The North Shore needs more ramen. There. We’ve said it. While other trends (small plates, chef-driven casual, brown spirits) have crept slowly up the coast, there is a desperate hole where Japanese noodles should be—especially in a part of the country that suffers through thunder snow and bomb cyclones. Crouching over a massive bowl of long-simmered pork broth is one of the few things that can brighten the dark days of winter.
This is why you should make your way to Lowell’s 1981 Ramen Bar. Peek into the open kitchen and admire the three-foot-tall stockpot used to simmer broth for as much as 48 hours—the staff welcomes the attention. Then grab a seat in the small, artfully deconstructed dining room, with its polished cement floors and wide plate glass windows. Admire the brick wall covered with what appears to be graffiti but is actually a remnant of Mambo Grill, the Mexican spot that occupied the space before Ramen took over. In a tradition that started at Mambo more than a decade ago, students and diners wrote their names on the wall as a local rite of passage. Now 1981 Ramen Bar owner Peter Huynh has added his name, and workers and regulars are invited to do the same. Huynh grew up in Boston’s Chinatown—his family owns the popular Chau Chow City restaurant in Dorchester—but when it came to branching out on his own, he set his sights on Japanese cuisine. It was a wise move; on a recent Saturday night around 6 p.m., the spot was reporting a 20-minute wait for a table, though there was plenty of seating at the cozy and welcoming bar.
The menu is limited, as is often the case at ramen joints, but offers some familiar Japanese starters, like shumai and edamame. For a light bite, and to save room for what’s to come, start with the marinated Japanese cucumbers—lovingly plated pillars of miniature cukes dressed in a blend of soy sauce and sesame oil, along with some trade-secret seasonings, and sprinkled with black sesame seeds.
Keep the plate with that delicious marinade on the table after devouring your vegetables—you may want to dip a bao in it. A small sandwich with a variety of different fillings encased in a fluffy, slightly sweet steamed bread, the bao originated in Chinese cuisine. 1981 Ramen gives us a pan-Asian or even international version, topping one with pork belly and very spicy Korean kimchi and another with roast duck and Brussels sprouts.
Don’t fill up on the baos, though; generous portions of ramen await. The Smoked Chicken bowl is especially satisfying—the long-cooked chicken broth is rich and flavorful, and would be perfectly lovely just on its own. But garnished with smoked chicken, fresh ramen noodles, a marinated egg, and brown butter corn, it becomes something worth wading through a foot of snow for. Equally comforting, the two pork ramen dishes both start with a base of heritage-breed bones simmered for two full days with vegetables and apples to extract a rich, slightly sweet stock. A vegetarian version starts with house-made miso.
Soups are, of course, the main attraction, but if you’re looking for more fusion, check out the “Chef’s Special” section. There you will find Baby Octopus Mazeman. Mazeman is a brothless ramen that is popular in Japan but not seen much around here. Perhaps not for the faint of heart, but gorgeously plated and absolutely delicious, a line of tiny whole cooked octopi lie on a bed of ramen noodles, dressed with a rich, flavorful sauce of house-made miso combined with black garlic, butter, and lemon juice. The sea creatures are tender, and the dish is beautiful and unique.
While the selection of sakes and sojus skews sweet, the restaurant does have a nice selection of craft beers that will take you all the way from cucumbers to octopus.
129 Merrimack St., Lowell, 1981ramenbar.com