Rating 123 Ramen

Food: () Locally sourced meats and veggies are the highlight, but broth is so-so and ramen noodles are subpar.

Service: () Counter service is very friendly if somewhat inexperienced.

Atmosphere: () Tiny, 16-seat soup kitchen has a hodgepodge of secondhand tables for diners.

More Info

Location: 1289 NE Second St. (at Norton Avenue), Bend

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day

Cuisine: East Asian

Price range: Ramen bowls $12 and $13, sides and sweets $1 to $3

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa

Kids’ menu: The Ninja Bowl is a smaller meal portion for $7

Vegetarian and gluten-free menu: Always an option of vegan broth and gluten-free noodles

Alcoholic beverages: Wine and beer

Outdoor seating: A couple of chairs in front

Reservations: No

Contact: 123ramenbend.com, 541-241-2721

I would love to be able to tell you that 123 Ramen, nestled on NE Second Street in a small space previously held by Bethlyn’s Global Cuisine, is a wonderful new addition to the Central Oregon dining scene.

Unfortunately, it is not.

For starters, I can hardly justify spending $12 or $13 on a bowl of mediocre noodles when I can walk a single block east for a larger and more flavorful bowl of Vietnamese pho that costs $8.95 or less.

I commend 123 Ramen in its effort to support area farmers and other local providers, and to cater to vegan and gluten-free diners as well as to omnivores. But the 16-seat soup kitchen, while encouraging diners to build their own combinations of Japanese-inspired potages, is not an especially inspiring place to dine.

Patrons order at the counter from a blackboard menu hung beneath a row of potted plants. Then they take a seat at a hodgepodge of secondhand tables, set with napkins and spoons and chopsticks, surrounded by hanging work from local artists. Food is delivered to tables in short order, along with a small side dish of pickled radishes and other vegetables. Hot sauce and other condiments are available on the counter.

Build your own

Enabling diners to build their own bowl from a choice of broth and toppings is a good idea. 123 Ramen always offers a meat bone broth (such as pork or chicken) and a vegan broth (leek and kimchi on my recent visits). I found the kimchi to be the best of the four, with a little zing. Pork was reasonably hearty, but neither the chicken nor the weak leek broth spoke to my taste buds.

A bigger problem was the noodles themselves. I was assured they are purchased from a Portland provider who makes them fresh just before shipping to Bend. Frankly, I found them no different than the squiggly wheat noodles sold in 10-for-$1 cellophane packets at large grocery chains. They certainly don’t justify the price tag.

Now, other options are available. The ramen shop offers gluten-free yam noodles and cold sesame noodles. They may be an improvement over the normal noodles.

No doubt, however, it’s the “toppings” that highlight the offerings at 123 Ramen. They vary somewhat, day by day, but there have been eight or nine on each of my visits. They may include a slow-poached hen egg or a soy-brined duck egg; sesame-miso steamed spinach or Swiss chard, mustard-miso steamed kale or cabbage slaw, grilled asparagus, barbecued shiitake mushrooms or coconut yams. Meat choices may include pulled pork, smoked chicken, spring lamb, and pork-chorizo or ginger-beef meatballs.

All these toppings come from farms in Central Oregon (Fields, Pono, Cascade Canyon) or just across the mountains in the Willamette Valley (Springbank in Lebanon, Deck Family in Junction City, Mycological Products in Eugene).

Choice of bowls

The patron who orders a standard bowl ($12) chooses a broth with noodles and any two toppings. With my kimchi broth, I had the smoked chicken and miso-steamed spinach, a good combo.

Even better was the ramen du jour ($13) on my second visit. Pork broth with ramen noodles was served with pork-chorizo meatballs and a pesto made from spring greens and walnut, then topped with a slow-poached egg.

Young visitors may opt for a Ninja Bowl ($7) of broth and ramen noodles with a single topping choice. Sides of kimchi, peanuts and sweets, such as a fruit galette, chai panna cotta or chocolate-pistachio truffles, are priced no higher than $3 apiece.

And Fridays bring a special treat: steamed buns, similar to Chinese hum bao. Priced two for $3, they are savory or sweet. I preferred the savory, which recently featured minced pork with yams, ginger and kimchi mayonnaise; chocolate lovers no doubt would opt for the sweet choice.

Owner Anna Witham, a founder of both Lone Pine Coffee Roasters and The Root Cellar, writes on the 123 Ramen website about contributing “to the health and well-being of the community for years to come.” I wish her well, even as I anticipate some tweaking of prices and updating of decor may be necessary to attract more business to a location that’s not going to get much walk-by or drive-by attention.

And by all means, she needs to find a better ramen noodle.

— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at janderson@bendbulletin.com.

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