The best dishes at Ki Ramen in Lawrenceville

At just about any restaurant in Pittsburgh, noodles draw diners: Who doesn’t like them? That Domenic Branduzzi, co-owner of Ki Ramen in Lawrenceville with Roger Li, starts from scratch with a Yamato noodle machine makes for a great story. 

Mr. Branduzzi says that his Italian heritage drove his decision to make his own ramen noodles. “We like to make everything in-house,” he says. Since the Ki Ramen pre-opening pop-ups, he’s decided on a formula, using high-gluten flour and Japanese noodle flour for a noodle with the color, mouthfeel and freshness that’s a change-up from those you might find in other ramen shops. 

Ki Ramen
4401 Butler St.

Overall: 2.5stars

  • Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
  • Prices: Snacks $4; bao $6; ramen $11 to $13; add-ons $1 to $4; non-alcoholic drinks $2 to $3; beer $3 to $7; wine $7 to $10; sake $5 to $32.
  • Details: Wheelchair accessible. Parking on street. No reservations.
  • Wild card: Food served until midnight on weekends; the best seats for dining are upstairs.
  • Noise level: Varies.

Housemade noodles are unusual for a late-stage ramen restaurant: As the ramen craze has taken hold around the country, many restaurateurs have opted to use varieties made at Sun Noodle, the company that’s credited with the popularization of ramen in the U.S. Based in Hawaii, the company leased space for a production facility in 2004 in California, followed by the New Jersey location in 2012, igniting the ramen boom from Los Angeles to New York. 

Here in Pittsburgh, noodles connect the Lawrenceville-based owners, who have been friends for as long as they’ve both worked in the neighborhood’s restaurants. Mr. Branduzzi has helmed Piccolo Forno for over a decade, first with his family, now solo. He followed up Piccolo Forno with the charming drinking nook, Grapperia, opening blocks away from the flagship in Feb. 2015. Mr. Li, who had been chef at the now-closed Tamari, left in 2015 to open Umami, the Japanese izakaya upstairs from Round Corner Cantina in 2016 -— all businesses within blocks of each other. 

Having opened in August, Ki Ramen is the pairing of Mr. Branduzzi’s and Mr. Li’s sensibilities and it shows that they’re seasoned, confident restaurateurs moving in a new direction. This is echoed by their latest fast-casual venture they opened in October, Ki Pollo, with Mr. Li’s wife, Claudia Moyano. 

At Ki Ramen, the duo offers a relief from extensive menus by paring theirs down to a short list of snacks, bao, ramen and ramen add-ins.  The tri-level dining and bar area shows they’re willing to take risks in that it would dissipate diners so that the space feels more empty than full  — but it actually seems to work here.

The ground floor is big and bright, with woven ceiling panels and chandelier accents. Graffiti murals frame sections, including the upstairs open kitchen and seating, as well as the lower-level drinking lair that leads out to the street. The whole setup is a welcome departure from fishbowl minimalist spaces that can be oppressively loud. 

Value is woven into the price and portions: You can afford to explore. Among drinks there’s the Ti-Ki punch cocktail with vodka, rose, elderflower and other ingredients ($10), as well as filtered, unfiltered and sparkling sake ($8, $32 for a bottle). Among beers there’s the Rivertown Grateful White ($6) and the glorious Stillwater Sake Saison ($10) — all of which make for an interesting range of beverages at fair prices. Wine selections are more conservative, from a tempranillo ($7) to a muscadet ($7) with notes of melon that complements much of the menu. 

As far as dishes, here’s a shortlist of favorites:

Crispy pig ears with la-zi ($4)

Do not shy away from this offal as it’s the most addictive item on the menu.  First braised, then fried, these pig ears deliver crisp ends and a chewy interior, seasoned with star anise, Sichuan chiles, chile bean paste, garlic and ginger. And they’re not too spicy. 

Shoyu ramen ($12) with add-ons like the black garlic butter bomb ($2) or nori ($2) 

“Get the butter bomb,” says a server, something that I wouldn’t have considered, but it’s a rich but welcome addition to a shoyu layered with soy-braised chicken, a soft-cooked egg, wood-ear mushrooms, scallions, cabbage and the sweetness of charred bean sprouts. Butter is a common offering especially in newer ramen restaurants, says Mr. Branduzzi, but his compound butter adds a layer of uniqueness. 

That I like this selection is more about sensibilities than what I think is “the best.” I’m not in love with Thai or Yunnan-inspired flavors of the coconut-tamarind- miso curry. The miso vegetarian option is a bit too muted for my tastes. And inferno and dan-dan options overpower the broth, which I want to enjoy more than the heat of chiles. I’m more of a purist, choosing not to layer Sichuan flavors with Korean kim chi, which also tips my preference to this selection.  

Crispy chicken skin with sambal ($4)

The skin from chicken legs is straight-up fried to an extra crispy, and therefore addictive, texture. Unless you’re dining with a group, choose the chicken skin or the pig ears, but not both, since the two together would be overwhelming. 

Cavalfiore ($4)

Do not fear boredom of this beige vegetable, as it’s dolled up with sesame and Togarashi, the moderately hot Japanese spice mixture. This dish wins out over other vegetables on the menu, miso eggplant and rayu cucumbers, since both of those dishes lean sweet rather savory, balanced or tart.

A final plus about Ki Ramen is that it’s open for lunch. Even though it’s not Downtown near offices, it draws a diverse daytime crowd that includes college students and neighborhood regulars, the young and young-at-heart. This is encouraging since lunch used to be the least-busy meal of the day for restaurants. And maybe it still is, but the nice thing is, you’ll be eating with a convivial crowd here, day or night.

Melissa McCart:; Instagram @postgazettefood; Facebook @postgazettefood


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