by linden gross, One Stop Writing Shop
What do you do when you’re a chef of Korean-Irish descent, co-owner of a celebrated restaurant and a James Beard Award semifinalist? If you’re Chef Joe Kim, you open an Asian noodle house, of course, so you can cook the kind of casual fare that doesn’t fit in your fine-dining establishment.
Ajii, which means taste, flavor, charm, style or experience in Japanese, features rice and noodle bowls, along with a few surprises.
My foodie posse and I start off with one of those revelations called o-ko-no-mi-yaki—a savory Japanese pancake with onion, bacon, cabbage, bean sprouts, carrots and kale that’s crispy on the bottom, smushy (a technical term) in the middle and crowned with salty nori and bonito and slightly sweet
“We didn’t think anyone would order it, but we put it on the menu because I like it,” says Chef Joe. It turns out that Joe’s dad, who was raised in Japan, used to make it for him. I’d highly suggest letting Joe make it for you.
A crunchy green papaya salad with carrots, jalapenos, peanuts, Asian herbs and crispy shallots—to which we added tender, organic chicken—complemented the pancake perfectly. “I could drink this,” my friend Viv said about the citrusy dressing. “This is one of the best papaya salads I’ve ever had,” she added. I seconded both motions.
Although Ajii is an order-at-the-counter joint, Chef Joe was nice enough to course out the abundance of food we had ordered. He produced the bul go gi next, a rice bowl (either white or brown) topped with vegetables, kimchi and perfectly tender, medium-rare grilled sirloin (100 percent hormone-free) with a slightly sweet Korean barbecue flavor. Delicious. I just wish that there had been a little less rice and a few more vegetables.
Two soups followed.
I love the spicy miso ramen with garlic pork broth, noodles, pork sirloin, pork belly, scallion, bean sprouts and egg. While the billing doesn’t quite live up to its name, adding a spoonful of Not Your Father’s Sambal, one of the three house-made hot sauces you can help yourself to at the counter, took the spice level just where I wanted it to go. I had considered ordering the fire ramen, which boasts three kinds of hot chilies, but thought better of that when Chef Joe admitted it was too hot for him. Consider yourself forewarned.
The silky Taipei glass noodle soup with spicy chicken broth reminded me of Chinese sweet-and-sour dishes and proved to be Viv’s favorite. “It’s hard to find good glass noodles outside of Asia,” she announced as she
went in for seconds.
The bottom line: Ajii’s flavors are complex and the quantities are huge. Most dishes cost $9-12 for a small and an additional $2 for a large. I’m not sure why you wouldn’t just go big and pack up the half you can’t finish for lunch the next day.
Just don’t forget the soft-serve ice-cream. The night we dined, the two flavors were mango-coconut and blood orange-vanilla. Serious yum, just like everything else we tried.
Ajii Asian Kitchen
320 SW Century Drive, Suite 410, Bend
Owner: Joe Kim & Lilian Chu
Hours: Monday – Saturday 11am–8pm, Sunday 11am–4pm