The way hip hop heads talk about rap, or Red Sox fans talk about baseball — that’s how Ryan Callahan talks about ramen. As a teenager, he’d drive to Portland from Salem to eat his way through the city’s ramen shops. He spent his young adulthood in the depths of online ramen-head subreddits and internet communities, talking about the specifics of noodle extruders and tare ratios. He’s traveled to other cities to try bowls at buzzy pop-ups and lauded ramen shops. He talks about people like Keizo Shimamoto and Ramen Lord with reverence, lamenting the closure of the cult-favorite Ramen Shack in Orange County. It was that passion that fueled the opening of his house-made ramen cart in Salem.
Now, Callahan has his own shop in Portland, as Salem’s Statesman Journal first reported. Menya Hokusei, hidden below the Hawthorne Bridge within the Waterman Building, opened earlier this month, serving bowls of house-made noodles made with Oregon wheat or barley, topped with freshly grated truffles or salmon meatballs. “This is my dream, more than I thought I could ever achieve,“ he says. “I want to showcase what I can do.”
Growing up, Callahan wasn’t eating the tori paitan and tonkotsu of his adulthood; he was eating instant noodles. His Filipina aunt would take him to Asian groceries in search of dried ramen packs — one of the few things he’d eat as a one-time picky eater. “She was a second mom to me,” he says.
As he got older, he started to teach himself how to cook, and eventually began working in Salem-area restaurants like O’Sushi and Nagoya. He began to teach himself how to make ramen at home, garnering tips and guidance from online ramen aficionados. After working on stocks and tares, he started making his own noodles — yakisoba to start, eventually graduating to various ramen noodle styles. “I was working two jobs, and then making ramen at home,” he says. “I worked on ramen every day for a year.”
After spending time working for a company that built food carts, he ended up buying his own. Oniyatai Ramen, originally based at the Yard Food Park, specialized in spicy ramens bolstered with house-made chili oil; he made the cart’s noodles in a commissary, made with a Yamato imported noodle machine he bought second-hand. The cart would regularly sell out, but Callahan and his then-girlfriend, who ran the cart with him, were burning out. “I’d be working 11 or 12 hours at the cart, prepping for three hours before work,” he says. “I was making money at the cart, but was I like, ‘I can’t do this forever.’” The cart closed almost a year into its tenure.
But at Menya Hokusei, Callahan hopes that the extra square footage, storage, and staff will give him the space to make the best version of his ramen he can make. The restaurant’s menu includes a wide range of styles, from the more traditional to the more inventive. For instance, the restaurant’s miso is meant to be a classic Sapporo-style bowl, filled with hand-massaged noodles, pork belly chashu, ground pork, mung bean sprouts, and other standard garnishes; it’s also available spicy, with garlic oil and a house spice blend. Also hewing more classic is the shop’s tori shoyu, made with a chicken and seafood stock and Oregon wheat noodles, made with wheat from Camas Country Mill.
Camas Country isn’t the only Oregon representation on Menya Hokusei’s menu; Callahan’s menu is meant to show off Pacific Northwestern ingredients. The Hokusei Shoyu uses bones from Oregon ranchers in its stock, with Camas Country barley in its noodles; the bowl is topped with rib-eye steak, leeks, and freshly grated truffle. For something lighter, the Santiam Shio uses a thin Oregon wheat noodle, topped with sous vide chicken breast and salmon meatballs. Those same meatballs are available as a skewer, brushed with sweet shoyu.
When Callahan isn’t working, he plans to spend his time at other Portland ramen shops — he’s particularly fond of his neighbor, Wu-Rons, and Baka Umai on Hawthorne. “I’m not in competition with anyone,” he says. “I’m just trying to create my own style.”
Menya Hokusei is located at 80 SE Madison Street.