Parts Unknown Aspen: An underserved group slurps up a semi-secret dinner club series
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Find chef David Wang
Ramen Rule No. 1
“When you get your bowl, eat it immediately! It’s not like Western habits, where everyone waits [until the whole table is served] to eat. Ramen noodles die really quickly sitting in hot broth; eat it fast or else it turns soggy. Nobody likes a limp noodle…and there are no friends on a ramen day.”—Chef David Wang
White waves surge furiously in a stockpot so massive that it dwarfs the four-burner electric stove in chef David Wang’s prep kitchen. The milky liquid, infused with 20 pounds of pork bones from heritage pigs at Rock Bottom Ranch in Basalt, has been bubbling for 30 hours.
“That’s why it’s like a sauna in here,” Wang explains, wearing a black T-shirt, tiny beads of perspiration dotting his temples. “Tonkotsu broth you have to boil! It’s not the French method (of gentle simmering). It’s white, like cream, because all the gelatin and protein is being emulsified into it.”
I feel that. Stepping into the room was like getting punched in the face with heat from a blast furnace. Even with a back door wide open, the humidity is so thick that it feels like a tropical greenhouse. The night before, Wang recalls, condensation rained from the ceiling as outside temps dropped to unseasonable lows.
When I return the next evening, June 25, Wang’s kitchen is calm and decidedly un-sweltering. Two doors are propped open, allowing a cool breeze to float through the space. Buttoned up in a crisp black chef’s jacket, Wang coolly arranges black stoneware bowls that resemble upside-down volcanos alongside accoutrements for his Tokyo-style tonkotsu broth with a Cantonese twist: slices of char siu (Chinese barbecued pork); menma, braised and fermented bamboo shoots; soft-boiled, peeled eggs marinated overnight in secret sauce; and a tangle of bright green scallion ribbons that have been soaked in water to wash away their raw pungency.
“I use my sharpest, nicest knife because I don’t wanna bruise and damage the cellular walls,” Wang explains. “I want clean-cut scallions that pile up fluffy.”
Such details matter to Wang, but the main reason why a crowd of more than 30 people assembles in the first 30 minutes of a three-hour seating: stacks of yellow, curly wheat noodles, traditional for ramen in the Japanese capital city. Each bowl of broth (in final form the creamy pork liquid is blended with Cantonese royal chicken stock and cold-steeped dashi) gets a generous one-and-a-half bricks.
Tonight Wang relaunches his semi-private dinner series from last summer, Umami Underground. This follows a seasonal “Ramen Takeover” lineup that infiltrated local restaurants for one night at a time, including at Jimmy’s Bodega and Meat & Cheese.
“I’ll do other stuff — the concept is umami — but ramen is what people want,” says Wang, currently a private chef, formerly at the helm of Meat & Cheese and who launched Hao House as a winter-long popup. The series allows Wang to research and explore his obsession and share creative twists in a fun side project with friends.
“It’s like American barbecue,” he says, “ramen in Japan is different from region to region: Hokkaido, Fukuoka, Tokyo; down south Osaka, Okinawa. I might do other types of ramen, like mazemen (brothless ramen) tsukemen (dipping ramen) … and even soba, Chinese dandan noodles, Taiwanese beef noodles. The underlying theme is noodles.”
As the name suggests, Umami Underground is a somewhat surreptitious endeavor: Potential guests must track down the chef (@kingandcook) to obtain an invitation in the form of a colorful, enameled “ramen monster” coin redeemable for one meal. The intimate, BYOB events resemble a popup supper club in some urban area far from a ski town (“Brooklyn,” quips one former resident in attendance), and tend to draw a motley crew of chefs, bartenders, servers and creative acquaintances.
The kickoff on Tuesday, June 25, happened to be the first Bourdain Day, and thus reason among Aspen’s hardworking service industry to remember the traveling chef icon, who killed himself just before the 2018 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Wang, along with many others, notes Bourdain as a key influence in his decision to begin cooking professionally. Interestingly, Umami Underground is exactly the kind of place that Bourdain — Emmy Award-winning “Parts Unknown” host, who never attended the Food & Wine Classic in the 35 years he lived for it — might show up.
Lindze Letherman, the general manager of Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar who estimates she’s attended seven of Wang’s dinners, believes that Umami Underground “fills a unique niche” for those in the Aspen food and beverage/hospitality sphere to gather.
“There’s nowhere we can have that volume, that we can afford, and that is so consistently awesome,” Letherman says.
After she explains that it’s important to support each other, Letherman backtracks. There’s only one reason she and her husband are repeat diners: “We go because the food is really good.”
Wang consulted on a bar menu for Hooch, but it turned out that the lounge isn’t a place where patrons actually order food, Letherman says. The conversation recalls Wang’s position at Meat & Cheese, big sister to Hooch downstairs.
“When I left Meat & Cheese in April 2017, I’d been wanting to do ramen prior to that for a long time,” Wang says. “There was a demand for it — even a lot of adults ordered (the kids’ menu ramen at Meat & Cheese), dressed it up the way they want it. But it wasn’t my ramen.”
Eventually, Wang tired of waiting. “I’m tired of rich landlords in Aspen, and the fact that the middle class cannot do anything cool here because we are so restricted by income,” Wang opines, echoing countless other aspiring restaurateurs. “If I were to wait for a proper spot to do ramen, it probably would never happen.”
The next Umami Underground, slated for July 14, will showcase tantanmen (spicy sesame) ramen, inspired by Wang’s recent visit to Michelin-starred ramen joint Nakiryu in Tokyo. He’ll drizzle on “a Szechuan-style red oil — the same on Chinese food,” which harks to Wang’s Chinese heritage and Southern California upbringing.
“I want to blend in some Chinese influences — do a hot-and-sour soup ramen, a mapo tofu ramen,” the chef muses. “My posole soup at Meat & Cheese was a hit … maybe I do a posole ramen?”
While it might not be a moneymaker per se, Umami Underground is a worthwhile exercise simply because it flexes Wang’s creativity while sustaining community.
“I sell out every time with people on a waitlist, so I know people want it,” Wang reiterates. “But how consistently do they want it? Would a ramen shop actually work in Aspen? I don’t know.”