Moe Kuroki launched a ramen pop-up two years ago when she was missing the food of her hometown, Fukuoka, Japan. She started Oisa Ramen with a focus on tonkotsu ramen, the local favorite of Fukuoka, and as time went on, Kuroki expanded her ramen offerings, developing her skills from pop-up to pop-up, garnering a loyal fan base, and eventually connecting with another restaurateur to establish a permanent location in Downtown Boston.
Now, she’s preparing to open Oisa Ramen Slurp & Go, where she will encourage guests to “own your slurp.” It’s slated to open this winter.
The small storefront at 2 Broad St. will have room for approximately 12 diners, including seats at a counter at the front window and standing room at a kitchen-facing counter. The setup is optimized for quick dining — or “slurp and go” as the name suggests. When it opens, Oisa will operate during lunch hours, “providing quick solutions for people who have little time to eat,” Kuroki says, while at the same time providing a comfortable and homey feel.
Part of that comfort zone includes the freedom to truly enjoy ramen as it was intended: with plenty of slurping. It’s a way to “dive in and connect with your food,” Kuroki says.
The dine-in menu will feature Kuroki’s three main types of ramen, with several variations. Tonkotsu, the ramen she started off making in her early pop-ups, is the signature dish of her hometown and made with pork stock. The two versions on the slurp menu are silky tonkotsu and oisa tonkotsu, each with their own toppings.
There are five components to ramen: seasoning, flavor or aroma, soup, noodles, and toppings. Blending all of those smoothly is an art form, as Kuroki describes it. A self-taught ramen expert without formal culinary training, Kuroki has learned things along the way from the chefs and staff at restaurants where she pops up.
“I always cringe when someone calls me ‘chef,’” she says. “I’m more like a mom. I’m a mom who likes to cook food for people. I think of my shop as home for Oisa, and for guests who’ve been following me to have a home they can come visit. I feel like it’s as much theirs as mine.”
That ramen family, including her guests and her counselors — like Mark O’Leary, formerly of Shojo and BLR, Josh Lewin of Juliet, Daniel Bojorquez of La Brasa, the team at Brassica Kitchen, and others — have provided Kuroki endless encouragement over the years.
“They pushed me to have the next step, take forward progress,” she says. “The most important thing, the gift that all the chefs have given, is the support to follow my heart.”
A self-described lover of challenges, Kuroki decided she wanted to make vegan ramen, which turned out to be no small feat reworking a dish centered around meat-based broths.
“Keeping it vegan is very hard. If I could use butter, or dairy, milk, or egg, that adds richness. But I have to build my vegan richness elsewhere, and my stubbornness is not using sesame,” she says. “It’s fun; there are a lot of options for vegetables and flavors that you can take from mushrooms, and there are ways.”
Though different varieties of ramen developed based on location, most are available everywhere in Japan now, Kuroki says. Those varieties are also available in the United States, and while Kuroki started making tonkotsu ramen because she missed the food of her hometown, she says she loves the flexibility vegetable stock offers. It has allowed her to make a vegan “smoky shoyu” ramen with burnt shallot oil, bok choy, mushrooms, scallions, and trumpet menma.
“Smoky shoyu is what I’m very attached to, and I want to focus on doing a really good job,” she says.
That focus has also led to other developments, including a Boston-born ramen dish: “wicked shio,” made with lobster, tomato, and corn.
“It’s what you think of summer in Boston,” Kuroki says. “Ramen is a very local thing. I was very happy to be able to celebrate the local ingredients.”
As she says, she makes tonkotsu because it reminds her of home, and shoyu with vegetable stock because she connects with the ingredients, finding ways to make them complement each other.
It’s this attention to detail, and Kuroki’s interest in people and their stories, that embody her vision for Oisa, a place where people come in and feel comfortable, like family, even if they’re only there for a short time.
Ramen lends itself well to quick service, Kuroki says. The food is ready fast, and with the freedom to slurp baked into the concept, customers can down the bowls on their lunch breaks. The menu will be divided into two sections: “slurp” and “go.” In the slurp category, guests will find seven ramen options, including three shoyu bowls, two tonkotsu bowls, and two tsuke. The “go” category, for carry-out, consists of donburi, or rice bowls, that Kuroki says carry a little better for anyone taking food back to the office.
To start, Oisa will emphasize lunch service but will eventually add evening options, either in the form of hosting other pop-ups in-house, or offering special multi-course dinner services that mimic the pop-up model Kuroki originally used for Oisa. Those would include drink pairings; Oisa has a full liquor license.
Right now, Kuroki is working to build a team of her own and completing the setup of the space, including drawing her menu out on a chalkboard on the wall.
Oisa adjoins another soon-to-open venue, Tiki Rock, which is the work of Christopher Straub, a management veteran with experience at Hyatt hotels in several cities. Straub sought out Kuroki to fill the small space adjacent to the bar, and Oisa will be able to use part of the restaurant’s larger kitchen to help with prep. (Tiki Rock will serve its own menu of sushi and Polynesian-inspired dishes. Chef de cuisine Matt McPherson is an alum of South End Buttery and Porto, and there’s also a sushi chef onboard, Minggan “Tony” Wu. On the booze side at Tiki Rock, Charles Smedile — Waypoint, Uni, Clio — is onboard as beverage director.)
“I’m just so excited to have this space,” Kuroki says. “I’m excited about being able to do this every day. I have an opportunity to go through the motions every day; every day, I do the same thing. And I have so much to learn, and I have so many basics that I feel that only doing it every day, the same thing over and over, trying to make it better every time, can teach you.”
“I try to create things that are true to me, true to my heart,” Kuroki continues. “I can connect with people.”
• All Oisa Ramen Coverage on Eater [EBOS]