I have heard tell of a ramen joint in a tiny town about 40 minutes from Madison. It's got to be better then Umami right? That is unfortunately not a high bar.
The town of Mineral Point is one of those idyllic little Wisconsin towns with old buildings lining a quiet "downtown". It has less then 2500 residents, and all of them must be in love with Ramen.
Kusaka was an entertaining place to eat. We had a waitress on her first day, she was friendly but mostly confused. She came back 4 times to ask us about different parts of our large complicated order. I'm glad she did because she almost always had something wrong. First days are always hard, and she also didn't seem to have anyone training her. She may have made mistakes, but she was very friendly, apologetic and fun to talk to. She will be a perfect waitress... maybe in a week or two.
Much like the waitress, everything at Kusaka had elements which were incredible. Unfortunately everything also had elements which were either clumsy or poorly executed.
We started with Gyoza. The wrappers were handmade, flavorful and were crispier on the bottom then any gyoza I have ever tasted. The crisp crunchy bottoms perfectly complemented the soft steamed tops. Unfortunately the pork gyoza filling was severely under-salted and nearly flavorless. With the addition of soy sauce they became more flavorful and interesting. However, the size of the gyoza was disappointing; they were barely half the size of most Gyoza. 8 x 1/2 bite size Gyoza cost $7. There wasn't enough flavor in the filling to justify this price. For those prices you either need to make a truly incredible dumpling (the wrappers are nearly worth it alone!) Or be in downtown Chicago. In typical Max fashion I forgot to take a picture of these crispy nuggets.
We also tried a few buns. This is a pork bun and a curried pork bun.
The buns themselves were delicious! The curried pork bun actually had curry in the dough giving the whole package a wonderful scent. The curried pork filling was tasty, well spiced and very satisfying. I would certainly love to get two of these next time.
The regular pork bun was... just plain pork. The pork itself was nearly flavorless and there was nothing else mixed with the pork to give it flavor. This wasn't a BBQ pork bun like I was expecting, but it also had lean pork without any herbs, vegetables, or sauce to give it flavor or tenderness. Maybe this is a Ying/yang thing? The regular pork bun makes you appreciate the beauty and flavor of the curried pork bun?
I got the Miso ramen after the waitress told us that they make their own miso in house. This was one of the most expensive bowls of ramen I have ever purchased, (even in San Francisco) at $13 a bowl plus $2 for BBQ pork belly, and $2 for veggies. The broth was... ok... nothing special and it didn't have much of a miso flavor. I don't know if they really make their miso in house, judging from the later experiences with the waitress and the disappointing miso flavor in the broth. My dining companion told me that the $9 bowl using a chicken based broth was far far superior on a previous visit.
The noodles they made in house, we actually watched them make the noodles in the kitchen. They were a darker, more whole-wheat noodle then most ramen. They had a fantastic taste, full of flavor and clearly handmade with love. However, the texture of the noodles wasn't quite right. They were cut thinner then most ramen noodles giving them a flat shape rather then a square one. This could easily be dismissed as a stylistic thing, however, either they didn't use enough alkaline, which is what makes ramen noodles hold their shape and firmness when boiled, or else they were boiled too long before they were brought out to the table. They were soft, squishy and didn't have an ideal texture for ramen noodles.
You can see the almost linguine like shape of the noodles in this picture.
Am I just a spoiled brat? Sometimes I wonder, there were glimmers of an incredible meal. I've heard rave reviews about every element of this meal... but I didn't experience it. This is one time I really feel like I came in on an off day. There was a brand new and untrained waitress, and Hiroko, the usual chef/owner wasn't to be seen in the kitchen.
Everyone is allowed an occasional bad day, there were enough good elements for me to be willing to go back... sometime... probably. This is 40 minutes from Madison! I do love ramen... but if I got the same food for that cost (two eating a large meal was almost $75 plus more then 80 miles of driving.) I would be severely peeved...
If I knew the quality was going to be good... every time... I wouldn't think twice about it. Food may be the lifeblood of a restaurant, but consistency is the only thing that will keep it alive.
Rating: ** See what this means here.
Note: This could be a four star one if they were more consistent and meticulous in their preparations and seasoning.
Cost: $$ See what this means here.
148 High St
Mineral Point WI, 53565
Open Everyday Lunch 11:00 am - 2:00 pm and Dinner 5:00 pm - 9:00 pm