Ramen noodles are in downtown Helena.
Hokkaido Ramen & Izakaya has taken over the old site of Fusion Grille in the Great Northern Town Center.
Izakaya is an informal Japanese pub — somewhere casual to pop in after work for a drink and a snack with friends, said Zack Grobel, kitchen manager and head chef.
"We will have ramen, sushi and appetizers,” Grobel said.
The owner, Tom Cai, owns Nagoya Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi in Helena and in Salem, Oregon. In Salem, the ramen became a big hit and Cai decided to bring it to Helena.
“Ramen is traditional food from Japan that’s imported from China,” Cai said. “It’s everywhere. It’s popping up in New York and now all over the U.S.”
He said this is Helena's first restaurant to serve ramen, which is much different than the instant noodles that might come to mind. There are nine different kinds of ramen on the menu. The ingredients are fresh and each one starts with a broth made in-house. The noodles, Cai said, are the same wheat noodles used in Japan.
There are spicy, saucy and light flavors of ramen. The most common begins with a creamy pork broth and grilled pork meat and includes a soft-boiled egg, marinated to give it a sweet soy taste. Garlic, chilis, scallions and bamboo shoots are added to give extra flavor and a little bit of crunch.
“It’s nice to eat hot soups in the winter,” Grobel said. “It will be a flavor a lot of people in this town have never experienced.”
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Hokkaido Ramen & Izakaya is like no other place in Helena.
“It’s a Japanese, stand-up, drink-and-eat-with-friends restaurant,” said Lawrence Avant, sushi chef. “We have one of these small stores in Oregon and so we’re venturing here.
“We are not Nagoya but we will have some, if not most, of the sushi rolls here as well,” Avant said. “I guarantee everyone will like the ramen.”
The menu is affordable, with ramen offered for about $11, and will include hot and cold appetizers, rice dishes and sushi rolls at “prices that won’t empty your pockets,” Avant said.
Prices range from $3 to $11.
The drink menu will consist of local beer, wine and an “extremely varied” saki list.
“This is more of a fellowship, good relations, communicating watching the game in good spirits (place) with an attractive menu where you can watch the game,” Avant said. “You can eat appetizers and watch the football game on three televisions.”
Cai likes to travel back to Japan every few years to see what’s new. He originally is from China but learned to cook in Japan
“I want to give a full experience here of what they have in Japan," he said.