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Ramen, the Japanese noodle soup that’s meant to be slurped, has surpassed the point of being trendy in cities around the U.S. Shops continue to pop up, and you can easily find ramen renditions on the menus of top restaurants and gastropubs.
But there’s a truly funky noodle spot in Cambridge that serves more than just ramen.
'Talk About Your Dreams'
There aren’t many restaurants where you get praised by everyone around you for clearing your plate — or bowl — but that’s exactly what happens at Yume Wo Katare in Porter Square.
“Everyone, he did a good job!”
You'll hear that again and again over the course of a meal in the cozy but loud space.
Owner and ramen master Tsuyoshi Nishioka welcomes customers by yelling “Irashaimase!” from behind the long counter that separates his open kitchen and the shop's 18-seat dining room. Sometimes people wait more than an hour, outside on the sidewalk in all temperatures, to participate in this novel but highly regimented ramen experience.
Here’s the protocol: First you order. There are only two choices — ramen that's swimming in broth topped with pork ($12), or ramen topped with more pork ($14). Extra garlic and emulsified fat can be added too.
Then diners are shown the self-service chopstick and water station before being told which seat to take along the three rows of tables that face the kitchen. The space feels a little like a classroom, with brightly painted walls covered in cartoons illustrating the appropriate way to consume your bowl of noodles once it arrives. On a wall flanking the baseball cap-wearing ramen chef, someone composed a potent question: “What’s your purpose in life?”
Once settled into your spot, server Makoto Yamamoto explains the ramen shop’s driving philosophy.
“Thank you for coming to Yume Wo Katare,” he begins, then translates, “which means 'talk about your dreams' in Japanese.
“You know, whatever dreams you may have," Yamamoto adds, "and how we can help you with that is the ramen he’s preparing right now. So if you can finish this high bowl of ramen, you can do anything in life. That’s the concept. OK, good luck with your ramen and thank you very much!”
So eating ramen here is seen as a path to personal fulfillment. Some customers write their dreams down and hang them on the restaurant’s walls. One reads, “skydiving.” Another, “one month without sugar.” Most are written in Japanese.
A Ramen Guru
“Each person understands another meaning,” 34-year-old ramen chef Nishioka says. “So it’s good for our restaurant.”
Nishioka opened Yume Wo Katare in November 2012. Since then, he’s been encouraging people to reclaim abandoned dreams and nurture new ones.
Like a ramen guru, Nishioka believes dreams require fortitude and deep concentration — and so does eating a heaping pile of his homemade noodles.
“When ramen is coming, grab chopsticks and don’t stop until you finish eating the bowl," he says.
If you finish everything Nishioka loaded into your steaming bowl — which is no small task -- the room erupts in cheers of “Everybody, we have a perfect!” along with claps and giggles. (I managed this feat on my third time eating at Yume Wo Katare, and I have doubts I'll ever be able to do it again.)
If you eat your noodles but can’t drink every drop of the rich broth you earn a different cheer — “Everyone, he did a good job!”
Those with smaller appetites when they visit are met with an “almost” or “next time.” Still encouraging, right?
The goal, chef Nishioka says, is to push people beyond what they think they’re capable of.
An Interactive Experience
Makoto Yamamoto started working at Yume Wo Katare last month and says the shop reminds him of home. He came here from Osaka to go to school at Tufts University.
“Of course it’s run by a Japanese guy,” Yamamoto says of the shop, “but being in the U.S. it’s fun to find a place that’s like Japan. Also the atmosphere this restaurant creates for employees and also customers is really unique — where we can dissolve the wall between employer and employees and customers.”
“It’s an interactive kind of experience, even when you’re going alone,” explains customer Chris Shipley. “So yeah, I’ve waited in lines over an hour.”
Shipley has eaten here once a month since moving to the area in September. The ramen is different and delicious, he says, adding that he doesn't shoot for a “perfect” anymore.
“I’ve decided to get down to a 'good job' because sometimes 'perfect' is a little too much. It’s really greasy,” he says. "That broth has a lot of fat in it.”
The fatty broth and chewy noodles come with thick, tender slices of rolled pork belly that lay on a bed of bean sprouts, bok choy and minced garlic.
This style is called jiro ramen and it’s rare in the U.S. Nishioka learned to make it at a famous Japanese restaurant chain called Ramen Jiro. He opened five of his own shops — in Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka — then sold them to his managers before searching for a space in the U.S.
“In New York it didn’t stand up, my hair,” the chef recalls. “And in Hawaii it didn’t stand up, my hair. So just here, my hair stand up.”
That’s how Nishioka ended up opening Yume Wo Katare in Cambridge, he says, because he always listens to his heart.
Like An Amusement Park
Every step in the ramen experience Nishioka devised is purposeful — including waiting in line, because it builds anticipation like at an amusement park.
“No line, no amazing,” he says.
Outside, regular Seung Gon Park agrees that waiting is important to the overall process.
“When I come to my turn in the line it feels great,” he says with a laugh.
Park is from South Korea and has been studying economics at UMass Boston for the past four months. Yume Wo Katare is popular with the tight-knit Asian community in the area, and this 25-year-old admitted he too has a goal.
With a shy laugh he says, “My dream is actually to become the manager.”
Not at Yume Wo Katare, but at a big company. And Park believes the ramen is helping.
Over the past few months owner Nishioka and his friend Ryo Takahashi have started hosting workshops at the restaurant on Monday night to help their peers develop strategies.
“There’s a lot of Japanese population here — especially students who haven’t really figured out their life yet,” Takahashi explains. “So we’re trying to help to talk about what’s your plan, and you know what’s your dream, and what do you want to do in the future?”
Twenty-year-old Satomi Yoshida tries to attend every Monday. She’s a student at Bunker Hill Community College and says she first came to Yume to talk about her dreams. The ramen came second, but she added, “Eating ramen here, always I feel some positive power.”
And she compares finishing a bowl of ramen to running a marathon.
"It's just me and the ramen," Yoshida says with a smile.
Ramen chef Tsuyoshi Nishioka hopes more people will drop by the weekly Monday night meetings. The restaurant is closed that night, but business is brisk most others. It's so good that Nishioka can shut down the shop every few months to go back to Japan.
When asked about his own future, Nishioka muses that maybe, just maybe, he won’t even serve ramen — as long as he can keep encouraging people to dream on.
A Japanese musician was inspired enough by Nishioka's ramen that he wrote this song for Yume Wo Katare:
This segment aired on July 16, 2014.