By Marisa Marsey
“Take less than you need. Lean in close,” Kevin Ordonez hunches over a steaming bowl to demonstrate proper ramen etiquette, plunging chopsticks into the insanely aromatic Japanese broth with noodles. “SLURP LOUDLY. Let it splatter all over your face.”
“Don’t wear white,” counsels longtime pal Paolo Obcemane, who has visually chronicled the four-year evolution of Alkaline Ramen from pop-up splash to full-blown restaurant, as chef-owner Ordonez prepares to open next month at 742 W. 21st Street in Norfolk (at the former Boon Thai, near Ghent’s Farm Fresh).
You could say Alkaline all began with an easy A. Ordonez wanted to pump up his Tallwood High School GPA and thought he could breeze through foods class. “It ended up sticking,” says the ’06 alum. “It was fun to use a knife.” He won a full ride to the Culinary Institute of America through a hardcore competition sponsored by C-CAP (Careers Through Culinary Arts Program). Ok, so he took “a break” halfway through (“I wanted to do dumb 19-year old things,” he admits; translation: partying), but eventually returned to school.
Having lived in Japan during first through sixth grades when his dad was stationed there with the Navy, he decided to do a ramen pop-up in late 2013. He posted on Facebook: Looking for cooks, servers. Realizing another need, he tacked on: and a name. The crowdsourcing led to Alkaline, referring to the yellow, springy noodles that defy mushiness in piping hot soup. (Ordonez sources his from the same company used by David Chang of Momofuku fame.)
That pop-up, at The Cutting Edge in Chesapeake, sold out. So did the second. Ordonez stayed there for six more months, then – continuing the crowdsourcing theme – launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise seed money for his own place, envisioning that Norfolk would be receptive to his ramen/Asian-inspired street food concept.
A lunch cook at Pendulum, the Ghent meat boutique embracing sustainable, humane practices, had worked with Ordonez at Todd Jurich’s Bistro and connected him with Dylan Wakefield, Pendulum’s butcher-owner. Wakefield and Ordonez recognized a shared food ethos – how it breaks barriers to unite people – and on the last day of the campaign, a nail-biter that came down to the last 12 hours (reaching a goal-surpassing $25,000), Alkaline became a regular pop-up at Pendulum (820 Shirley Ave., Norfolk). Ordonez signed a three-month contract, thinking that span would suffice as he scoured Norfolk for his own place. “It shows how naïve we were,” he says.
As time passed and Ordonez still hadn’t found a spot meeting his criteria (including reasonable rent and an equipped, former restaurant site to minimize build-out), Wakefield suggested he stay at Pendulum, affixing Alkaline’s name to the door and its logo to the side of the building. Ordonez has thrived there for three years.
There was blowback on social media when his own establishment didn’t debut quickly after Kickstarter. “Some people thought I was slacking,” he says. (Likely those who’ve never opened a restaurant.) But the Pendulum/Alkaline relationship exemplified gastronomic symbiosis. Despite having to dance around each other in the kitchen – Pendulum cooks still crafting lunch sandwiches while Alkaline’s set up for dinner – they learned to create calm from chaos. And efficiencies. Ordonez especially appreciated easy access to soup bones.
But now Alkaline’s about to emerge in its own space: modern and simple, colored in reds, blacks and whites. Ordonez and his friends are doing all the work themselves, tearing out sheet rock to expose a brick wall and whitewashing it, ripping up carpet for a polished cement floor and creating natural dividers for the dining room, bar, and private area for a total of 60-some seats (twice Pendulum’s). Ordonez had to figure out what of the prior occupant’s to keep (tables, painting the tops white), what not to (a huge Buddha; “It’s cool, but I need the room,” he said, putting it on Craigslist).
“Our food has never been authentic,” he says, explaining that it’s inspired by specific Asian dishes and Eastern flavors in general. “You wouldn’t go to China, Korea or Taiwan and see these dishes. We couldn’t replicate them even if we wanted to; our water, our onions, our pork tastes different here. But they’re authentically ours.” Instead of basing Japanese okonomiyaki on a pancake, he strews the toppings on tater tots. He ladles dinuguan, a hearty chili of pork and onions stewed in pork blood, over nacho chips rather than the traditional rice.
These crowd faves will stay and, of course, the ramen (from intensely-porky tonkatsu to the braised oxtail Guy Fieri raved about when he spotlighted Pendulum and Alkaline on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”). But Ordonez likely will double his menu items, serve lunch and offer a full bar. Most notably, he plans to introduce imaginative family-style dishes sparked by his Filipino heritage and a dim sum-style weekend brunch complete with carts.
He’s moving, but Ordonez’s goal remains entrenched: to help drive the area’s food culture to national notice. “Alkaline alone won’t do that,” he says. “But I want to be part of something bigger than myself.” And he wants his sons Maxim (6) and Catcher (2) to be happy they grew up here. He trumpets Pendulum, Handsome Biscuit, Field Guide and Hashi Food Truck among reasons this area already is cool. “It’s not just food-based, look at Selden Market. It has a ton of energy,” he adds. And while his ramen draws acclaim, he shamelessly admits that he still enjoys the packaged variety. “It’s scientifically designed to be good,” he says, grinning wickedly. Of course, the powdered-broth dorm room staple is a different animal from his, and not just because of components like scratch-made bone broth and a sous vide egg option. His takes time. Like finding your restaurant’s home.
Alkaline, 742 W. 21st St., Suite F/G, Norfolk. Opening December 5 (date subject to change along with menu details). Lunch, dinner and dim sum-style weekend brunch. facebook.com/AlkalineVA/
Got restaurant, food or beverage news? Contact Marisa Marsey at firstname.lastname@example.org.