Photos by Allegra Boverman
Real ramen doesn’t come in 10-for-a-dollar deals at Market Basket. Real ramen is rich, layered and bursting with flavor.
Enter Chef Charlie Mai, master of the art of the slurp.
Mai, along with business partner Peter Huynh, owns downtown Lowell’s new ramen-centric restaurant, 1981, where gargantuan bowls of noodles are all the rage.
The eatery’s name stems from a birthday Mai and Huynh both share: Jan. 9, 1981. While they’re not brothers by blood, a sampling of their menu leads us to believe this was a brotherly match brought together by some otherworldly power.
“I’m not going to lie, we met on AOL chat when we were around 16,” Huynh says, laughing at the thought of dial-up Internet, mushroom haircuts and the days when MTV still played videos. “We’ve been best friends ever since.”
Inside their 129 Merrimack St. space, the soundtrack is a nod to the guys’ childhood. Michael Jackson’s Thriller pumps out over the speakers while Mai carefully unfurls a wrapped bundle cradling his knives, a harbinger of lunchtime.
He was trained in traditional French cooking at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and spent a couple of years honing his creative chops at the popular Boston pop-up restaurant, Whisk.
These days, his signature stamp comes in a steaming dish that greets hungry guests like a warm blanket and a hug.
Mai’s broth is an art from combining pork bone, warm spices and herbs slow cooked for days until they break down to create the hearty stock for his Tonkotsu ramen.
The end result is a seemingly bottomless bowl of thin straight noodles with bounce and bite, soaking in a savory broth enhanced with a dash of mayu (black garlic and sesame oil), nori (seaweed), a soft-boiled egg, fat hunks of braised pork belly and our favorite — perfectly tender, pickled wood ear mushrooms that soak up all the flavor for an unbelievably delicious bite ($11).
Vegetarian ramen options, made fresh with local seasonal produce, will change with the seasons, Mai says.
All of the sauces are made in-house including Mai’s special kimchi, a sweet and spicy mix prepared with pickled vegetables, sea salt, ginger, chili, sugar and more, which takes around two weeks for the chef to craft.
Experience the kimchi on a steamed bao bun, where it gives a sensational flavor boost to the pork belly confit, scallion and aioli ($8).
“Charlie comes up with some crazy ideas but in the end, we eat it and we’re like Wow!” Huynh says.
A couple of years ago, Huynh and Mai, both from the Boston area, were visiting friends in Lowell when they found themselves craving a hearty bowl of ramen.
“We both worked in the restaurant industry for a while and love good food,” Huynh says. “Then it just hit us — why don’t we do it ourselves? After the light went on, it was all about let’s make this happen.”
In the open kitchen, Mai is at the helm. Clad in a brown leather apron, he slices and dices, sears meat and slaps down noodles with lightening-quick reflexes. He has a clear view of the room, where he waits for it — the synchronicity of slurping, messy faces and smiles. These are his badges of honor.
“Getting to watch people eat the food and enjoy it is all part of the fun for me,” Mai says.
A wet bar in the center of the room will serve as another outlet for imagination to flow with a lineup of specialty cocktails, Japanese whiskey and sake.
The dining room’s interior makeover is a simple and clean combination of Huynh’s modern and Mai’s rustic tastes with raw wood, metal and exposed light bulbs. But being sentimental for the past (perfect timing for Deniece Williams’ Let’s Hear It for the Boy to cue up on the playlist), the pair left the writing on the wall behind the bar as a tribute to the former Mambo Grill restaurant, a beloved burrito spot, where, over the years, diners inked the bricks with signatures and sayings like, “She said yes to the dress! 9.4.12.”
“There’s an awesome community in downtown,” Huynh adds. “Every neighboring business from El Potro and Bishops to Humanity and UnchARTed has stopped by to say hi, offer a helping hand and words of support. We’re looking forward to adding something new to the mix and keeping everybody well-fed.”
Visit 1981 at 129 Merrimack St., 978-970-1981