Kiwami shiro ramen, a specialty, is a classic Japanese style made with long-simmered light-color broth in place of the standard dark soy-based version.

Kiwami brings the ultimate ramen

By Robin Garr

Louisville seems to be having a ramen renaissance right now, and I am here for it.

Yes. we’ve had access to genuine ramen that didn’t come from a cheap supermarket packet for a while. Of course you can still get your ramen fix at full-service Japanese and other Asian restaurants. And we’re not even talking about all the tasty Vietnamese pho and Thai yum, which are delicious soups-as-a-meal too but entirely different.

But there’s no substitute for those memorable places where the chefs treat ramen as a calling, a spiritual experience that must be done properly and consumed with respect but quickly, before the broth cools.

“Spicy, steaming, slurpy ramen might be everyone’s favorite Japanese food,” Yuri Kageyama wrote in an Associated Press World News report. “In Tokyo, long lines circle around blocks, and waiting an hour for your ramen is normal. What awaits might be just a dive, but a hot bowl of ramen rarely fails to hit the spot.”

That’s ramen. It does hit the spot, and as Marie Kondo might say, it sparks joy. Ramen is about joy, and we’re starting to see a little burst of ramen houses popping up all over.

Joining Ramen House, in place since 2019 adjacent to Baxter Avenue Theaters. Hokkaido Ramen is new in Colonial Gardens. Renshoku Ramen was building a sterling reputation in Old Louisville until it was forced to close last after a car smashed into a tree out front, starting a fire that killed the driver and badly damaged Renshoku’s building. Repairs are under way, and if you’d like to help, they’re inviting friends to support the cause by purchasing digital gift cards.

And now there’s Kiwami Ramen, recently arrived in the Highlands space that housed Wild Ginger and, before that, Cafe Metro. Kiwami means “ultimate” or “extreme” in Japanese, and after inhaling a couple of outstanding ramens and compelling apps, I’ll go along with that.

We went by for lunch on a Saturday, figuring we’d enjoy a quiet scene. Does the Highlands even wake up that early on the weekend?

Ha! Yes, the Highlands does. The large, L-shaped venue was just about full. With its high ceilings and hard surfaces, it was one of the loudest lunches I’ve had lately.

Kiwami is a new entry in a tiny but growing chain under Master Chef Tani-san, who, its website assures us, “is bringing the essence of genuine Japanese soul food to the neighborhood community.”

With shops in Tucson, Arizona, and Laredo, Texas, and another coming soon in McAllen, Texas, the Louisville branch earns the unexpected status of being Kiwami’s only location not on the U.S.-Mexico border. Go figure.

The menu, printed on a shiny black two-sided card, offers nine ramen options priced from $12.95 to $16.95, plus a variety of optional extra toppings. Nine bowls, including poke bowls, curries, and other goodies, range in price from $9.95 to $21.95. You may also choose from a dozen Japanese appetizers from $5.95 to $15.95.

If you think edamame are just a bar snack that keeps your hands and palate mindlessly busy, you haven't tried Kiwami's spicy version.
If you think edamame are just a bar snack that keeps your hands and palate mindlessly busy, you haven’t tried Kiwami’s spicy version.

We started with a bowl of edamame ($5.95) and chose the spicy option ($1). I’m glad I did. Edamame makes a pleasant bar snack, but this spicy version adds serious fire – a dollop of chili crisp, I believe – that makes it really hard to resist.

A half-dozen potsticker-style gyoza ($9.45 for either pork- or veggie-stuffed) made another tempting appetizer. Wrapped in pale-green kale-pastry wrappers and grilled crispy brown on one side, they were sizzling hot and filled with cooked and mashed puree of mixed veggies, with a sweet-hot dipping sauce on the side.

Then came the ramen. Most of Kiwami’s offerings are built on long-simmered pork shio or shiro broth, a traditional Japanese style that’s light in color, in contrast with soy-dark shoyu ramen.

Kiwami shiro ($15.95, pictured at the top of the page), a signature dish, came out steaming hot, almost filling a large black bowl. It lofted up an intriguing, appetizing scent that was hard to describe. Meaty and umami come to mind, and something earthy that reminded us of black truffle. A mass of ramen noodles was piled like an island in a brothy ocean, only its top poking up. Around this perched half of a soft-boiled shoyu egg, a row of thin-sliced grilled chashu pork, kikurage mushroom slivers, bamboo shoots and ground pork, Thin-sliced scallion threads made a pretty garnish.

The only meatless ramen option, vegetable ramen ($14.95), looked surprising at first: Fresh and very fine mixed lettuces had been piled on top, making the dish look like a big dinner salad with a lemon wedge tucked on the side. It was the real thing, though: Stir the lettuce into the rich, lightly salty veggie broth so it wilts down, and you find plenty of avocado and a few broccoli florets nestled in soft, flavorful kale noodles. It felt healthy, and it was very good.

Our meal for two was flawless, and service was quick and friendly. Our tab came to $47.30, plus a 22 percent tip entered on the card reader.

Kiwami Ramen
1700 Bardstown Road

Noise Level: A happy near-capacity crowd elevated the sound level to a conversation-crushing roar, with average levels at 78.4 dB and peaks to a near-painful 92.2 dB.

Accessibility: The restaurant and restrooms appear accessible to unassisted wheelchair users, with the exception of seats at the bar.