In Japan, a yatai is a small mobile food stand that is typically set up in the evening and disappears without a trace when morning arrives. However, the spirit of Japanese cuisine takes a more permanent form near ASU’s Tempe campus at Yatai Ramen.
When walking into Yatai Ramen, the smell of warm broth accompanies a sense of comfort. Mark Kondo, who owns the restaurant with his wife Judy, said the homey feeling is intentional.
“Ramen is like religion in Japan,” Kondo said. “But more importantly, it is the ultimate comfort food.”
That attitude is reflected in the Yatai Ramen menu, which includes a pork broth that simmers for 20 hours before serving along with other umami-focused dishes. With items like pork katsu bowls and gyoza to accompany the various ramen options, Kondo said he wants to bring an authentic dining experience to a college town.
“My passion was always ramen,” Kondo said. “Ramen takes a long time and I want to get as much flavor as possible into every bowl.”
The restaurant, which also offers off-menu vegan and vegetarian options, is open from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Mondays through Saturdays.
Though the restaurant is not very large, Kondo said it offers a more permanent home than the food truck that once served people in Tempe.
Perhaps more true to the name yatai, the food truck was open only a few days a week, something his customers were thrilled to see change when the new location opened two months ago.
Though Yatai Ramen has been open for two months, Kondo said he has found success and developed a community in his restaurant alongside University Drive.
For Christian Gunderson, a sophomore automotive engineering student who has visited Yatai Ramen, the location offers a convenient place to unwind, look through a cultural window and have a good meal.
“There is something more personal about Yatai. It feels authentic right when you walk in,” Gunderson said. “Other ramen places can feel a bit more professional, but this one feels like a bit of a secret.”
He said he hopes the atmosphere of Yatai Ramen encourages other ASU students to branch out every once in a while instead of reaching for an instant-made packet when they are craving ramen.
Kondo said he hopes to both provide extra flavor options for Tempe residents and break some misconceptions about his cuisine. With the popularity of food content on social media, Kondo said some people try his ramen and are surprised to see it is not an elaborate feast of different ingredients and culinary styles — comfort is the goal, ramen is simply the delivery system. For Kondo, Japanese culture and cuisine make that possible.
Robert Boyd, a professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, said food can sometimes act as a bridge between cultures.
“Food is much easier to access than religion or text and can be a good starting point if someone is interested in actually learning about another culture,” Boyd said.
He said Yatai Ramen and other restaurants like it could offer a new cultural experience for those who are willing to learn.
For Kondo, new visitors are always welcome. Perhaps, Kondo said, someone may come in for a good meal and find a glimpse of culture at the bottom of their bowl.