There is a new Japanese restaurant in downtown Lowell, but don’t expect to see kimono-wearing servers or chop-happy chefs flinging shrimp bits onto their hats.
1981 Ramen Bar specializes in ramen soups that feature Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a meat-, fish- or miso-based broth and often flavored with a variety of toppings and ingredients.
The cozy room has a hip warehouse-chic atmosphere, seats 40 people at tables and at an L-shaped bar, and keeps the hip-hop and R&B pouring out of its sound system.
Curious about the name? The simple explanation: The two owners, who are longtime friends, were born in 1981.
The menu isn’t especially extensive, and the magic number seems to be four: four appetizers, four varieties of ramen, and four, well, we’ll call them sandwiches for now and explain later. There are also a pair of daily chef’s specials that often merit attention.
If you haven’t done the ramen thing and are concerned about visiting and being completely in over your head … don’t fret. The servers are knowledgeable, low-key and happy to advise and suggest. Maybe your experience will be like ours. We went for the ramen, and we weren’t disappointed. But with so many restaurants in Greater Lowell serving so many terrific versions of Asian soups, it’s difficult for anyone to really stand above the crowd, even if ramen is relatively rare in these parts.
On the other hand, when we return, and we will, I will want some of the other menu items on my table before I take off my coat. For example, an order of the sweet and spicy wings ($8) delivers a half dozen fried beauties, juiced up with an excellent in-house sauce. The crispy wings have a slow-burn bite, just right for me, and are a welcome alternative to the now-tired Buffalo wings. Shamefully overdosing on these while watching the Pats on the flat screen behind the bar is a food fantasy I hope to realize.
As good as the wings are, the steamed baos ($8, two to an order) may be even better (note where I mentioned “sandwiches” earlier). Think of them as sort of flatbread sliders, except the steamed buns are ridiculously pillowy and soft. The roasted duck bao, which includes duck fat-braised Brussels sprouts and a pomegranate hoisin glaze, explodes with flavor. The pork belly confit bao features house-made kimchi, along with scallions and aioli.
The “gochujang Bolognese” ($12) was a true treat — petite brown butter rice gnocchi and Parmesan in a rich “savory and flavory” sauce. This is a secret-weapon dish. It’s great to share, can serve as a small entree, and also will work as a kid’s meal.
The ramen is served in large bowls and is big on flavor, an ideal comfort food on a chilly winter night. The tonkotsu ramen ($12) is done in a pork broth, and along with an avalanche of noodles it features plenty of confit Berkshire pork belly. There was no disguising the fat as I happily slurped/munched away. The marinated egg and pickled shiitake mushrooms cranked up the taste, as did the mayu (black garlic and sesame oil).
We were warned that the smoked chicken ramen might be very spicy. But it wasn’t a problem, just “flavor heat,” not “help me!” heat, though any ramen dish can be spiced up upon request.
Tender slices of smoked brick chicken in chicken broth dominated the bowl, which also featured brown butter-cooked corn and pickled radish.
By all means, visit 1981 Ramen Bar and enjoy the soups. But you just might walk out with something else on the menu as a “must return” favorite.
1981 Ramen Bar
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 5 to 9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.