Steven Pursley still remembers his first bowl of ramen.
Growing up in Okinawa, Japan, he was more familiar with another Japanese noodle soup: Okinawa soba, a traditional hot soup made with thick, chewy noodles. But when he was about 5 years old, his uncle, who lived in Tokyo, took him to a ramen shop and he quickly fell in love with the dish. Although ramen wasn’t a regular meal for him over the course of his time in Japan, it was always a special treat.
Pursley’s first job in high school was at a restaurant, but he didn’t always know he wanted to pursue a culinary career. He went on to study political science at the University of Missouri–St. Louis with plans to go to law school but, upon graduating in 2013, found himself at a self-described crossroads. He shifted gears, deciding to move to Japan to study the dish that had fascinated him from such an early age.
“My mom is Japanese, so I’ve always had that connection,” he said. “Ramen was always something that I really enjoyed. During my UMSL years, it was always in the back of my mind. This was before there were really any specialty ramen shops in St. Louis, and I thought it would do really well – it’s a very approachable food and one that is translatable to the American palate. Once I had graduated from UMSL, I decided to just take a leap and go study ramen, live life in Japan as an adult and then come back and open a shop.”
Pursley spent three years working in a handful of ramen shops both in Okinawa and in Matsuyama in mainland Japan. He immersed himself in the many different styles of ramen beyond the ubiquitous tonkotsu and learned about the role that tare, or seasonings, play in building the perfect bowl. Upon returning to St. Louis, he launched Ramen x Rui – Rui is his Japanese name – in 2018. The pop-up series started with private dinners for friends and family before hosting events at restaurants such as The Benevolent King and Indo.
In April of this year, Pursley gave the concept a permanent home with the opening of Menya Rui in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood of St. Louis. Inspired by Japanese ramen culture, the cozy, 24-seat restaurant offers a small but well-executed menu including a few appetizers, such as karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and house cucumbers served two ways, as well as, of course, noodles.
Inspired by his time in Japan, Pursley serves ramen in the shoyu style, which features a soy sauce base. Diners can order a bowl with chicken, the best-selling pork shoyu made with rendered pork fatback or tantanmen, a Japanese take on Sichuan Dan Dan noodles that features ground pork, aromatic chili oil and sesame paste.
But Menya Rui also serves a few dishes that might be less familiar to St. Louis diners, including tsukemen, a dipping ramen, and mazemen, a brothless ramen. The original tsukemen features thick cold-rinsed noodles served with concentrated scallop aroma dipping broth and topped with pork shoulder chasyu, menma, scallions and nori. Two varieties of mazemen are on offer: the original aburasoba, with thick noodles tossed in scallop oil and house shoyu, topped with pork shoulder chasyu, menma, gyofun, nori and bean sprouts, as well as a brothless version of the tantanmen with thick noodles.
Pursley also sets Menya Rui apart by making his own noodles in house. He imported a used commercial noodle maker with an 8-kilogram mixer on the back from Japan; the machine yields about 75 portions per batch. Although the process is much more labor-intensive than simply purchasing noodles from a supplier, he said it’s worth it, as it allows him to tailor the noodles to each soup.
“We get a lot of compliments on it, so I think people can definitely tell the difference in the housemade noodle,” he said. “It kind of allows us to be in control of every aspect of the bowl, instead of having to be at the mercy of whatever the purveyor may be able to supply. We can dial in exactly what noodle we think is gonna best fit our soup. It gives us creative freedom as far as offering not just ramen but tsukemen, a dipping noodle, and mazemen, which is a brothless ramen and features a thicker, chewier noodle. I can kind of come at it from different angles.”
Diners have quickly embraced Menya Rui. It’s not uncommon to see a line wrapping out the door when the restaurant opens Thursday through Sunday, and just last month, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch declared it “one of St. Louis’ best new restaurants.” Pursley is grateful for the warm reception.
“It’s always a risk to start a business or put yourself out there, especially in a creative sense,” he said. “A lot of these recipes are personal so it can be nerve-wracking going into it. But it’s a blessing and I feel very grateful that a lot of people are enjoying what I’m putting out there.”