It's too early to tell if Aug. 3, 2013, will go down as a landmark date in culinary history, but for the hundreds of people who lined up that morning at a food fair in Brooklyn, New York, the excitement was palpable. The crowds had braved steady rain for a chance to try the ramen burger, an East-meets-West concoction whose arrival was accompanied by breathless coverage in both old media and new. Although the buzz has yet to reach the level that greets a new opening from the likes of Danny Meyer or David Chang, the debut of the ramen burger was widely hailed as the foodie event of the summer.
All of this is as unlikely as it seems. Few cultures are as associated with a single food as America is with hamburgers, a dish that for more than a century has been much loved and little changed. The ramen burger offers a reinterpretation of the classic as Asian-inflected soul food, with noodles in place of the buns, a soy-based sauce instead of ketchup, and arugula and scallions standing in for lettuce, tomatoes and onions.
Keizo Shimamoto, the chef who dreamed up the dish, has a background as interesting as his creation. A 35-year-old second-generation Japanese-American, Shimamoto ditched a career in finance and moved to Japan to learn the craft of making ramen. I met him last year at popular Tokyo noodle shop Bassanova, where the California native had apprenticed as a cook and risen to the level of manager. We were there to discuss a tie-up between The Japan Times and Yahoo! Japan, which was running a promotion to drum up interest in noodles by enlisting foreigners as "Ramen Ambassadors."