When you come across something truly special, you know it immediately.
It’s true of people, places, books, music, moments and food — there’s an instant magical zap and you know you’re experiencing and enjoying something that is more than just memorable. It’s indelible.
A recent opportunity to try food from Executive Chef Clayton Horrighs at Speakeasy Ramen in Springfield was recently one of those special dining moments for me.
The restaurant is still in a soft-opening phase, but it seemed like the kitchen and bartenders had been doing the incredibly well-executed dishes and drinks for years.
Despite being somewhat off the beaten path, not having had a grand-opening and relying on word-of-mouth recommendations to attract customers, the unassuming restaurant has been nominated for three of the Springfield Chamber’s “Best of Springfield” categories.
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Horrighs was trained in French and Italian cooking, but specializes in Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean cuisine. His mastery over many different styles and flavors is evident in the pan-Asian food coming out of the kitchen.
The menu — drawing on the best flavors and preparations from Japan, Vietnam, China, Korea and more — changes almost daily, according to the ingredients the restaurant can source. The goal is to keep everything as fresh as possible, so the dishes usually sell out.
Best-selling items include a Japanese Fried Chicken Moo Shoo ($6) featuring fried chicken, Arcadian lettuce, tomatoes, and blistered jalapeno pepper with cilantro sauce and black sesame aioli, served in a house-made moo shu. A Hamachi Kama ($22) grilled tuna collar on a bed of Arcadian lettuce with tomato, cucumber, shaved onion, and avocado tossed in a citrus soy vinaigrette also was a hit.
One customer recently called them a “five-star dive bar” — fitting, indeed.
The restaurant is weeks away from expanding their hours and opening for lunch, hanging a sign, launching a web site and debuting a more formal menu featuring their namesake — ramen.
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“Chef Clayton will make tonkotsu ramen, a bone-marrow ramen, which takes days to make with fresh alkaline noodles. We will also features specials like miso, shoyu, shio, and more. Ramen will be launched sometime this month,” said owner Kim Frazier.
The process of launching has been an evolution.
Frazier purchased a long-time neighborhood bar, Nifty 50s, in August of last year. She and a small staff ran it as a bar while they built and connected a kitchen in an adjacent building that used to house a pool table. Food service began in mid-May this year. In true speakeasy fashion, the sign outside still says “Nifty 50s.”
Speakeasy Ramen is not only a labor of love, but a story of family.
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“My fiancee, Brittany Waters, and I were both working in the restaurant industry in Charleston, South Carolina — Brittany managing the front, and me a chef at a few different establishments,” said Horrighs. “Brittany’s aunt, Kim Frazier, visited us a few times and was impressed with my cooking at both Aya Cookhouse and St. James Gate. She had been saving to buy a bar-restaurant and floated the idea of working together. When we decided it was time to do that, Springfield was a good option because it was inexpensive, and the location of Brittany’s family.”
It’s a partnership that has made for a delicious outcome.
The spicy Szechuan Noodles ($13) with a perfect soft-boiled tea-brined egg and the towering spicy tuna sashimi ($14) on a recent visit were divine. The sashimi in particular, featuring large chunks of ahi tuna and avocado tossed in a house made hot sauce topped with black tobiko and radish sprouts, was one of the best dishes I have enjoyed in a while. I can only hope it’s on the menu when I return.
That coupled with a speakeasy avocado margarita ($8) was a beautiful match. The grapefruit basil smash ($8) was also delightfully bright and satisfying.
“Learning a large array of cuisines prepared me to be creative and adaptable,” Horrighs said. “If our ever-revolving menu doesn’t accommodate someones dietary needs, I always have something available to prepare to fit those needs. Customers with special diets can call ahead or just show up.”
Pop-up events, tapas nights, collaborations with other local chefs and maybe even a second location are all ideas that Horrighs is looking at going forward.
With the kinds of flavors Horrighs is putting out months after opening his kitchen and a bar staff that can execute well-done craft cocktails, this will be a restaurant I will definitely be keeping my eyes on.