We are several years deep into an apparently never-ending ramen obsession here in the Bay Area — one that’s featured the opening of one heavily hyped outlet after another, many of them esteemed, even Michelin-starred, Japanese chains expanding to the US. And yet by and large, there is a uniformity to the ramen offerings here, which, with a few notable exceptions, skew toward heavier styles like tonkotsu — soups that are thick and creamy with animal fat, and cloudy from the boiling of many marrow bones.
Enter Afuri Ramen + Dumpling, the US extension of a popular (and David Chang-approved) Tokyo ramen chain, whose first California location will open for dinner service in Cupertino this Tuesday, November 5. Afuri’s claim to fame isn’t a tonkotsu at all, but rather a yuzu shio ramen, whose clear, delicate, lightly citrusy chicken-based chintan soup base might be described as the “anti-tonkotsu.”
What remains to be seen is if Bay Area noodle aficionados will embrace this lighter type of ramen, given the enduring popularity of tonkotsu and other similar styles. But Grant Macdonald, the director of culinary operations for Afuri’s US outlets, says the restaurant’s first two stateside locations — both in Portland — encountered far less resistance than he’d initially anticipated. “I think what you start to realize when you try our style is that there’s a place for a lighter style of ramen that you can really eat every day,” Macdonald says. “I think if I had a tonkotsu broth every day, I wouldn’t do well with that.”
That said, like Afuri’s Portland locations, the new Cupertino shop does make certain concessions to American dining preferences — namely in the fact that it will offer two different tonkotsu options, neither of which are available at the Afuri outlets in Tokyo. Other options include tsukemen (cold dipping noodles) and a vegan hazelnut tantanmen created for the Portland locations that Macdonald says has been so successful that one of the Tokyo branches even decided to add it to the menu. And like the Portland location that shares the “ramen and dumpling” concept, the Cupertino restaurant will feature a fairly large selection of gyoza — fried, steamed, or in a soup. Beverage-wise, there will be beer, wine, and sake, as well as a selection of low-ABV sake and shochu cocktails.
The other notable thing at Afuri, both in Portland and Cupertino, is that the restaurant uses touch-screen kiosks, exclusively, for ordering — a nod, Macdonald says, to the food-ticket vending machines that the majority of ramen shops in Japan deploy. Given how many of the Bay Area’s fast-casual restaurants already use some form of tablet ordering system, this probably won’t be as much of a leap for customers as it would have been even two or three years ago.
Located in the Saich Way Station shopping plaza at 20803 Stevens Creek Boulevard, Suite 110, the restaurant seats 54, including six prime spots at the counter. If the pattern with recent openings of highly touted ramen imports from Japan holds true, you can expect long lines for first few weeks. Plan accordingly.
Afuri Ramen and Dumplings is currently open for dinner Sun.–Thu. from 5 to 9 p.m. and Fri.–Sat. from 5 to 10 p.m. The restaurant will start lunch service in a few weeks.