Chef Elmer Komagata Brings Popular Midnite Ramen Cart to Seattle

Red flags hang above the window of the small Midnite Ramen cart parked outside Chuck’s Hop Shop in Greenwood, filtering light streaming through the 70-square-foot kitchen window inside and blowing in a breeze that carries the comforting aroma of soup and noodles. The traveling operation – a regular fixture at local breweries such as Figurehead, Holy Mountain and Obec too – often sells out the 120 servings of ramen it can produce each night. The cart, which opened last fall, sometimes seems barely big enough for chef and owner Elmer Komagata to turn around.

But the 65-year-old chef deliberately sought out such a small trailer, modeling it after the food stalls called yatai he remembers growing up in Tokyo. The business represents the culmination of a life in the food industry for Komagata and a chance to share a kind of food that is rich with stories.

Komagata compares the yatai as an institution to the American restaurant. For more than 100 years, small, mostly family-run, mobile food carts have been setting up in the evenings and serving up comfort food in cities across Japan. But after the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, their presence began to dwindle, accelerated by a change in eating habits and stricter government regulations. Today they are a rare sight, losing ground to more mass-produced foods: Komagata speculates that there may be only a dozen yatai left in Tokyo, all run by men in the years 70s and 80s. But he remembers their influence during his years learning to cook in restaurants in Osaka and Kyoto as a teenager and spending time in his wife’s hometown of Kobe, where he ate voraciously through the regional variations of soy sauce based ramen served. in these types of small stores.

Later, in 1984, Komagata traveled to France, where he cooked at the Michelin-starred Trois Marches and Petit Bedon in Paris, learning to pair wild game with vegetables and fine-tuning sauces for meat. . By 1987, he had found his way to Los Angeles, where his French cuisine, influenced by his Japanese heritage, caught the attention of renowned food critic Ruth Reichl, who was then writing for the Los Angeles Times, who rushed to get a taste of his work every time he landed on a new spot. When Reichl wrote about Komagata in 1990, she compared the setting of the West LA Truffles restaurant, which he co-owned, to a calm and soothing hotel restaurant, with cuisine expressing a “very personal interpretation of contemporary French cuisine”. . She described her salad as one of the best she had ever eaten.

But Komagata did not stay there long. In the mid-1990s, he moved to Mexico, where he spent 14 years leading hotel catering programs as large as seven kitchens and managing more than 100 employees. “I didn’t cook,” he recalls. “All I did was watch the food costs every day.”

Elmer Komagata uses lighter broths than most ramen places around Seattle.
Suzi Prat

A person pulls noodles from a takeout black ramen bowl with wooden chopsticks.

The “bold miso” bowl at Midnite Ramen
Suzi Prat

In 2011, Komagata’s wife wanted to move back to the United States, and he wanted to get back to cooking in a way that put 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 with Los Angeles and frustrated with the area’s ramen shops, which primarily served the rich and popular tonkotsu broths rather than the lighter chicken-based soups served at the yatai he loved.

Seattle, where a friend lived, “had it all,” he says. Where Los Angeles was “spread out and a little boring” to him, the Pacific Northwest city seemed green and compact – a fertile home for yatai dreams floating around in his head.

When Komagata arrived in Seattle, he searched for a truck, but found the existing ones far too big for his little concept. After years of research, he commissioned a custom-built one in Mexico, which required installing many key parts himself to meet code and delaying the opening until September 2020. Waiting in the truck, he refined the Midnite Ramen menu, focusing on lighter ramen broths. than the pork-based tonkotsu so popular in ramen shops here. “For me, ramen is chicken broth, seafood,” he says. “So that’s what I wanted to do.”

The original cart slate only offered a few types of ramen plus a rotating monthly special. But as each new special gained its own loyal customers, it ended up adding many to the menu; it has doubled in size since September. Despite the variations, all start with the same broths – the lightly spiced miso base or the subtle but complex soy version – using Komagata’s own recipes which involve ground chicken breast, Chinese herbs and pulses.

Komagata thinks it might be the only cart in the world to use noodles the way it does: made to certain specifications by a Los Angeles-based company in order to be pre-cooked and frozen. With this method, it only takes the chef 10-15 seconds to cook them in the cart, making service faster and keeping the water clear for an entire night of service, rather than having to bring new water to a boil when it becomes cloudy with starch.

Komagata’s techniques for broth and noodles draw on 25 years of French cooking, his Japanese culinary education, and Chinese techniques that he has studied on his own over the years out of curiosity and passion. This wealth of knowledge has helped him create a business that allows him and his wife, Izumi, to successfully run their menu from the 7-by-10-foot cart. “It’s so complicated,” he says, likening the challenge to moving four times a day.

While he plans to continue using the cart, he hopes to find a permanent place to park it and use an on-site commissary kitchen to prepare food, creating the possibility of more than 120 servings a day.

But even in its current version, Midnite Ramen fulfills Komagata’s dream of interacting with customers like an old-fashioned yatai. “I see their face, they see mine,” he says. “I know who I’m cooking for.”

For the month of April, Midnite Ramen will appear at Obec, Figurehead, and Holy Mountain Brewing. Check the official website for opening dates and times.