Monday, February 25, 2013

Weekend Ramen Lunch @ Yakitori Zai

Update 7/21/13: Tried to go to Yakitori Zai for lunch today. They're closed until early August September? :(

I've been wanting to get to Yakitori Zai since they opened last summer, but the South End is "far" away (i.e.: I never find myself in the neighborhood and taking the T involves either 2 train lines and a 10 minute walk or train & bus and a 5 minute walk). Given the reports that it was wildly expensive and I've had a chance to try their food at Tewassa parties, it just hasn't made it to the top of my priority list. That is, until my friend told me last weekend that they now serve ramen at lunch and she was going today. They've had chicken ramen on their dinner menu since last year, but I hadn't gotten any reports about how it was.

According to their website, Zai has been open for lunch on weekends since last month. Lunch is served from 11:30am to 2:30pm. The lunch menu offers a choice of three types of ramen, three salads, and onigiri. Ramen is pricey at $12-14 (ramen at Osushi is also $14) but absolutely worth the trip.

Zai Weekend Lunch Menu - 2/24/13

I was mixed up about the time I was supposed to meet my friends and arrived half an hour early. Thankfully the South End Buttery is directly across the street so I grabbed a hot chocolate and read the paper while I waited for Zai to open. I later noticed that one of our fellow diners had done the same. It's good to arrive early because Zai fills up quickly.

Tonkotsu Ramen - 2/24/13 - $14

I got to try all three ramen but forgot to take a picture of the Shoyu Ramen. There's a picture on Zai's website (upper right). All the adults got the Tonkotsu Ramen. There were 3 small but thick pieces of kakuni (pork belly), nitamago, a small amount of beni shōga (pickled ginger), and a pile of thinly sliced negi (forgot to get it without). The broth was one of the most delicious I've ever had. It was lightly flavored, creamy, and a little sweet. I couldn't really taste the pork, but that may have been because I'm a little congested. It was absolutely perfect for today's wintry rainy weather. Zai's kakuni is on the sweet side (especially compared to Osushi's more salty kakuni). It was very good, although not as soft as Osushi's kakuni. The nitamago was an interesting complement. It worked well with the creaminess of the broth. Since there was only a small amount of beni shōga, it didn't overwhelm the other flavorsThe noodles were different than the crinkly ramen noodles I'm accustomed to. They were straight and were the thickness of thin soba (8/20/13: I've since learned that straight noodles are traditional for tonkotsu ramen). I thought the texture was also reminiscent of soba but not the flavor. They clearly weren't made with buckwheat. (Update 3/24/13: Noodles have been changed - see photo below.)

Tomato Ramen w/ Parmesan - $12

The kids got the Tomato Ramen (which is vegetarian) and Shoyu Ramen. I was really excited to try the Tomato Ramen. I'd read that Ramen Lab had a tomato ramen entry in the NY Street Ramen Contest which I was intrigued by. While I love pasta, I wasn't so sure that it would translate to ramen. The Tomato Ramen comes with baby spinach, roasted yellow tomato, and parmesan on the side. One of my friends commented that it really wasn't ramen, but I like Zai's take on it and it was a hit with the little ones. The tomato soup is much thicker than a typical ramen broth, but much soupier than what you'd expect for pasta. I didn't taste any garlic, just tomatoey-sweetness. The noodles were of the curly variety. I'd definitely like to try a whole bowl to myself. (Update 3/24/13: For those who are allergic to soy, please note that the tomato ramen contains miso. :( )

The Tomato Ramen was a hit

I tried only a tiny bit of the Shoyu Ramen and to be honest, I didn't find it all that memorable. Shoyu Ramen comes with shredded chicken, onsen tamago, and a pile of what looked like shaved spring onion. The broth is listed as "chicken broth" on the menu so I'd assume that means there's no pork in it, but I didn't confirm that. If I recall correctly, there were also sesame seeds in the broth.

Annin Tofu

My friends had annin tofu for dessert, but sadly, I'm allergic and couldn't try it. They said it was delicious. The name is a misnomer - there's absolutely no tofu in it but it's made with almond extract. The menu describes it as "almond panna cotta," although it's often referred to as almond jelly.


Tea is available by the cup or the pot: genmaicha with matcha, organic green jasmine, jade oolong, organin yunnan (black tea), lemon chamomile. They have multiple varieties but the hostess rattled them off so quickly I can't remember them. Our tea smelled like genmaicha, although I thought I heard her call it something else. It was wonderfully aromatic, although a little more bitter than I prefer.

A note to parents: the restaurant is very small, so probably not a good place for kids who can't stay in their seats. Plastic cups weren't available, so we had to play keep away with the glasses and tea cups. That said, the staff was really nice to the children and brought small bowls and forks for them.

Parking in the South End is usually a nightmare, although on Sundays, resident parking isn't enforced so you have more options. My friends were able to find a space right across the street from Zai. I'd taken the T assuming that parking would be impossible. The T wasn't too bad - it took about 40 minutes from Porter. The MBTA Trip Planner recommended a later train but I wanted to make sure I didn't miss the bus. Red Line to Park Street then the 43 (Tremont St. opposite Winter St. to Tremont @ Union Park, then walk down Union Park to Shawmut Ave.)

If you go, let me know what you think!

Update 3/24/13: I've been back to Zai several times since my first visit and the menu has changed a little.

  • No more onigiri. :(
  • No more annin tofu for dessert - they now offer kinako ice cream (vanilla ice cream with roasted soy flour and Japanese molasses).
  • Tonkotsu Ramen no longer has beni shoga. They added what tastes like powdered dashi. Added nori. The noodles are also different.

Tonkotsu Ramen minus negi - 3/17/13

Tonkotsu Ramen noodles - 3/17/13

The servers are very friendly. I've ordered the same thing every time ("Tonkotsu ramen, no negi") and today my server remembered my order. I wonder if I'm their only customer who doesn't like scallions?


  1. Hi, I don't see another way of contacting you aside from the comment box. FYI the Brattle is showing a doc on Japanese high school baseball - Koushien and such. Perhaps you might be interested, or you want to spread the word. It's 2/26 Tuesday night.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I saw this in the JACL newsletter and had intended to mention it, but completely forgot.

  2. I've been wanting to go to Yakitori Zai for quite some time, but like you, I've also been weary of the price for a full dinner. The weekend ramen looks great, thanks for sharing pictures and letting us know about it