“My theory holds true,” said my buddy Mel as he wiped his face and picked his fork back up. “The closer you get to the end of your meal, the better it gets.”
Before he flew out of town with his wife to celebrate their 28th wedding anniversary, Mel shared a simple two-person table with me in the middle of Tori 44’s little dining room. It was a work lunch, so we were behaving. His bowl of shoyu was being reduced to a thin coat of liquid and a few floaty bits, and he was raving about perfectly-cooked noodles and previously-uncharted flavor depths. Even a simple scallion, hidden in noodles but exposed under tooth, was beauty worth praising. His theory was holding true.
His reward for sitting across from me? A front-row seat to a chopstick-fumbling clinic that spanned the whole meal. I had smoked tomato ramen that day. I was raising huge heaps of noodles, mushrooms, and greens to my face. I’m talking portions fit for a backhoe scoop, recklessly lifted, broth splattering everywhere.
The smoked tomato broth was spicy, rich, exciting, and coated the noodles exactly. It didn’t drip. It wasn’t sparse … and when was the last time you saw “exciting” used to describe a “smoked tomato” something?
If you’re familiar with St. Paul’s Tori Ramen, Tori owner Jason Dorweiler’s first location, you’ve likely had your ramen revelation already. Tori was a part of the ramen asteroid that crashed into the Twin Cities a couple of years back and scattered Ramen Kazama, Kung Fu Noodle, and Domo Gastro across the landscape. Dorweiler set himself apart by expanding westward into Victory 44’s old space and securing the square feet necessary to make their own noodles in-house. They’re the first ramen shop in the Twin Cities to do this.
That also means they can sell noodles by the bag for at-home preparation, and Lord knows we can’t talk about ramen without recounting our lean years. We can’t talk about ramen without bringing up the bricks of Maruchan instant ramen we’d get for like 12 cents per serving. Of course not.
If you were like me, you preferred the beef-flavored Maruchan – not for taste, but for the dark brown shade your water turned once the “flavor” packet was stirred in. Chicken and pork “broth” had the same lifeless hue; the beef at least looked like a delicacy, if you’d gone long enough without seeing a delicacy. If you had sriracha or hot sauce on hand, you doused your dish with it. If you were feeling fancy, perhaps you plopped a fried egg in. Mel told me a hilarious story during our meal involving ramen noodles boiled in malt liquor, then served macaroni-style with chopped hot dogs.
And you don’t have to admit it loudly, but I will: the body of work, all things considered, wasn’t too bad. But for many people, sadly, the relationship with ramen never extends past the Maruchan wrapper.
A key component of a good ramen is a good tare. For a two-cent explanation: tare is seasoning. That isn’t what the shiny Maruchan flavor packet is trying to masquerade as. No, in that scenario, tare is absent completely. There are some basic tares (this website offers an entry-level primer to ramen), but many ramen houses have their own signature tares.
Tori 44 does, too, and they offer one ramen that wields three tares at once. It’s name: Dramen.
You should have seen the chalkboard above the bar advertising Dramen during my first stop: DRAMA IN A BOWL – TRIPLE TARE (BALI BALI, TORIKOTSU, SUPRA). I can’t tell you what to do. I can only trust that you’ll order the DRAMA IN A BOWL if you see it posted as such.
It’s almost psychedelic the way colors rush apart when you press your spoon into Dramen broth, then rush back into one. Dramen hits the palate, and spice pops out like those 3-D images we’d all cross our eyes trying to find. It made my eyes open wider, and my back straighten. My head cocked back a little. What is this magic? I can’t properly articulate what’s going on here. All I know is I haven’t had anything like this in quite some time.
What’s the next move? A chopstick full of noodles, or a spoonful of broth? Is it time to annihilate that soft-boiled egg with your sticks? Me: I devoured anything solid in that bowl, then asked the bartender: “Are you going to judge me if I chug this broth right here at the bar?” He said no, said he’d take it as a compliment actually. And so began my loud, slurpy, minute-long testimonial.
Each of Dramen’s three tares can be experienced on their own. You can see both locations’ menus here. If you’re looking for pork, look elsewhere.
You’ll sacrifice nothing by ordering dry noodles. The Dan Dan Noodles are disorienting, and I mean that in a good way. I felt the heat slowly overtake me, but even my quivering lips and heavy breathing couldn’t turn off my appetite for them. I even felt that weird chill in body parts unscathed by the heat. I didn’t forget where I was, but I positively went too long without wiping my face.
The St. Paul location serves only ramen, while the menu at Tori 44 is expanded to include rice bowls and appetizers. My lunch with Mel had begun with a row of house-made boneless chicken wings, formed by hand and cocooned in chicken skin. Mel ate them slowly to analyze them, and decided he was going to try making these at home. He could probably do it, or at least come close. I couldn’t – I dragged mine hard through chili paste and deleted them. If you’ve had these wings before, they’ll be great again; but for the unfranked, they’re a thrilling reveal.
Tori 44’s drink list is headlined by sake, of course, but flanked by wine offerings and a short list of rotating taps. Cocktails can be had at T44, like a Punch in the Face (half sake, half kombucha) or Espress Yo Self (nigori, espresso, dark chocolate, burdock syrup). We had the root beer, which Hopkins-based LTD Brewing makes for Tori. It’s $6, but it’s pretty good and you get a bomber full. If you can’t drink the whole thing (Mel and I together couldn’t), you’re welcome to take it home. Bring the bottle back and you get $1 off your next root beer.
I miss Victory 44. It’s been written over and over what Victory 44 meant to me, and you can still see the outline of the Victory 44 logo on the building facing 44th. The spaces where you’d read Victory’s menu are painted over with art now, the pig tchotchkes replaced with mean-faced masks. Where PRAISE THE LARD was once written is a blank black slate.
But sit in Tori 44 long enough, and you’ll feel a new excitement. You can easily get lost in the human chatter and metal clangs, watching muted four-wheeler highlights on the TV. You can’t quite make out the music, but it’s peppy and fast. The whole place feels that way. It’s alive in there, and I’m thankful for that.
Clean-up edits were made shortly after this article’s publication.