizer, Chicken Karaage ($7), was slightly over-fried. This marinated tempura chicken was rescued by an amazing wasabi aioli, which I’d order with almost any appetizer on Sapporo’s menu.
As an added bonus, these appetizers can actually be picked up with chopsticks — given patience, effort and years of training.
Let’s move on to the ramen, the star of Sapporo’s menu. On a wall next to the kitchen is a large sign written in cursive: “The Art of the Slurp.” I love that sign. It’s a way of giving diners permission to make noises usually frowned upon when dining in public.
We tasted five different ramen dishes during our visits. They ranged in quality from very good to outstanding. Hakata Modern ($12) blends pork broth and fresh ramen noodles with bean sprouts, garlic oil and fresh chopped scallions. Our granddaughter, Reagan, ordered this dish and raved about the rich, garlicky broth and tender slices of pork. I agreed.
Judy ordered the Breakfast Mazeman ($10), a dish of ramen noodles, pork belly and poached egg. The smoky pork belly paired with toasted sesame really makes this dish work. It’s billed as a “brothless ramen,” but we both agreed we’d like it more if there were some broth, perhaps served on the side.
Miso is my go-to food in Japanese restaurants, so I tried a Miso-based main course on each visit. The Miso Sobamen and Sapporo Miso ($10 each) use the fermented soybean paste as the primary flavor. The servings are generous and heaped with noodles, with buckwheat noodles taking the place of ramen noodles in the Miso Sobamen. Both were excellent.
My favorite ramen dish was the Butter Corn Shoyu ($9). It had the usual ingredients of broth, noodles and scallions, but it’s topped with butter and kernels of sweet corn. It tasted like summer.
Several ramen dishes come with thin slices of narutomaki, processed fish similar to fake crab meat. While narutomaki is traditional and doesn’t detract from the ramen broth, it doesn’t add anything, either. Nori, another Japanese staple, goes into many Sapporo dishes. These wafer-thin sheets of dried seaweed taste like the ocean — but not the good part of the ocean.
As much as I complain about chopsticks, I admit that with a lot of noise and miscues, I was able to snag a few slippery ramen noodles with a pair of chopsticks, and some of them reached my mouth. The rest slithered back into the bowl and sat there, taunting me.
You can ask for a fork at Sapporo, and they will gladly bring you one. No thanks. I’ll just be a whining, worthless husband. Oh, did I mention that when we traveled to Japan a few years ago, I carried a small, foldable fork?
House of carbs
By Gabrielle Johnson Lawrence
As I write this, it is finally legitimately hot outside. Green beans are growing, the husband and I are getting our money’s worth out of the outdoor dishes we received as wedding presents and it’s possible to drive through East Lansing at 10 p.m. without having to ford a river of inebriated undergrads at every intersection. Steamy, brothy bowls of noodles probably aren’t high on your list of priorities. In that case, bookmark this article and pull it out in January when it’s time to drown our collective Seasonal Affective Disorder.
From staples like spaghetti and meatballs and macaroni and cheese to more exotic fare like ramen and pho, bowls of carbohydrates hold a special place in the hearts (and thighs) of eaters worldwide. Partially due to our large population of international students, the Lansing area is lucky to have more than our fair share of delicious options when someone is hungry for an Asian soup. Some of my favorites are the sizzling rice soup at Huapei and the pho tai at Asia’s Finest. Sapporo Noodle Bar, which recently opened in downtown East Lansing, has beefed up the local options.
First, some speed bumps. The place is on M.A.C. Avenue, across from the Radisson Hotel in a location that used to be a hot dog restaurant. Parking is a challenge. During a recent lunch, Mr. She Ate and I drove separately. I was out of change, so we went into the restaurant, were seated, and I asked the server for some change. “We don’t do that,” he said. His suggestion was to go to the CVS Pharmacy down the street. I understand that you don’t want to provide change for everyone who walks through the door, but I suggest making an exception for people who are actively trying to eat in your restaurant.
It was warm outside, and it was an inferno inside. Hopefully Sapporo’s crew can figure out a way to keep things a little cooler inside, otherwise they find it challenging to sell bowls of soup to Michiganders in July and August.
We started with the yamitsuki kyuri ($4), which is a sliced cucumber. It has some seaweed flakes on it, but when it comes down to it, I’m the real flake for paying four bucks for a sliced cucumber. How did it taste? Like a cucumber, of course, but not even one of the good English ones that comes wrapped individually. It tasted like one from the bulk bin.
We also ordered gyoza ($5), which are steamed dumplings. An Asian dumpling is nothing like the fluffy Bisquick-based dumplings that I love so much in my mother’s chicken stew. They are crimped and pleated half-moon shapes, and the wrapper is similar to a small, palm-sized flour tortilla. The dumplings at Sapporo are stuffed with a ground pork mixture. They are light, fresh and delicious.
The husband ordered the Sapporo Miso ($10). Chicken and pork broths are combined with, and I take this directly from the menu, “our special miso tare, fresh ramen noodle, beansprouts, chashu, narutomaki, topped with roasted nori & shredded scallion.”
If you’re me, you’re intimidated. I don’t know what several of those words mean. I’m scared to look like an idiot in front of the hipster server who is tight with his quarters, so I don’t want to Google miso tare, chashu, and narutomaki on my phone. I don’t mean to be Trumpian about this, but I appreciate when international restaurants take the time to explain terms that might be unfamiliar to average eaters. It’s one of the reasons I love places like Altu’s Ethiopian Cuisine on Michigan Avenue so much. I know exactly what spicy chicken, mild beef, collard greens and lima beans are.
(Chasu, for those who wondered, is pork belly. If a vegetarian ordered the Sapporo Miso, they would be in for a surprise.)
When it came down to it, the soup was full of flavor and heaped with thinly-sliced radishes and fresh noodles. We eagerly slurped it down. My Butter Corn Shoyu ($9.00) was even better. Thanks to this dish, I now know that menma, which I assumed was some kind of vegetable, is actually lactate-fermented bamboo shoots. On second thought, I’m starting to understand the theory behind not including an English translation for some menu items.
Sapporo Ramen & Noodle Bar
11 a.m.-9:45 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon-9 p.m. Sunday 317 M.A.C. Ave., East Lansing (517) 580-4251, facebook.com/sappororamenbar