Karai Ramen Bistro: Chef Levi Broadwell Working Hard to Get Each Recipe Right, Photo by Jill Cruz
Photos by Jill Cruz

Karai Ramen Bistro: Chef Levi Broadwell Working Hard to Get Each Recipe Right

Those in search of Jacksonville’s best Ramen should head towards a strip mall near the intracoastal. That’s where you’ll find Karai Ramen Bistro. Chef and Owner Levi Broadwell has been perfecting his recipes all around Jacksonville for the past six years. His career started in Central Florida when he was just 15 years old. For years his mother worked in a Chinese restaurant, and from the age of nine he would frequently visit her there. Levi would beg the chef to teach him about cooking but would always get told he was too young. Undeterred, he would spend his time busing tables, watching cooking shows, and trying to pick up any knowledge he could. There were quite a few regular customers at the restaurant, but two men really stood out for Levi. Realizing Levi’s abiding interest in becoming a chef, they encouraged his passion for it. Since he didn’t have cable, the men would record cooking shows on their VCRs and bring the tapes for Levi to watch. They even gifted him his first set of knives. 

Then, when he was 15, another regular customer would change the trajectory of his life. This customer happened to be the owner of a local Japanese restaurant. He would frequently come into the Chinese restaurant for lunch and would always see how hard Levi was working. This prompted him to ask Levi’s mother if he could hire him. He was taught many different skills while working in the Japanese restaurant, and before his 16th birthday, he had worked his way up to working the grill. For the next eight to nine years Levi moved around Florida and worked in many different restaurants, but one detail always stayed the same, they were always Japanese restaurants.

Karai Ramen Bistro: Chef Levi Broadwell Working Hard to Get Each Recipe Right, Photo by Jill Cruz

Levi came to Jacksonville six years ago with his friend Yuki to open Tomo, which was one of the first restaurants in town to offer ramen. He worked there for two years, then Yuki decided to go back to Japan. Soon after, Levi also decided to leave Tomo. It was then that he started to notice that people were becoming more interested in ramen, so he decided to continue along that path. In the years that followed, he worked for Hangar Bay and Asian Noodle House respectively, honing his skills along the way. Then, in January of 2018, he opened Karai Ramen Bistro. 

As Levi explains, “we’ve been doing ramen, before here, for a while. But, at the same time, we wanted to kind of reimagine our ramen. Starting the new restaurant, that gave us an excuse to try to improve ourselves and push ourselves. Because I feel like if you are just happy with the first one you have ever done, you’re never going to get better. We are constantly learning. If we’re not, then what’s the point?” 

Levi currently has four different types of ramen on the menu: Tonkotsu, Shoyu, Shio, and Karai, which is a spicy ramen. He also offers one additional ramen as a daily special, which rotates week to week. “I like ramen because it’s casual. It’s relaxed, it’s unpretentious, it’s fun,” says Levi. “But each thing is so complex, so it’s still challenging.” The complexity was ever-apparent once Levi started talking about the preparation methods for his Tonkotsu ramen. When I asked how long it takes to make their ramen bases, Levi responded, “It really depends on what you are doing. So, when you make ramen there is a lot of different techniques. So for example, our Tonkotsu ramen, it takes at least seven hours to make the broth. That’s the point when it starts coming together and being white. Around four hours you see it starting to get a bit milky but still translucent, but once you get into around the seventh hour you really have gotten into the bones.” Levi likes to use femur bones since they carry a lot of marrow, which is rich in flavor. “Once you get up to the femurs, you’re dealing mostly with the flavor, so you can get more flavor into it without thickening too much. You don’t get as much thickness from the femurs alone, which is ok, because some people like a thick Tonkotsu and some people like a thin Tonkotsu. We try to keep it between 5 and 7 on the Brix scale,” which is a measurement of refractive index determined by the amount of sugar in a solution at a given temperature. Levi also stressed that they do not use MSG, or even any product containing added MSG. He cheekily quipped, “That’s the key, making it to where you think we used it, but we didn’t.”

Shio Ramen, Karai Ramen Bistro: Chef Levi Broadwell Working Hard to Get Each Recipe Right, Photo by Jill Cruz
Shio Ramen

Once the broth is complete, the pot is set to boil and is used as a base for the ramen. Each bowl of ramen is prepared right when it’s ordered, first with the boiling stock, then with all of the spices and other ingredients. As Levi explained, some restaurants will make a large pot of completed broth ahead of time. When an order comes in, they ladle out the broth and add in the noodles. While this might seem like a time saver, it is actually more time consuming and gives the chef less control when it is prepared this way, since flavors and taste profiles can change over time. “I think a lot of it comes down to technique, because you can have the exact same ingredients, but you use a different technique, and it’s a totally different product,” Levi says. “The way we do it, it’s the same every time. The variables have been taken out. That’s what’s important to me. You come here, you get the same dish every time.” 

In speaking with Levi, you can really hear the passion come out in his voice. He is proud of what he has accomplished and has spent many years learning and perfecting his techniques. “We’re always pushing ourselves to try new ideas, new techniques, new things that we learn or just flavors that we didn’t expect.” To me, that’s what makes Karai great. It doesn’t matter what day you come in, you are always going to have a consistently fantastic bowl of ramen.

Karai Ramen Bistro: Chef Levi Broadwell Working Hard to Get Each Recipe Right, Photo by Jill Cruz
Karai Ramen

My personal favorite, and Levi’s best seller, is the Karai Ramen. This is the signature ramen of the restaurant, and, once you taste it, there is no denying why it tops the list. As with each ramen they sell, the Karai starts with a base of chicken and pork stock. A combination of ground sesame, Japanese hot sauce, and white miso is then added. Once these items are blended to perfection, it comes time to add the toppings. This ramen is unique, since it adds spicy ground beef for its protein, then you have the more common elements of scallions, minced onions, and garlic. The dish is finished off with the addition of Tonkotsu noodles and an onsen tamago (egg). While the Karai Ramen is spicy, it is definitely manageable for all you lightweights out there (by you, I also mean me). 

Levi also enjoys a good bowl of spicy ramen, admitting to adding spicy ingredients to nearly every bowl that he eats. While he certainly doesn’t mind his customers adding ingredients to their dish, he doesn’t want them to feel like they need to. “I want people when they come in to feel like they can get a dish that’s already ready, already has lots of flavor, and all you have to do is put your spoon in and start eating, instead of having to doctor it up.” 

Levi and his team work very hard to get each recipe right and are constantly trying new things to improve. “We’re very critical of ourselves, and each other.” Levi jokes. “If I make something for these guys and they try it and they don’t like it, they are gonna give me hell.” Well, with everything I’ve tasted from Karai so far, that sounds like it would be a cold day in hell.

Snack and Jill

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