It’s Friday night, I’m parked on a wooden bench slurping up delicious soupy broth two-handed, and Ryan McDonagh, co-owner of the now legendary Downtown Ramen, is telling me about ramen culture.
His enthusiasm for the topic is catching. Around August 2014, when the eatery opened, the only word on Cape Town foodies’ lips was ‘ramen’ (closely followed by the words ‘Isn’t that what Americans call Maggie two-minute noodles?’). It’s six months later, and we’re seeing if Downtown Ramen still lives up to its hype.
Spoiler alert: it does.
If you haven’t pulled into Cape Town’s only ramen bar yet … well, maybe that’s because you don’t know where it is. Tucked into a canteen-style loft above sister restaurant Lefty’s on Harrington Street, it’s one of those unmarked hot spots you won’t know about unless, well, unless you know about it.
Head into Lefty’s, down the stairs, then up the stairs, round the corner and boom: suddenly you’re not in Cape Town, you’re at a dive in Tokyo and the aroma wafting over to you from the open kitchen is heaven.
So what am I eating?
For those who don’t know, ramen is a dish of hearty noodles in a soupy broth, served with various accompaniments. At Downtown Ramen, they take it pretty seriously. Everything is prepped from scratch daily, from the noodles (made with about 20% rye for a lovely nutty flavour) to the stock for their broth, and the soy- and mirin-steeped, six-and-a-half minute eggs.
The menu is small and specialised: choose between shoyu or kimiko ramen, with or without the eggs and chilli.
The shoyu has a chicken-broth base and comes with slices of charsu pork belly that’s been marinated in dark soy, light soy, sake and mirin, then braised for four hours till it’s impossibly tender. Add those excellent noodles, nori, pak choi and spices and you have … oh bugger it, om nom nom nom.
Vegetarians, grab a bowl of the kimiko, which is slightly creamier though it contains no meat fat, and is topped with incredibly flavourful teriyaki tofu, bean sprouts, pak choi and spices.
Portions are substantial – so come hungry – and served in artisanal bowls made by local ceramicist Mervyn Gers. The dark, knobbly surface of the bowls reminds me of strips of nori, and they’re awesomely tactile for when you’re lifting and slurping.
This is ramen, by the way – you have to lift and slurp, there’s no two ways about it. It’s an interestingly interactive meal, actually. But don’t take my word for it – let’s hear it from the master in the cult ramen classic Tampopo.
The only other thing on the menu at Downtown Ramen is a selection of bao, those perfect little clouds of happiness stuffed with one of three fillings.
We tried the charsu pork and beef bao. The charsu pork is the same deliciousness that appears in the shoyu ramen, while the beef is short rib that’s braised in dark soy and beer and cooked till it’s just about falling apart. Both are served with a light, summer Japanese pickle of cucumber and carrots in a little rice wine vinegar and chilli. It’s a winning combination, the fatty meat cut by the citrusy pickle all surrounded by that heavenly soft bao.
You can catch Ryan serving up these pockets of awesome at the new Downtown Bao stand at The Neighbourgoods Market. Reason enough to brave the Saturday crowds, in my opinion.
Cheers to that
Pair your bao and ramen with a Japanese Sapporo beer or flask of dangerously smooth Hakushika sake.
The rise of ramen
They’ve obviously cornered the market, but Ryan is more concerned with ramen as a culture taking off here than he is with protecting his concept from imitators.
‘I’d love to see someone doing really good tonkatsu, the heavier, creamier pork-based broth,’ he tells me. ‘In Japan, they each specialise in one kind of ramen. So if you want shoyu you’ll go to one place, if you want tonkatsu you go somewhere else, because that’s what they do and they do it best. They make sure they own that style. We played around with tonkotsu, but decided rather to nail the shoyu, and leave tonkotsu to someone else. We don’t want to be the only ramen anything.’
It’s a pretty admirable attitude in a city where exclusivity often trumps collaboration. We can’t wait for ramen culture to take off in the Mother City, but for now you’ll find us upstairs at Downtown, slurping them noodles.
Where 105 Harrington Street, Fringe District
Trading hours Monday to Saturday 4–10 pm. They don’t take bookings so get there early to avoid queuing, or knock back a few at Lefty’s while you wait
Cost A bowl of ramen will set you back R75, while the bao are R55 each.
Contact +27 21 461 0407
Photography Jade Cooke