Boke’s taco-shaped steamed buns are a must, full of righteous barbecued pork and homemade Sriracha hot sauce or grilled eggplant packaged with pickled mustard seed sauce. Japanese pickles arrive like colorful gems—six seasonal varieties recently, each tangy, crisp, and individually nuanced. Nibble away—or roll them into three-bite flavor bombs with the side kit of toasted seaweed paper, homemade kim-chi, and gingered green onion rice. Even a lumpy salad of brussels sprouts can surprise. Fleming crisps the leaves, caramelizes the cores, adds blood oranges, and for good measure, tosses in tofu as you’ve never seen it: cubed, brined, smoked, and deep-fried into crazy croutons breathing fish sauce, lime, and chile pickles.
In Japan, where noodle fanatics make the soccer nuts look pale and withdrawn, dozens of variations and regional versions thrive in an estimated 80,000 outposts. Still, standards are understood.
For ramenistas, it’s about the depth of the broth and how it balances with the springy noodles and the “tare”—the final seasoning sauce that some call the soul of ramen.
Fleming has studied the form, taken the elements apart, and rebuilt them as a kind one-man carnival of handmade noodles, elaborate stocks requiring days of roasting and spicing, and complex meats transformed, often during five-day operations, by herbaceous oils, chile-infused fats, unexpected marinades, and plenty of smoke. Even the vegan ramen, with its just-made butternut squash rice cakes, sweet freshwater chestnuts, and deep caramel notes, gets the full three-ring treatment.
For all his exuberance and intense flavors, it should be noted that Fleming tends to overcrowd his bowls with ingredients and ideas—a ramen wall of sound. As he rallies larger audiences to his cause, he could dial back a little and steal more hearts. But the critique quickly pales against the frenzy of a Boke Bowl fest.
At a recent one held in the Bijou Café in downtown Portland, a jazz pianist seemed tuned by 20 cups of coffee, plates were flying, and everyone in sight was forking madly into brimming bowls of one Fleming concoction in particular: a broth teeming with slow-cooked pork and a mountain of chewy-soft noodles topped by a teetering, double-floured, super-crispy chunk of buttermilk-fried chicken, glazed in aioli crunchy with pickled cucumbers and fat mustard seeds. This is the Boke’s moment of glory: pork, soul food, and extreme passion in one slurp.