The Ramen Underground

Despite an excess of salt and hip-hop, ramen is entering the American palate.

Photos by Adam Rogan

Clint Eastwood stares at you in the unisex bathroom at Milwaukee’s Red Light Ramen. The actor’s face is tripled in size on the poster commemorating the Japanese release of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” To its left is a framed piece of fan art from “Akira,” the 1988 landmark film that revolutionized anime and helped bring the artform to the U.S. The graffiti decorating the front of house was done by the restaurant’s manager.

Red Light Ramen is open only between 6 p.m. and 1 a.m. four nights a week, serving a menu of a few ramen options and alcoholic slushies. As you weave your way down Milwaukee’s Lower East Side, you may miss the descending stairs to the shop. The ceiling is low, as is the lighting. That’s part of the appeal—the restaurant is underground in more ways than one.

Red Light, and many restaurants like it, draws patrons who hunger for something other than mainstream chain restaurants and cookie-cutter eateries.

But Red Light stands on a tightrope. Stray too far from the norm and nobody will give your food a chance. Lean too far the other way, and you’re boring.

“How do you appeal to the masses? How do you bring people in?” Milwaukee Magazine’s food critic Ann Christensen says. “Milwaukee is such a conservative town in so many ways, especially the way people approach food. They’re frugal. They’re reluctant to try new things. Especially if you bring in something that’s completely foreign sounding, you have to give people a reason to try it.”

At Red Light, “We Dem Boyz” by Wiz Khalifa plays on computer speakers plugged into one of the employees’ cell phones.

Krunkwich Ramen House in Des Moines also toes this line. It’s one of the few restaurants in the city to offer ramen as their main dish. Consumers are greeted with cartoon cats that look like they could be Hello Kitty’s friends plastered on the walls. Modern music you’ve probably never heard is playing.

Ramen has been a staple in Japan for more than a century, and was a Chinese dish long before it crossed the East China Sea. Americans have been falling for ramen in recent years and are willing to drop way more than 17 cents for a Maruchan packet. Much of this is thanks to nexuses on the coasts, NYC in particular. But Midwestern cities have been late to the sodium-packed party. And even if the staffs of these trendy ramen houses are about as Japanese as Clint Eastwood, the food is still authentic.

Both stores feel out of place in their neighborhoods, although they’d probably fit in in Tokyo. “Ramen shops are something that [offer] a quick bite to eat that is relatively inexpensive,” Red Light Ramen owner Justin Carlisle says. “When I would travel to Japan’s larger cities, the ramen shops aren’t really swanky. They’re the hidden gems.”

As Christenson puts it, many faux-foreign restaurants try to make people think, “Oh, it’s making it really appealing to me, I’m back in my comfort zone here.” That plays into why Krunkwich sells hot dogs two nights a week, and why you can hear hip-hop at Red Light and not J-pop or anything performed on a shamisen. They’re finding the balance between udon and Westerns at the megaplex.

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