When Anna Witham first contacted us looking for noodles and described the concept for the restaurant she was set to open in Bend, we felt a power kinship between what we are striving for at Umi and what she was going to build at 123 Ramen. Across Japan, every region, and sometimes city, has its own style of ramen that expresses its culture, ingredients, and history. When we conceived of our noodles, we wanted to take that spirit and make something that expressed our region, the Pacific Northwest. Anna feels the same calling; she sources ingredients directly from producers around her, plays with flavor combinations based on what's available each season and her inspirations, focuses more on beef — something much more common in Oregon's high desert—than other meats, and amps up the vegetables in each bowl. Her ramen not only tastes great but has a very nourishing, life-giving quality. It's the kind of food you want to eat all the time.
123 Ramen is tucked into an industrial park and has a very unimposing exterior, but inside is welcoming and down-to-earth, a place to feel at ease. There's a wall of house-made fermentation projects, trays of house-made hot sauces, the smell of rich bone broths simmering, Umi noodles in bundles on the counter, families laughing, and Anna and her staff beaming big smiles your way. We asked Anna to share more about her vision for the restaurant, her background, and what's cooking at 123 Ramen right now.
Owner and founder: Anna Witham
Her shop: 123 Ramen, Maker's District, 1289 NE 2nd St, Bend, OR 97701. Open Wednesday thru Saturday, 11 am to 8 pm (summer hours).
Year opened: 2017
Childhood cuisine: Standard American fare of the 80s: tacos on Tuesdays; pizza on Fridays. Artichokes and barbecued chicken in the summer; stews and shepherd's pie in the winter. A favorite family dinner was called "Spanish Vanish." It was a recipe from our 1940's era good housewife cookbook, which consisted of dried parsley and cheddar cheese folded into biscuit dough, then steamed like dumplings over canned stewing tomatoes. It was the thing all of us kids would request to have for our birthdays, or any other time our folks asked us what we wanted to eat for dinner.
There was always high awareness about healthy eating in our household, which mostly looked beyond current food trends. We had a garden that we'd eat out of. My grandmother was the "exotic" cook of our family. She loved making Chinese food and throwing big parties. She would make mayonnaise and broth from scratch, which totally blew my mind as a kid. I loved to read cookbooks as a kid, was always daydreaming of recipes and trying to figure out how to make something new and interesting with the ingredients in our household pantry.
How would you describe 123 Ramen to your mother? This is such a good question. I am continually trying to explain 123 Ramen to my mother, with varying degrees of success.
This is an unconventional restaurant, an expression of beauty and magic and love and deliciousness and nourishment. We start with the sourcing of our ingredients — connecting with incredible ranchers, farmers and purveyors here in the High Desert, and build our menu from there. We draw our cooking techniques from a global sensibility, with the intention of making each element in a ramen bowl shine on its own, and work harmoniously with everything else. We choose ingredients and preparations that taste wonderful and will make you feel good. We aim to make food that strikes a balance of being approachable while offering moments of discovery.
Current favorite ramen on the menu: Wok-seared beet greens + ginger-beef meatballs + Umi noodles + bone broth. The beet greens get dressed with lemon and ginger juice after they've been cooked which does this wonderful balancing magic of lightening up their deep, dense nature.
Newest fermentation projects in process: We are trying out different peppers with our fermented hot sauce recipe. Our most recent attempt is charred Anaheim peppers — it tastes so much like pineapple! Also, we are working on scaling up our fermented Korean pepper sauce batch. I acquired a 30-gallon fermentation vessel and am scheming to make a very large batch of hot sauce. We have a few different sauerkrauts going right now too. I like to put "chef's choice sauerkraut" on the prep list and see what each member of my staff comes up with as far as seasonings go, such as caraway + juniper berry and cumin + coriander + oregano.
What ingredients are inspiring you lately? Green strawberries and pickling them with different spices. Slow-roasting heirloom tomatoes. Flan. I know that doesn't sound like an ingredient, but we've been perfecting a flan recipe, and in that process have been coming up with all sorts of other things to make with the custard, such as Thai iced tea and flan popsicles.
What about your chai business? I developed a chai mix when I was working in the coffee industry about nine years ago. I have always been intrigued by chai and spent years, even before becoming a coffee professional, seeking out great chai and trying to recreate it on my own. I was so pleased with my chai mix and the way is was received by the customers at the cafe I co-founded. When I decided to leave the coffee business and pursue food more deeply, the chai mix came with me. Since then, The Root Cellar Chai has been a slowly-forming brand, and with the restaurant taking most of my time and creative energy right now, I haven't put much into getting chai out into the world, but I think that is on the horizon. With the help of my amazing branding agency, we just published a chai website that I am so proud of. It makes me laugh whenever I visit it. Have a look! therootcellarchai.com
Tell me about your team: My team is made of artists. Over the seasons, my staff stretches and shrinks from 4 to 8 people. Everyone on staff is cross-trained in the cooking and serving aspects of the restaurant, simply because we are small and there isn't any physical divide between the workspaces of front of the house and back of the house. I think it gives staff a more complete picture of our greater task here when they have their hands on the food and have the opportunity to serve that food to our guests. Serving guests with love and compassion is our main task during operating hours, and I think that excelling in that area is what has brought most of my team members to come work here. The food part is deceptively simple in some ways, just the aligning of many parts in our particular 1-2-3 style. It's something that is always evolving as we go along through the seasons.
Word of the day: Lighthearted
Photos by Shawn Linehan