Having been to our fair share of Asian concept restaurants of late, we can certainly attest to proliferation of sushi and noodle bars. Where Yokohoma Ramen in Northampton sets itself apart is with its clear focus on one dish: ramen.
Yokohoma Ramen has clearly set its sights on attracting passersby with its dynamic red and black, circular logo projected onto the sidewalk outside. Given the busy foot traffic on Main Street we'd say this is a smart tactic, and on the night we were in town we saw plenty of people playing on the moving image outside prior to entering the restaurant.
An eye-catching, lit glass liquid wall of bubbles is set as the backdrop to the host's station just inside the door and serves as both eye candy and dividing wall given dining tables are located directly behind it. We were reminded of the fish tanks of old school Chinese and Japanese eateries, and thought it might serve as a modern wink to the feng shui belief that the placement of water near the front door draws wealth and prosperity into the establishment. Regardless, it serves as one of several colorful glass installations in the modern eatery, and it sure is pretty.
The printed menu at Yokohoma is a glossy, visual feast of easy to read text, splashy graphics and professional food photography that surely lends an assist to those unfamiliar with the cuisine. We were also pleased to find that when we had questions our helpful server guided us in an unassuming, casual fashion.
Appetizers consist of a short list of familiar items juxtaposed with Japanese specialties including tempuras, dumplings, and steamed buns. Seafood lovers can choose from two forms of Shrimp Tempura or Ika (squid) Tempura for $8; chicken is available as the boneless Tori Karaage ($8) or the bone-in wings Tebasaki ($6); and vegetarian cravings can be satisfied by Seaweed Salad ($4.50), Scallion Pancakes ($6) or Yaki-Gyoza dumplings ($5).
Yokohama offers two types of fried shrimp, so we opted for the less traditional Rock Shrimp Tempura. In our experience, the freshness of shrimp can be categorized in one of three ways; very fresh, fine, or not so fresh. We were pleased to find that the shrimp tasted impeccably fresh and clean, was clearly fried in equally fresh oil, and topped with just enough of a creamy, sweet but spicy house special sauce. Truly a lesson in tempura.
Intrigued by the description, we couldn't pass up the Takoyaki: "Traditional Japanese street food with minced octopus inside a cream ball filling and a crunch finish on the outside" ($5). We were impressed by the visually appealing presentation of the four balls laid out on a rectangular plate and topped with multiple sauces, but were not prepared for the strong fish smell produced by the copious amount of bonito flakes topping the dish. Surprisingly the dish read entirely different on the palate (not at all fishy), and we were pleasantly mystified by the light as air creamy, neutral filling studded with small pieces of octopus and adeptly fried.
Ramen is truly the star here and takes up several pages of the menu, with the only additional entree options in the form of Don Buri (Japanese rice bowls) and Teriyaki dishes. Ramen prices vary only slightly from $11-13, with additional items such as extra noodles, spinach, beef, tofu and eggs available as add-ons for $1 to $3; and other entrees top out at $16.
Tonkotsu Ramen is made with pork broth and topped with pork belly chasu, scallions, spinach, red ginger, half egg, and soy sauce. Miso Ramen and Spicy Miso Ramen round out the pork belly options, and we hear the spicy miso is the most popular dish. Kaisen Ramen features shrimp, squid, fishcake and crab; Gyuniki contains beef, and a Tofu Vegetarian Ramen is also an option.
The sesame and chile oil laced Tan Tan Ramen we savored was topped with minced pork, egg and spinach. The bowl was rich but well-balanced with its backdrop of hearty broth and its well-seasoned pork, and we appreciated the significant but not pain-inducing level of chile heat. Ramen at Yokohoma is served in tall, conical white porcelain bowls, making for a fun presentation as well as a soup that stays hot indefinitely. And portions are substantial enough that we enjoyed an entire second meal of the yummy noodles the next day.
Wanting to try a not ramen option, we ordered the Gyu Don described as sliced beef and onions simmered in a mildly sweet sauce on a bed of rice in a bowl. The beef was impressively tender and well-flavored; its razor thin slices a textural experience we likened to a very high quality Philly Steak. We would have loved the dish to have been served as advertised so that the sauce from the beef would have permeated the plain rice, but it came to the table instead on a flat plate with the rice on the side.
Yokohama features a short list of desserts including several flavors of the sweet Japanese rice ball Mochi, and ice cream either fried as Tempura or plain. Yokohama offers a variety of bottled beverage options including Japanese specialty drinks Ramune and Calpico, as well as brewed in house hot and cold green tea.
The next time we are in downtown Northampton on a cold night we will surely again consider the satisfying, hot ramen at Yokohama as a great dining option; and locals can order takeout or get hot steaming ramen delivered to their door via any of the popular restaurant delivery services.
Name: Yokohoma Ramen
Address: 88 Main St., Northampton
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Entree prices: $11 - $16
Credit cards: American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa
Handicapped access: Accessible, rest rooms equipped for wheelchairs