Ki Bistro, an Asian fusion eatery near Boston University, hopes to lure you in with a ramen burger. It’s a beef patty nestled between two noodle cakes shaped and grilled to resemble a traditional bun. The owners insist it’s their own special version — not a copycat of the dish that kicked off a craze last summer in New York.
Co-owner An Nguyen says her business partner, Ling Tam, has been aware of this novelty sandwich for years; it’s popular in Japan. So when the two opened up their first restaurant in January, with Tam’s husband, Sam Liao, heading up the kitchen, they put their version of the dish front and center. Ki Bistro’s ramen buns start off as fresh egg noodles, tossed with a bit of egg, and grilled in metal rings to set their shape.
The banh mi burger ($5.95) is a riff on the popular Vietnamese baguette sandwich. This features a beef patty seasoned with tangy sweet Asian fish sauce, topped with cilantro and pickled slivers of carrot and daikon turnip. The noodle cakes, lightly fried and golden on the outside, hold together, but they taste a bit under-done inside, and don’t capture the drippy juices like a traditional bread bun. The messy splatter demands many napkins. The flavors of the meat and condiments are bright and delicious — but my dining companion and I wonder if the brioche bun (also on offer) might be more successful with this particular burger. French fries ($2.25) are only passably crisp, no match for the fresh-cut, double-fried russets at a burger joint down the street.
Stir-fried yakisoba noodles ($7.50), featuring the same pasta used to make buns, are cooked with carrot, zucchini, and onion, plus a choice of chicken, beef, pork, or tofu. The beef version comes thinly sliced and well-seasoned on its own; but the special Ki sauce, made with soy sauce and sake, is ladled on too liberally, rendering the dish nearly unpalatably salty. Ask for only a little of the sauce. Fans of Chinese five-spice (a blend of cloves, cinnamon, and star anise) will like the meltingly tender beef short ribs ($9.99) which are braised in soy.
There are bright spots on the menu. The vermicelli bowl ($6.95) features cool rice noodles, fresh vegetables (cucumber, carrot, and rings of fresh jalapeno pepper) and a slender egg roll that sports a satisfying crunch. It’s stuffed with ground chicken instead of the usual pork. We forgo the lemon grass pork or beef, and opt for tofu — a soft cutlet of soybean curd, slathered with a flavorful soy and sweet chile glaze. Served with a side of not-overly-sweet fish sauce, this is a refreshing dish.
Kimchi fresh rolls ($3.95 each) are also excellent, and served in a way that we have not seen elsewhere. A softened rice wrapper enfolds leaf lettuce, grilled pork, and pungent Korean pickled cabbage like a sushi hand roll, so that one end is open like a cone, with all of the colorful ingredients on display.
You order at a counter and may have to wait. On one lunch visit, two prep cooks that we can see in the open kitchen are more than enough for the two or three customers dining in. But on an evening when there are more than a dozen customers, staff members are overwhelmed. It takes 30 minutes to get our take-out order. Nguyen says they pride themselves on cooking everything from scratch — admirable but difficult to achieve with a skeleton crew. Pack some patience as they work out the kinks.
Line your lap with napkins and try the ramen burger, if only for the novelty. But the vermicelli bowl and the delicious fresh rolls will bring you back long after the noodle-as-burger-bun craze is gone.