Red flags hang over the window of Midnite Ramen’s tiny cart parked outside Chuck’s Hop Shop in Greenwood, filtering the light that comes through the window of the 70-square-foot kitchen inside and blowing in a breeze that carries the comforting aroma of soup and noodles. The roving operation — a regular fixture at local breweries such as Figurehead, Holy Mountain, and Obec as well — often sells out of the mere 120 servings of ramen it can produce each night. The cart, which opened last fall, at times seems barely large enough for chef and owner Elmer Komagata to turn around in.
But the 65-year-old chef purposefully sought out such a small trailer, modeling it after the food stalls called yatai that he remembers from growing up in Tokyo. The business represents the culmination of a lifetime in the food industry for Komagata, and a chance to share an intensely storied genre of food.
Komagata likens the yatai as an institution to the American diner. For more than 100 years, the little mobile food carts, most family-operated, set up in the evenings and dished out comfort food in towns all around Japan. But after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, their presence started dwindling, expedited by a change in dining habits and more stringent government regulations. Now they are a rare sight, losing ground to more mass-produced food: Komagata guesses there are only maybe 10 yatai left in Tokyo, all run by men in their 70s and 80s. But he remembers their influence during his years learning to cook in the restaurants of Osaka and Kyoto as a teenager and spending time in his wife’s hometown of Kobe, where he ravenously ate his way through the regional variations of the soy-sauce-based ramen served at these types of small shops.
Later, in 1984, Komagata traveled to France, where he cooked at Paris’s Michelin-starred Trois Marches and Le Petit Bedon, learning how to pair wild game with vegetables and refining sauces for meat. By 1987 he’d found his way to Los Angeles, where his French cooking, informed by his Japanese heritage, caught the eye of renowned food critic Ruth Reichl, then writing for the Los Angeles Times, who rushed to taste his work whenever he landed at a new spot. When Reichl wrote about Komagata in 1990, she likened the setting of the West LA restaurant Truffles, which he co-owned, to a calm, soothing hotel restaurant, with food expressing a “very personal rendition of contemporary French cooking.” She described her salad as one of the best she’d ever eaten.
But Komagata didn’t stay put for long. In the mid-’90s, he left for Mexico, where he spent 14 years running hotel dining programs as large as seven kitchens and managing more than 100 employees. “I didn’t cook,” he remembers. “All I did was look at food costs every single day.”
In 2011, Komagata’s wife wanted to return to the U.S., and he wanted to get back to cooking in a way that brought him directly in front of the customer. He imported sake for a while and operated a ramen shop in West Covina, California, for three or four years. But he was unhappy in LA and frustrated with the area’s ramen shops, which mostly served the rich and popular tonkotsu broths rather than the lighter, chicken-based styles of soup served at the yatai he loved.
Seattle, where a friend lived, “had everything,” he says. Where LA was “spread out and kind of boring” to him, the Pacific Northwest city seemed green and compact — a fertile home for the yatai dreams floating in his head.
When Komagata arrived in Seattle, he set about looking for a truck, but he found existing ones far too big for his small concept. After years of research, he commissioned a custom one built in Mexico, which required installing many key parts himself to meet code and delayed the opening until September 2020. As he waited on the truck, he honed Midnite Ramen’s menu, focusing on lighter ramen broths than the pork-heavy tonkotsu so popular in ramen shops here. “To me, ramen is chicken broth, ocean products,” he says. “So that’s what I wanted to do.”
The cart’s original slate offered just a few types of ramen plus a rotating monthly special. But as each new special earned its own loyal customers, he ended up adding many to the menu; it has doubled in size since September. Despite the variations, all start with the same broths — the slightly spicy miso base or the subtle but complex soy version — using Komagata’s own recipes that involve ground chicken breast, Chinese herbs, and dried vegetables.
Komagata believes he might be the only cart anywhere using noodles the way he does: made to certain specifications by an LA-based company in order to be parcooked and frozen. With this method, it takes only 10 to 15 seconds for the chef to cook them in the cart, making service faster and allowing him to keep the water clear for an entire night of service, rather than having to bring new water to a boil when it clouds with starch.
Komagata’s techniques for the broth and noodles draw on 25 years of cooking French food, his Japanese culinary upbringing, and Chinese techniques he studied on his own over the years out of curiosity and passion. That deep well of knowledge has helped him create a business that allows him and his wife, Izumi, to successfully execute their menu from the 7-by-10-foot cart. “It’s so much hustle,” he says, comparing the challenge to moving houses four times a day.
While he plans to continue using the cart, he hopes to find somewhere permanent to park it and use a commissary kitchen onsite to prepare the food, creating the possibility for more than 120 servings per day.
But even in its current iteration, Midnite Ramen fulfills Komagata’s dream of interacting with customers like an old-school yatai. “I see their face, they see mine,” he says. “I know who I am cooking for.”
For the month of April, Midnite Ramen will be appearing at Obec, Figurehead, and Holy Mountain Brewing. Check the official website for dates and hours of operation.