When the temperature plummets, people want one thing: a big bowl of steaming ramen.
How do I know this? Because I was among the hungry horde that tried to cram into Yoko Ramen for lunch on a cold day in September that felt like November. The place was so packed, we had to wait to even place an order because the kitchen couldn’t keep up.
It’s a small kitchen. And the wait wasn’t that long. You get hopeful when there are that many people in a small restaurant that could easily be overlooked. You start thinking, this many people can’t be wrong. And you know what? They weren’t.
It’s a modest menu, one that matches the size of its urban space, which can’t hold more than 35 people or so. But that’s part of its charm: It’s a get-in, chow-down, get-on-with-your-life kind of place. Plus, it’s affordable, and much better than what Americans have come to accept in the way of fast food.
Vegetables are locally sourced, and the sandwich buns come from a local Mexican bakery. A hot sauce known as Yoko XO is made in house and slathered darkly on the bun of the fried chicken sandwich ($8). It was potent enough to leave my lips tingling but didn’t overpower the flavor of juicy dark meat and crisp dill pickles that are also housemade. The soft torta bread was substantial enough to keep it all together.
I would give that sandwich a slight edge over the Japanese cubano ($9), which features the same bread, char shu pork meat and chopped fried pigs ears, although the latter really wasn’t noticeable. Swiss cheese formed a crunchy coat for the bread, while pickles and spicy mustard inside provided tang. It’s an interesting variation on a cubano, but the pork was less flavorful than the traditional ham.
You can add a side salad or wedge-cut fries to a sandwich for $2; the salad featured a nice mix of fresh greens, pickled radish and sprouts bound by a perky ginger miso dressing. But I could pass on the fries simply because I don’t like them that thick. They were brown and crisp, but the ratio of potato to crisp is just off in a fry that fat, in my opinion. Fries and salad also come in bigger side dish portions for $5.
If you like gyoza, Yoko’s version is very good. There are six of the crescent-shaped dumplings, pan fried so they’re crisp on the outside but tender within. The pork-stuffed gyoza ($7) were succulent, especially when dipped in the tart house sauce. A vegan version ($6) features shiitake mushrooms and salted cabbage.
Sweet or hot chicken wings ($7) are another side dish option, which I didn’t try but expect could be popular for a late-night snack for anyone who’s been to the bar next door, Dick and Dixie’s. Speaking of alcohol, it was a happy surprise to learn that Yoko Ramen offers a modest selection of bottled beers ($5-$9) and sake, available in single servings, carafes or bottles ($9-$60).
Both are perfect partners to Yoko’s main attraction: big bowls of ramen that come in three iterations with a variety of add-ons.
My favorite was the pork ($11) because I love anything that comes from a pig (except maybe the tail or feet, and maybe that’s because I just don’t know better). The broth was rich but not fatty, swimming with thin curly noodles and large slices of tender char shu, all of it topped with shredded cabbage. Every ramen has a perfectly poached egg (onsen tamago) and sliced green onions, known as negi. Extras range from Yoko XO to kimchi or more pork belly (50 cents to $2.50).
My next favorite was the veggie ramen ($9), which becomes vegan without the egg. A small chalkboard at the counter where you place your order helpfully lists the day’s vegetables, and our ramen included zucchini squash, turnip, collard greens and eggplant. That broth, spiked with miso, was also richly flavored. I would happily forgo pork for that ramen.
Yoko also makes a chicken ramen ($10) with a lighter broth, the same glorious tangle of noodles and the usual accoutrements. But the chicken was fried, which didn’t seem like something you’d stir into soup. I would remove it from the soup to retain the crisp coating on the flavorful thigh meat. When I try it again, I might add a pickled mushroom and some XO sauce for a flavor boost.
There isn’t traditional table service at Yoko, since you order at the counter and then take a number at your table. But wait staff is always on hand to fetch a missing spoon or fill a water glass.
Ramen shops aren’t that common in Salt Lake City, so the addition of Yoko Ramen is something to celebrate. Once that north wind starts to blow, you’ll know where to go.
** 1/2 stars
This small shop offers three varieties of ramen, along with sandwiches, gyoza and a rotating lineup of specials. Vegetables and bread are fresh and locally sourced, and prices are reasonable. The pork ramen is meaty and delicious, and you won’t even miss the meat in the veggie ramen. Yoko also offers a small selection of beer and sake and is open until midnight Tuesday through Saturday.
Location • 473 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City; 801-876-5267
Online • yokoramenslc.com
Hours • Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.
Children’s menu • No
Prices • $
Liquor • Beer and sake
Reservations • No
Takeout • Yes
Wheelchair access • No
Outdoor dining • No
On-site parking • No
Credit cards • Yes