On April 30, Boulder welcomed a new ramen spot serving high quality, affordable noodles a few doors up from the Fox Theatre. Gaku Ramen — a Burlington, Vermont transplant — hit the ground running with the clear capabilities of a firmly established concept. Helmed by executive chef Colin Arthur who relocated from the New England location, the menu serves traditional ramen, appetizers and beverages with a great deal of panache. The two-story, 78-seat space is nicely decorated with conventional Japanese ornamentation and a beautiful original mural — the product of a student art contest. The winner, Mary Mueffelmann — a sophomore at the University of Colorado Boulder — was inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, blending elements of psychedelia, classic animation and an abundance of fish cakes.
Gaku — roughly translating from Japanese to “learning and education” — was intentionally dubbed due to a desire to bring high-quality ramen to college towns. Conceived by friends Ryan Goldstein, Michael March and David Stone while the three were living in Tokyo, the concept was designed to introduce real ramen to an audience all too well versed in instant noodles. The menu was developed by Japanese Ramen masters Kazuki Nakazawa and Toshinori Shimada, with chef Arthur continuing to contribute his ample knowledge and skills to further the timeless classics.
The uncomplicated food menu features starters, ramen — tonkotsu, several varieties of shoyu, miso and chilled — and rice bowls. Classic appetizers like edamame, gyoza, shishito peppers, mixed greens and karaage — Japanese fried chicken — all get their due treatment, but the house buns might be the best start to the meal. The steamed Gaku buns ($4.95) — available with pork, chicken or tofu — come two to a plate and are topped with pickled vegetables, scallions and sambal.
Chef Arthur clearly knows that the focus of any good ramen should rest with the broth. A dedicated menu page explains the fundamentals of each base, and Arthur executes the craft with great rigor. The tonkotsu ($13) is pork broth, pork chashu, kikurage mushrooms and bamboo scallions. Black garlic can — and should — be added for just shy of a buck and gluten-free noodles can be substituted for a $3 upcharge. Tables are equipped with wooden condiment stations stacked with napkins, chopsticks, spoons, white pepper, soy sauce, a sesame grinder, mashed garlic, ginger and togarashi. While the broths already have a fair bit going on, customization is encouraged.
The drink menu is surprisingly robust and well-informed. Beer choices feature a variety of local favorites, both on draft and in bottles and cans. But where the list really shines is in its superior selection of sake, top-notch Japanese whiskey and a sublime gin from Kyoto. The ample, though not far-reaching selection of wine by the bottle and glass is still an impressive inclusion to the overall list. There aren’t any house cocktails as of yet. This might be for the best. Their absence lends a proper impetus to try the spirits unadulterated.
Gaku continues The Hill’s gradual shift towards a more upscale atmosphere. While neither the price nor the decor should intimidate students, the food dramatically upstages the standard trashy staples of collegiate cuisine. As Denver enjoys its ramen renaissance, it’s pleasing to know that an appropriate outpost is serving up the good stuff, hopefully introducing the uninformed and pleasing the rest.
Gaku Ramen is located at 1119 13th St., Boulder. It is open Sunday – Thursday 5 – 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 5 – 11 p.m.
All photography by Colin Wrenn and Alden Bonecutter.