Is a bowl of soup worth $20? In the case of Shimuja restaurant in Davie and its Kagoshima special ramen, the answer is a resounding yes. It is wondrous, the best ramen I have tasted in South Florida, perhaps worth its weight in gold. The broth is rich and deep, a golden-brownish hue striated with milky ripples of marrow released from pork bones that simmer for 18 hours. Actually, a whole pig — head and all — is reduced to this soulful essence, which is then layered with yellow egg noodles, slices of braised pork belly, scallions, cabbage, sprouts, seaweed, fish cake, boiled egg and a generous pile of crispy, fried kikurage (wood ear mushroom) shards.
This is a meal, not simply a bowl of soup, and it most decidedly is not your dorm room’s ramen. Shimuja in Davie offers ramen with a pork broth that simmers for 18 hours. The restaurant is an offshoot of a small chain from Kagoshima City, Japan specializing in ramen soups.
Diners who want to save five bucks can order the stripped-down tonkotsu version ($15), the same hearty broth with noodles and slices of roasted Duroc pork shoulder. For vegans and the pork averse, Shimuja has a lighter yet no less flavorful option, the Niku ramen ($17), made from kombu (sea kelp), shiitake mushrooms and specialty soy sauce, and piled with thin rice noodles.
That such an authentic taste of Japan is now found in a strip mall next to a Publixin the western Broward suburbs is an amazing story, one that shows how small the world has become in the 21st century. That some patrons have been complaining about the price of this perfection since Shimuja opened three months ago is disturbing.
“There’s been pushback,” managing partner Yoko Takarada says in a followup interview after my visits. “People are used to paying $10 or $12 for ramen. They don’t understand how much goes into this.”
A decade ago, Keiichi Maemura ditched his career as a stockbroker in Fukuoka, Japan, after he became obsessed with the tonkotsu ramen found at Ippudo, a chain headquartered in that city. He became a ramen chef, studying under Ippudo’s founder, Shigemi Kawahara. After working at Ippudo’s New York outpost, Maemura returned to his hometown of Kagoshima City in 2011 to open his own ramen shop, Shimuja. The first location had six seats. The second location was on Miami Avenue in Kagoshima City, and soon Maemura was entranced with the notion of opening a shop in the real Miami, Kagoshima’s sister city.
Two years ago, Maemura operated pop-ups in Miami Beach and the Brickell area. But rents in Miami were prohibitive, and he wanted a spot with free parking. He scouted the region and settled on the Regency Square strip mall just east of the Griffin Road exit of I-75, near a Waffle House and Dairy Queen.
American-born Yoko Takarada knew she wanted to be involved with Shimuja upon her first slurp of Maemura’s ramen at the pop-up. Her family runs the venerable Toni’s Sushi in Miami Beach (in business since 1987), and she also owns Shokudo restaurant in Miami’s Design District.
“Keiichi had already signed the lease in Davie, and I brought some local knowledge and restaurant experience,” Takarada says. “I was a little skeptical about the location, but people are finding us. There is a big Asian community in Broward.”
It took nearly two years to open Shimuja, mainly because of visa issues for Maemura, 48, who splits his time between Japan and South Florida, and sous chef Kenichi Uno. Shimuja still has three locations in Kagoshima City, and one in Singapore. Maemura also operates a ramen food stall, Hayato, at the 1-800-Lucky market in Wynwood, but the pork broth there isn’t housemade.
The broths at Shimuja are what separate them from other ramen shops. The noodles are also authentic, made in California from a recipe that Maemura shares with Ippudo. There are three noodle types: a thicker yellow noodle made from flour and egg, a thinner and lighter vermicelli-like noodle made from flour and egg (which became a little starchy and gummy after spending some time in the hot broth), and a thin, egg-free, vegan-friendly rice noodle.
The vibe at Shimuja is low-key and minimalist, with soothing jazz played over speakers. The place is small (50 seats), with booths along each wall and a communal table seating 12 in the middle. A small bar and kitchen are in the back. A custom-made noren (drapery) hangs in the front window. The tables are white. The floor is slab concrete. One wall has framed photographs, and another is barren, awaiting the installation of a graffiti art piece. Service is efficient and friendly, with substitutions and additions allowed and encouraged. Lunch is served with a complimentary salad, and the bar features premium cold sake and some interesting Japanese craft beer, including a hoppy Oze No Yukidoke IPA ($14).
Takarada says some patrons complain about the small and limited menu: five soups, a dozen appetizers, three rice dishes and a few daily specials. “People come in and say, ‘Where’s the sushi?’ ” Takarada says. She explains to newcomers that restaurants in Japan typically specialize in one area, with fastidious chefs studying and perfecting their chosen item for decades.
Such is the modus operandi at Shimuja, where Maemura and Uno sometimes sleep overnight as they carefully prepare batches of pork broth. The slightly built Uno was smashing bones with a paddle when I came in for a photo shoot. “He’s a small guy, but he’s got arms like ham hocks,” Takarada says. Takarada told of the time that Maemura overslept by two hours, slightly burning the broth, and he dumped the whole batch.
From that recent disaster came a bit of improvisation that has led to a new menu item: Key lime ramen ($17) with roasted chicken. In a pinch for time, Maemura made a batch of the kelp-mushroom-and-soy broth infused with Key lime juice that he brought back from a trip to Key West. It is acidic, light and bright, and shows a nifty hybrid of traditional and local. Takarada says he has started shipping Key lime juice to Japan and is now making Key lime ramen in Kagoshima City.
Many of the non-soup items at Shimuja are simple and delicious, such as a platter of fried tiny herring from Kagoshima, known as kibinago ($7) battered with light tempura and served with a side dish of sea salt. Pickled spicy cucumber ($7), slices of seedless cucumber drizzled with sesame oil and garlic and topped with black and white sesame seeds and crushed red-pepper flakes, is a cool way to whet the appetite, with the red pepper neutered by the sesame oil. Pork belly buns ($9) are addictive. A mentai butter rice bowl ($7) featured a pat of butter, a mound of spicy cod roe, mayonnaise and strips of nori (seaweed) and shiso leaves. Our server mashed it up, and we enjoyed delicious scoops of a creamy and umami rice treat. Desserts include molten chocolate cake (a bit too sweet for my liking), mochi and green-tea or red-bean ice cream.
The closest thing to sushi at Shimuja is the spicy tuna tartare appetizer ($12), and it was the lone clunker I had in two visits. The fish was not particularly spicy or vibrant, a muted mound weirdly served with yellow tortilla chips. I’d throw that dish back to sea.
But that soup I’ll slurp to the grave.
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4921 SW 148th Ave., Davie
754-200-8941 or Facebook.com/ShimujaFlorida
Cuisine: Japanese, specializing in ramen
Cost: Moderate. Appetizers and specials cost $4 to $12, rice $3-$8, ramen soups $15-$20, desserts $5-8
Hours: Noon-10:30 p.m. daily
Credit Cards: All major
Bar: Beer, wine and sake, with small selection of premium cold sake and craft beers. Corkage fee to bring wine is $20.
Noise level: Mellow with background jazz over speakers; can get noisy when crowded
Wheelchair access: Ground level
Parking: Free lot