- Matthew Schniper
- Street-style artworks further Rooster's bustling, hip vibe.
Though ramen may be forever disparaged by the cheap instant noodles synonymous with student budgets, by now most people understand that those packets hold no candle to the elegant noodle bowls inherent to authentic Japanese cuisine. There, noodle styles, broths, seasonings and toppings differ by region, offering a whole fascinating study of just one item common to daily dining.
Foodies in America, hearing the word "ramen," tend to point to the brilliant noodle king of New York, David Chang, and all of his Momofuku spinoffs. And bigger cities, Denver included, tend to boast more than a dozen worthwhile shops for introductions to the real thing (or close to it). In Colorado Springs, some sushi restaurants offered decent noodle bowls (and still do), but the first we know of to broadcast a more mindful ramen rendition was Jun Japanese Restaurant, in 2012, offering a single Kanto region (central Japan) version.
And now, the first chef to open a dedicated ramen shop here — 'bout time — actually hails from an entirely different cultural and culinary background, but he still pays homage to the foundations of the dish. Mark Henry's a known name, thanks to years with the Blue Star Group as a chef and butcher, plus time with Brother Luck Street Eats, and victories on Food Network's Chopped and Cook's vs. Cons.
Though he's hit top — finding humility rather than hubris, he says — there was a time not long ago, a bit burned out by the stove's fire, when he scraped bottom, seriously questioning whether he wanted to cook anymore at all. Then, while experimenting with ramen at Street Eats, he says he realized "it's something I really enjoy, it made me happy." Riding the confidence boost from the TV wins, he indulged the joy, opting to forge his own business path. Hence, 2-month-old Rooster's House of Ramen.
The 32-year-old Army veteran is quick to self-deprecate by calling himself just a big white guy with a beard when I inquire how traditional he aimed to be with Rooster's. The answer: not very. But, culinary ingenuity through the ages all being cultural appropriation (spin, fuse, refine, etc.), I don't think any eater will find reason to call BS on Henry after diving into one of the overall delightful ramen bowls.
Henry wants a Rooster's experience to be fast, not just to turn tables quickly, but because his bowls ($11 to $15) aren't sacred cows he wants delicately approached, like an unsure lover entering a bedroom. Instead, slurping is on-on (see the website URL for more on that), shirts will suffer broth droplets, sip from the bowl if you wish, and eat it while it's hot: A popular Dallas-based Japanese chef advises taking a bowl down in under five minutes, before the noodles have time to expand and soak up the broth.
"I think it's appropriate to say that the hoity-toity portion of my career is over for now," says Henry, adding he's still using classical techniques, but he wants people to "make a mess, enjoy yourself, bring the kids — let's party."
The hip-hop-fueled setting for such behavior — defined by an eye-grabbing Sole Junkie rooster mural at the main dining room's rear — features vibrant artworks with a street aesthetic. Bright orange tabletops frame plates with a reflective glow, making colorful garnishes further pop. Or sit at a counter in front of a tiny bar for a full view of kitchen happenings.
There, you'll spy a bit of the extensive prep and orchestration behind high-volume ramen; note Rooster's has shuttered early some nights from running out of product (a good problem to have), with hour-plus waits and unanticipated crowds topping more than 300 people by day's end — a lot for a relatively little spot.
Rooster's ramen bowls launch from a base dashi (made with kelp in this case, and sans the typical fish stock), cooked in 25-gallon batches. It starts like most stocks by sweating veggies, then comes charred lemongrass, ginger, shiitake mushrooms, and a finishing hydration of dried kelp, for an "instant depth" Henry describes as "a little funkiness, with earth tones and salinity."
Next, dish-by-dish to order, the kitchen adjusts the base with different tares, a term commonly referring to Japanese dipping sauces, but here utilized by Henry to describe layers of inputs to make each broth pop respective to its intention. He calls them "flavor bombs" and says "tare in ramen is like bitters to a mixologist in a cocktail."
He also says the Japanese "view one bowl of soup as multiple courses ... the garnish is like a salad course, the protein like an entrée, the broth like a palate cleanser," and the noodles, depending on the type, can represent satiation and nourishment, even longevity in life.
Henry had opened his doors making his own noodles, but found more longevity than he bargained for in that. So now, all of Rooster's bowls come with fairly thick, tacky-on-the-tooth rye noodles from the Sun Noodle company out of New York. That's who David Chang utilizes, and credits with facilitating the ramen boom in America. All the top-rated ramen shops buy from the company.
One of Rooster's most bold tares helps compose the vegetarian (vegan if the egg's left off) coconut miso bowl, where pungent, soy-free Coconut Aminos meet coconut cream for a more velvety, rich, unforgettable broth, lightened a touch by crunchy bites of marinated bamboo shoots and watery bean sprouts. If only for a fleeting moment, it makes me like tofu again.
- Matthew Schniper
- Don't be shy about attacking this bowl when it arrives, but feel free to take your time, too.
A bone-in pork rib ramen presents tender meat glazed with sweet hoisin, lightened by radish and carrot slivers, corn kernels and crunchy greens. As in many of the bowls, a soft egg's a highlight for gooey yolk — pay attention to how that changes the broth, as it evolves toward its depletion. Paleo people will love the even more unctuous chashu pork belly ramen with fatty meat bits, bean sprout and scallion talkativeness and a thin broth punctuated by gingery pickled carrot bits.
There's more of a story for us behind what's now called the soy-glazed beef brisket ramen, formerly called char siu on the first menu printing. Char siu typically refers to Cantonese barbecued pork, but here, Henry opts for beef brisket. When we attended the soft opening in May, the dish hypnotized us with a fabulous, sour, acidic broth. But when we order it seven weeks later, expectant like kids before their birthdays, we don't detect any tang, registering instead a more basic beef stock broth. It's not a bad bowl, but we're left to level inconsistency charges, a common Springs restaurant disease.
Henry fields my inquiry with his own, reporting back that his sous chef had dialed back the tare, essentially a sesame-ginger vinaigrette, and they'd cut back on how much honey they're braising the brisket with to address potential over-charring. Also, Kobe beef initially utilized hadn't performed dynamic enough to justify its price, and has been replaced. All told, Henry says that's a product of customer feedback, and some folks saying it was too sour before, so he's pumping his brakes and pondering a more slow introduction of his twists on local palates. The resolve: an imminent new menu printing that will add options for customizing bowls with à la carte tares, plus options for hotter presentations via habanero hot sauce or jalapeños when sriracha at the table isn't enough.
This shift should address our desire for spicier banh mi sandwich options ($9 to $11) too. I judge the popular Vietnamese sandwiches against the true form served on North Academy Boulevard at Banh Mi Viet. Henry — the guy who launched the Meat Locker in 2013 with a creative Thai chicken peanut sausage banh mi sandwich — departs from the classic, hence no pâté smears or head cheese amidst garnishes, and purists may pick at the texture of his baguettes, not as crisp-crusted or elastic inside.
Instead, Rooster's employs a slightly more dense (and still fine) Sourdough Boulangerie product, wanting to ensure the sandwiches don't fall apart with too airy a bread that might also sop up sauces and gum up. So there's enough chew to stand up to bulgogi beef tips, which don't present the typical, zesty, thin-sliced Korean beef, but tougher hunks of steak meat, with carrot, radish and cucumber for crunch, cilantro, and both Japanese mayo and "bulldog sauce," a house mix of aromatic herbs, gochujang, Japanese mayo and mirin. A similarly dressed kimchi chicken banh mi doesn't deliver kimchi's typical spiciness, as noted, so we found ours overly safe, ordering extra kimchi on the side for $1, and we'll add more heat in the future.
To appetizers: Seafood cravings can land grilled octopus or ahi tuna, the first a chewy chopping of tentacles drizzled in a thinned gochujang (Korean-style red chili) paste and plated over the bulldog sauce. That's next to sticky rice wearing a jagged garnish of Furikake (sesame seeds, dried fish and seaweed flakes). The ahi's pretty in pink, tasting largely like its thorough sesame seed crusting, with minced "gingered carrot tartar" playing garnish with pea leaves (garnishes will change with the seasons and locally available produce), plus long-sliced cucumbers and underlying spicy mayo, which lands mild.
One evening while having Asian-inspired drinks in the attached Sakura speakeasy (a partnership with the Wobbly Olive's owners), we relish the night's okonomiyaki special from Rooster's, a cabbage and scallion pancake topped in dashi-poached, chilled shrimp, tossed with brunoise cucumber in sriracha-sesame dressing, with bonito flakes for further umami.
Rooster's own bar strikes a more casual pose than Sakura's, with fruit cider and beers on tap this season with some IPAs. Cocktails tend to top out at three ingredients. The strong honey notes of 3 Hundred Days of Shine's Sippin' Shine makes a delightful base for tart raspberry tea and fresh raspberry inputs on a raspberry-rum sweet tea. But both our Chiapas Paloma and 291 Smooth Criminal arrive out of balance: the former with over-sharp grapefruit bitterness, hard-to-detect rice wine vinegar and unmitigated tequila punch. Distillery 291's Fresh un-aged corn whiskey by contrast gets buried in sweetness somewhere, strong in cucumber essence, light in lavender. Better, and non-alcoholic, are effervescent house shrubs (the drink that's suddenly everywhere on the scene, in alcoholic versions too), with clean, sweet vinegar-enhanced fruit flavors, like orange and blueberry.
Their acidity pairs well with the ramen, ultimately the highlight of a visit. We're glad it's finally here, in full force, in a cool space, in the hands of a discerning chef we've watched soften through successes. Further menu tweaks and humility in mind, Rooster's has every reason to strut cocksure.