Curry miso ramen from Lucky Bepo.

Noodles, Broth, and the Art of the Pop-Up

The week is over at their regular jobs as a cook and a server, and Jaden Maier and Sawa Takahashi head to Wicked Cafe in Vancouver’s Dunbar neighbourhood, lugging prepped noodles and chashu from their commissary kitchen. Tonight, they’re transforming the cafe into a pop-up ramen joint. Maier busies himself in the back, finely slicing green onions and warming up chicken, pork, and clam broth. Takahashi arranges tables and chairs, getting ready to greet the customers who are soon to arrive.

The couple have been running ramen pop-up dinners at cafés and restaurants in Vancouver for over a year and half. The business concept was the natural extension of a relationship that grew over bowls of ramen in Osaka. Maier moved to Japan in 2017 after working in Calgary’s Shiki Menya, where he learned how to make tonkotsu broth, sauces, and other ingredients. Building on his childhood love of noodle soups, Maier became intrigued by ramen’s depth of flavour and the nuances of Japanese cooking.

Kara miso black ramen.

Kara miso black ramen.

Living in Osaka, he realized how much he still had to learn. “That opened my eyes to the sheer number of different regional styles. I had no idea there were that many. It was insane,” he says. In between shifts as a bartender, Maier was on the hunt for unique ramen in small tucked-away shops. He remembers in particular a version with rare beef for dipping, and a dark-soy variation served with a bowl of rice and raw egg to offset the ramen’s savoury notes.

After he met Takahashi, they went on ramen adventures together. “I would get hungry at midnight, and the shops would be still open. We would go somewhere, or she would know a place and take me there,” Maier says. If Takahashi wasn’t in the mood for ramen, she would order a drink and watch Maier slurp his bowl. “I like all Japanese food. I go to ramen places with my friends and family sometimes, but I don’t crave ramen,” she says. “He’s very obsessed.”

The pair moved to Vancouver in 2019, and Maier experimented at home with various styles, such as a smoked shio ramen or a bowl of seafood broth with squid-ink noodles. He also struck up a friendship with Carlo Bueno while they worked side by side in Shameless Buns’ food truck. “We were both the same: we loved ramen. He had also been making ramen at home and had been selling kits,” Maier says. Bueno had recently started The Ramen Club, while Maier and Takahashi were brainstorming ideas for their new business, Lucky Bepo Ramen, named after their dog.

In October 2021, the two companies joined forces for a pop-up at the brick-and-mortar location of Shameless Buns on Fraser Street. They split up the crafting of the chicken and red snapper broth, as well as the shio and shoyu seasonings. The success of this collaboration taught Maier and Takahashi that pop-ups could be a viable side gig. Instead of opening their own ramen food truck, they switched to taking over cafés at night. Armed with a catering licence and a commissary kitchen, they began hosting their own ramen dinners.

Kumamoto tonkotsu ramen.

Kumamoto tonkotsu ramen.

The duo quickly learned that pop-up restaurants rely on two key elements: connections and word of mouth. Fortunately, venues emerged organically. Maier’s mother put them in touch with Platform 7, friends introduced them to The Pie Shoppe, and Wicked Cafe’s manager came to one of their dinners and offered up space. “We never really had to ask,” Maier says. “It was always connecting with someone.”

Over time, Lucky Bepo Ramen has built up a loyal following, bolstered by regular Instagram posts and diners’ desire to try another bowl of Maier’s creations. “If people like his ramen and come back again, that makes me happy,” Takayashi says.

Now that they’ve hosted numerous pop-ups, Maier and Takahashi have perfected the process. They announce their next event on social media, directing followers to their website, where they can reserve a ticket for a seating.

Each evening centres a different regional style of ramen, such as one inspired by Kitakata in Fukushima Prefecture. “I missed eating all the different types. A lot of the shops here just do tonkotsu-style,” Maier says. His past creations include golden chicken and dashi chintan (clear broth) topped with pork chashu, spiced chicken chashu, wakame (seaweed), bamboo shoots, and green onions; and a mapo tofu ramen with chicken and clam shoyu chintan, bean sprouts, green onion, chopped naruto (fish cake), and chili oil. Repeating one style would be simpler, Maier admits, but he likes the challenge—and it keeps things interesting for customers.

Mapo toufu ramen.

Mapo toufu ramen.

The prep begins with Maier making the ajitama (marinated eggs), noodles, and sauces. “The noodles are better if they age, so that’s why they get done a few days before, since it changes the composition of the noodles,” he says. Countless hours listening to podcasts and watching YouTube videos helped Maier perfect springy noodles. The broth simmers for up to 24 hours, while the pork for the chashu braises for a few hours, until tender and flavourful. On the big day, the couple arrive at a venue an hour and a half ahead of time, saving the fresh-vegetable prep and meat slicing to the very end.

Though the pop-ups require days of cooking and promotion, Maier and Takahashi say that the dinners are emotionally and financially worthwhile. Lucky Bepo hosts a couple of pop-ups a month, serving about 60 people each time over the course of six staggered seatings. Takahashi has 10 years’ experience working as a server, so she manages the front-of-house, and except for an occasional helper, it’s usually only Maier in the kitchen. The cafés often waive a rental fee, since they increase their name recognition and sell their own baked goods and drinks at the events. As a result, besides the cost of ingredients—which Maier tightly manages—and other incidental expenses, the rest is profit.

Every pop-up, diners ask if the couple plan to open their own location soon, but Maier and Takahashi are happy not to take the leap. “It’s hard to open an actual restaurant without a big investment,” Takahashi says. Maier notes that the dinners give him a sense of what it’s like to be a business owner, without the risk involved in pricey Vancouver. So, for now, Lucky Bepo Ramen lets him feed his passion. “I like eating ramen, and I want to make ramen. So, I’m making ramen I want to eat, and everybody else gets to eat it too.”

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Post Date:

June 5, 2023