“Irashaimasen!” is the first thing you will hear when you walk into Kukai Ramen and Izakaya. This phrase, meaning “welcome to our store” is the traditional Japanese greeting when new customers arrive.
As with the initial salutation, Kukai stays close to its Japanese roots. The restaurant, which made its first foray into the U.S. in the Seattle area, imports its ingredients from Japan. Its third restaurant will open soon on Capitol Hill.
Kukai Ramen and Izakaya is well established in Asia — with 18 locations in Japan and one in Taiwan. They expanded to the U.S. in 2012 with restaurants in Bellevue and Northgate.
It took Kukai about one and a half years to open its first U.S. restaurant in Bellevue because the owners insisted on importing the seasoning — called the tare — from manufacturers who were new to the FDA at the time.
“The key point of a bowl of ramen is the tare,”says Brandon Ting, one of the three owners of Kukai.
The miso comes from Hokkaido prefecture. Kukai flavors its shoyu ramen with ingredients from Yamaguchi, a region known for its soy sauce.
“We insist on only buying our soy sauce from that prefecture,” Ting said.
Ting said an easy solution could have been to substitute the materials, but when Kukai tried to do this, the quality was significantly diminished.
Kukai’s noodles come from California, but they are from a producer originally from Japan who has been in the profession for 30 years.
“We ship it (our ramen) directly from California fresh. Most noodle in the market is frozen. Frozen, and then you defrost it … but we don’t. We insist on fresh noodle,” Ting said.
The restaurant also serves izakaya, or small dishes often served with alcohol meant for sharing among groups of friends. Izakaya dishes include chicken karaage, which is marinated chicken deep-fried in oil, and takoyaki, which is a batter with pieces of octopus that are then cooked in a circular mold.
The readers Japanese-language U.S. magazine The Lighthouse gave their thumbs up, voting Kukai as best ramen in Seattle.
The Capitol Hill store has plans to “be more trendy” than Kukai’s other locations, Ting said, with a revamped selection of alcohol on that location’s menu.
The Capitol Hill location will be open by the end of March or early April.
Editors note: This article has been changed to clarify that the readers of The Lighthouse voted Kukai the best in Seattle, and to clarify that the suppliers’ status with the FDA.