Minnesota isn’t widely known as a home of great Japanese noodle dishes, but in recent years some talented locals have been chipping away at the multifaceted problem. You’ve got to have great broth, of course, and that can take months of cooking (and years of learning). You’ve got to source your vegetables carefully and make sure that everything that hits the bowl pops with flavor and freshness. And noodles are a beast—the right texture and flavor can put a bowl of ramen or soba over the line from “decent” to “delicious” or from “delicious” to “worthy of the Emperor’s table.”
That the crew at Tori 44 (the North Minneapolis sister restaurant to St. Paul’s Tori Ramen) is working on their own noodle manufacturing plant onsite should be an indication that they’re serious about their work. Other than its gluten-free offerings, the restaurant is serving all house-made noodles and the effort is paying dividends on the table.
Tori 44 occupies the former Victory 44 space, and it shares much of that restaurant’s charm—it feels current without being painfully hip, and it’s spare in its design without being too minimalist and dire. It gives the impression of a place where you can dine well without going broke, an appeal backed up by the simple and reasonably priced menu (entrees range from $8–15).
One of the new features of Tori 44 (as opposed to its St. Paul location) is a dinner selection of binchotan charcoal-grilled, duck tare-brushed yakitori skewers. We missed out on Duck Tail and Hearts, but snagged four other skewers. Chicken Breast ($3) was tender throughout; Chicken Thigh ($3) was pleasantly salty and mellow; Chicken Liver ($2) was earthy and bold; and the Duck Wing ($3) was rich and almost creamy in its intensity. All the skewers were served atop a bright plum sauce that complemented the meat; the more neutral breast and thigh skewers especially benefited from the lightness and mild kick of acid.
We don’t typically like to lead with subjective assessments, but our Abura Soba ($11) was simply a killer dish. On a hot summer day, the cool noodles, strips of funky nori, rich poached egg, perfectly charred chicken, and crunchy bean sprouts were a perfect fit for the weather and mood. The noodles were particularly good—they had that rich, toothsome tenderness that compels the diner to eat with relish.
The Cardi BFG rice bowl ($12) is one of the most surprising dishes we’ve tried in a while—it turns on roasted ground goat, which is richly flavored with black cardamom and about as savory and calming as anything we’ve tried in years. Atop delicately cooked rice and accompanied by a richly flavored soy-kissed hard boiled egg, this is a dish with a lot of presence—rich and satisfying, but not overwhelming or unbalanced. This is a dish Tori 44 offers that you can’t find at Tori Ramen, and it’s worth the drive to Minneapolis.
The Bali Bali! ($8 on the lunch menu) should be familiar to Tori Ramen fans, and we’re happy to report that it’s still a good move: the broth is unctuous and thick, the ground chicken is tender and flavorful, and the complex relationship between tahini, Korean chili, sesame, and tender noodles enhances all of the various components.
Desserts were nothing if not interesting. The mochi in the Mochi Flight (three pounded rice cakes filled with sweets, $4) were fresher-tasting and more pliable than we’re used to, which was a positive change. A chocolate mochi leaned heavily toward black bean paste, which was surprising, but not unpleasant. The filling in a strawberry rhubarb mochi also contained black bean paste, for no evident reason—the two fillings didn’t really clash per se, but neither did they complement each other. Best of the three was the Campfire mochi, which was a beautifully bruleed marshmallow jammed into the center of a mochi and accentuated with chocolate. We’ve never had anything like it before, but we’d definitely get it again.
The Szechuan Peppercorn-Infused Dark Chocolate Mousse on Japanese Cheesecake Served With Orange Marmalade ($7) could have been edited. All the components were enjoyable, but they didn’t build on each other so much as they warily shared space on the plate. The cheesecake was a fascinating beast, more of an angel food cake with a cheesecake flavor to it than a traditional New York deli cheesecake, and the mousse was delicate and fully flavored, but we would have settled for one or two components rather than four.
Restaurateurs put energy into different things: marketing, for example, or decor, or wine and spirits. Our favorite places, however, tend to worry about the food first, and that’s certainly the case with Tori 44. Despite the menu’s approachability and affordability, the food feels labored over in the best sense, with every component carefully prepared and presented. If you’re a noodle-lover and not already nearby, Tori 44 is worth the drive.
What: Tori 44
Where: 2203 44th Ave. N., Minneapolis, MN 55412
Hours: Wednesday–Thursday: 11am–2pm & 4-10pm; Friday–Saturday: 11am–2pm & 4–11pm; Sunday: 11am–2pm & 4–9pm; Monday–Tuesday: CLOSED