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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Fair
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From Japan to Mineral Point: Kusaka is an unexpected rural find

To put things into perspective, you should know that all the ramen noodles in New York City come from just three factories (other than at a few spots like Ippudo). Los Angeles has more handmade ramen outposts than NYC, but not by a lot, and as far as I know there isn't a single Chicago establishment that makes its own Japanese noodles. A few places in Chicago's Chinatown offer house-made hand-pulled noodles, but they're not ramen.

Hiroko and Chris Messer are making their own handmade ramen noodles at their restaurant, Kusaka, in Mineral Point. And they're not using a pasta machine, as is conventional for the DIY crowd. This is hand-kneaded, hand-rolled and hand-cut. (Wah Kee, in Madison, makes noodles in house, but they are not ramen, though they are used as such at some local restaurants.)

These springy, toothsome noodles are made by a combination of high-gluten flour and an alkaloid - in this case, lye water called kansui. After kneading, splashes of lye water turn the dough yellowish and as dense as used bubblegum.

Chris Messer is blessed with a big frame and an art major's focus on process. He can bear down on this formidable mass of unmanageable dough armed only with his hands and a huge rolling-dowel.

His results? Excellent noodles that have the requisite firmness, as well as the irregularities of surface so crucial for capturing broth. It makes for an inspired bowl of ramen.

Hiroko and Chris met in Sendai City, Japan, where Chris was teaching English and Hiroko was a cook in a hospital. She's a professionally trained chef, and together they opened a coffee shop that served homemade pizza as well as western breakfast novelties like toad-in-the-hole. Then in 2011 came the tsunami - and the subsequent nuclear fallout.

Chris' mother lives in Dodgeville, and the two decamped to Wisconsin and moved in with her. Shortly after, they got an offer to take over a vacant space in Mineral Point, and Kusaka was born in July of this year.

Kusaka is an airy space painted in cheery light blue with high ceilings and a few Japanese calligraphy scrolls on the walls. There are a variety of chrome-legged '50s-style tables around the room. Two chalkboards list the regular menu as well as daily specials.

The menu is basic, with Japanese classics like don-buri, fried rice, curry rice and gyoza. There are also four "salads" - tofu, sweet spinach and sesame (gomae), pickled veggies (tsukemono), and a burdock root slaw with carrots (kinpira gobo).

Food here is beguilingly simple but expertly prepared. The pickled vegetables, for instance, are balanced between sweetness and sour vinegar without being salty.

Don-buri, a dish of meat or vegetables simmered and then served over rice, is offered with a choice of chicken or pork. The pork - leaner shoulder rather than the classic fatty belly - undergoes a lengthy process involving slow-cooking in apples, leeks, sake and other ingredients. Add a few of the condiments available on each table to your bowl - soy sauce, chili oil and the spice blend called togarashi - and this is a delicious and filling meal for a mere $6.

The fried rice has already become a local favorite, and arrives with egg, carrot and scallion as well as a good smattering of toasted sesame seeds on top. It's a medium-sized bowl with a choice of pork, chicken or veggies, for $5. The rice is fluffy, with a hint of smokiness, and everything about the dish seems just right. I sampled it with salmon, which was a weekend special, and it was resplendent.

Pot stickers, or gyoza, come as eight pork and garlic scape dumplings for $5. They arrive in an indistinct large clump - soft and steamy on one side and maximally crispy on the other. The dough is thin, light and yielding; the texture and flavor of the interior is rich and intensely flavorful. Prepare to order a second plate while devouring the first.

For the curious, Kusaka also offers Maji Coffee Pizza, the one holdout from the menu in Sendai. The personal-sized serving is handmade dough with tomato sauce, onions, peppers, mozzarella and summer sausage. It's odd and delectable and will satisfy any Japanese-reluctant dining partners.

In Japan, Hiroko worked for a chain that offered tonkotsu, the long-simmered stock made of pork bones. This is a lip-coatingly rich ramen style that is tacky, creamy and sometimes even a bit fishy. It's a variety that has been the rage for the last few years here in the U.S., but Hiroko developed an aversion to it.

Instead, she makes three other classic broths: soy, chicken and a miso, for which she makes her own blend. The broths are straightforward, precise and subtle. They're offered with the choice of an additional egg or protein, and thus range in price from $6 to $10.

For now, the very gregarious and efficient Chris is host, waiter and kitchen helper, while Hiroko is chef. The couple have begun to hire some help, and as word spreads, they're going to need it.

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