136 E. Front St. |Traverse City | 231.421.5466
At Gaijin, columns of steam rising from ramen bowls effuse ginger and garlic accenting savory pork bone or miso broth. Tableside, the ramen ritual’s choreography is played out in clicking chopsticks and polite slurping as spoonfuls of umami-rich broth alternate with bites of handmade noodles, soy-infused soft-boiled eggs and crispy slices of pork belly. Building its menu around Japanese comfort food classics like rice bowls, ramen, gyoza potsticker dumplings and pillowy bao buns filled with pork belly, fried chicken or crispy tofu, Gaijin rounds out a street food trifecta for Simon Joseph, the force behind TC’s Roaming Harvest food truck and its sister restaurant, Harvest.
Beyond the menu’s staples, there is East-meets-Midwest delight in seasonal small plates like a salad of crispy wood ear mushrooms with soy and fried garlic or palate-cleansing Sunomo with cucumber, daikon and scallions in bright rice vinegar. Gaijin has recently added a small but thoughtful beverage program of beer, wine and artisan sakés.
Simon Joseph’s kitchen skills took him on transcontinental adventures from Delray Beach to the Alaskan coast before starting a small Traverse City construction company in the early aughts. Post-recession pressures saw Simon once again putting on the chef’s coat to become TC’s street food kingpin with a food truck and two subsequent restaurants. We sit down with Simon at Gaijin to talk Japanese comfort food and unravel the ramen bowl.
Gaijin’s moniker is “East meets Midwest,” please explain.
When most people think about Japanese cuisine they immediately think sushi but, in fact, traditional ramen is the national dish of Japan. Every town and prefecture has its own style and it’s all driven by terroir, which is to say local ingredients and tastes. That’s what we’re doing here. Our noodles are made from locally grown and milled wheat, and seasonal produce is incorporated in all of our dishes.
What kind of research predated the restaurant?
I ate ramen all over Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. The next step is to go to Japan and really see how we’re doing.
Ok, so break down the ramen bowl for us.
Wheat noodles are the base, but the soul and style of the bowl is the tare, which is its seasoning. The main tares are shoyu, which is tamari-based; shio, which uses sea salt; and miso, fermented soy bean paste. That base is mixed with sake, mirin and aromatics like scallions, garlic or ginger and then added to a clear duck, pork, chicken or mushroom broth. All of our bowls are garnished with a soft-boiled soy egg, bean sprouts or scallions, and either tofu or chashu, which is a slice of crispy pork belly.
If we want to roll our own ramen, where do we look for inspiration?
My favorite is a book called Ivan Ramen. It’s written by Ivan Orkin, a New Yorker who moved to Japan to learn ramen. He does a great job of teaching you how to make noodles and build a bowl. David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook is another great resource.