A bowl of noodles is painted on a dark wall, near a locked staircase. It’s the only clue from the seedy pavement. But then you wind inside past the smoker’s haze of Lefty’s Dive Bar, up rickety stairs, to Downtown Ramen.
People are seated at wooden tables. This is comfortably grungy, urban Cape Town. The spot only opened in July and already carries a hint of CBD grime.
Straightforward food attracts young couples or groups popping out for mid-week suppers. It’s mostly T-shirts and jeans, perhaps a few collared shirts and beanies. Mind you, in this matchbox venue boasting a steaming kitchen and no fans, my advice would be to dress light. A chalkboard lists dishes, and clued-up waiters do the rest. Skip the wine (glasses are stumpy); Japanese or local beers taste better with Asian food.
As the name implies, Downtown Ramen serves uncomplicated noodle broths. But Asian bau (R35) make good snacks, steamed into flatbreads with three fillings. Braised beef short rib partners chilli-cucumber pickle; tender meat top-heavy on salty soya sauce marinade. Char sui pork bau is your best bet: lean, smoky pork with zesty citrus-cucumber pickle.
Asian cultures value noodles. They’re comforting and associated with long lives and health. Capetonians ordering a meat or vegetarian noodle broth (R65) at Downtown Ramen won’t be disappointed. Counter seats offer glimpses of noodles being assembled in voluminous ceramic bowls with lids. The Shoyu pork belly is slow-braised, fattily rich with meaty depth. Delicious vegetarian miso broth is lighter, boasting sesame oil hits and firm, soy-sozzled tofu blocks. Boiled eggs ooze runny yolk, and tasty details include greens, seaweed and sprouts.
The reggae music is all wrong (something happened to the regular playlist) but the experience is pretty solid. As a waiter jokes on bringing the bill: ‘Now you can go home, watch a kung fu movie, and fall asleep on the couch’.
DOWNTOWN RAMEN, 103 Harrington Street, Cape Town. Tel 021 461 0407. Open Mondays to Saturdays from 6pm. No reservations.
This review appeared in The Times on 9 September 2014.