Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Restaurant Reviews: Ki Ramen and Ki Pollo

The duo of Lawrenceville restaurants offer affordable, tasty choices, including the best empanadas in Pittsburgh.




photos by laura petrilla

 

Chefs Domenic Branduzzi, Roger Li and Claudia Moyano know how to please a crowd. When Branduzzi, a third-generation restaurateur, opened Piccolo Forno in 2005, it helped set the framework for Lawrenceville’s rebirth as a culinary destination.

Li, who moved to Pittsburgh to become the opening executive chef of Tamari in 2009, brought with him years of experience working at Philadelphia restaurants, including the famed Morimoto.

Moyano, the first employee at Tamari, became Li’s sous chef, and, later, his wife and business partner. After Tamari closed in 2016, Li and Moyano moved their culinary talents up the block (and across the street from Branduzzi) to open Umami that same year.

Together, they form a culinary trifecta that is peppering Butler Street with hip, affordable restaurants. In 2017, they opened two casual eateries: Ki Ramen and Ki Pollo.



Li and Branduzzi hatched the idea for Ki Ramen because they felt Pittsburgh could use a better bowl of soup. They decided to split the work — Branduzzi, the pasta master, would handle the noodles, and Li would take on the stocks and accoutrements.

They threw a series of wildly popular, lines-around-the-block, fast-to-sell-out pop-ups. However, long lines in Pittsburgh don’t necessarily indicate somewhere you should spend your time — the bowls served at Ki Ramen’s events were, at best, OK. Branduzzi was attempting to make alkaline noodles, denser and chewier than pasta noodles, with his restaurant pasta machine and couldn’t quite get the texture right. Li’s broths lacked depth. Still, the events were popular enough for the two to press on and open a standalone space in Lawrenceville. They also purchased an expensive Yamamoto Manufacturing noodle machine.

My early impressions of Ki Ramen — a smartly designed, three-level establishment divided into a third-floor watch-the-action ramen bar, high-ceiling main dining room and a cool-as-can-be bar space — was that the product, aside from the noodles, hadn’t improved much since the pop-ups. What a shame.

And then things changed. As he did with Umami (which got off to a weak start and has improved exponentially), Li, a culinary and creative force who isn’t afraid to push the more conservative Branduzzi forward, honed in on his dishes. The broths and their components, as well as the restaurant’s limited menu of non-ramen dishes, now feel more thoughtfully composed with a deeper depth of flavor. Chef de cuisine Micah Maughan oversees the day-to-day operation of the kitchen.



The restaurant’s meat-based ramens begin with a blend of flavorful, collagen-rich chicken and pork broths. Although the menu describes the chicken broth as “patain,” it tilts lighter than a classic Japanese preparation of that style, which is cloudy, creamy and gelatinous. The same goes for the pork broth.

Shoyu — soy-flavored — is my favorite bowl on the menu. Here, the broth is resonant, deep in flavor and with a heady aroma. Tender soy-braised chicken is the primary protein, and smoky, charred bean sprouts amplify the soup’s flavor. Crunchy cabbage adds contrasting texture and a sous vide egg melts into the broth, intensifying the richness of the experience.

Shio — salt-flavored — features thick chunks of chashu pork that are better than many porcine ramen accoutrements I tried on a recent trip to Tokyo. It comes with crispy pig ears, which you should eat first, as they quickly lose crispness. Soggy ears aren’t sweet to eat. Plus, once they sit, they murkily muddle the broth. This was the only bowl at Ki Ramen where I felt like I needed to dip into the optional add-on menu. Because it’s so meat-forward, I suggest adding something such as bean sprouts or kimchi.

The vegetarian options still need tweaking.

Curry ramen was my early-on favorite, but the broth felt thin on my most recent visits. “It’s something you would give to a sick child when they have a slight fever,” a friend said.

Miso Ramen is my least favorite of the six. I figured a soup full of kabocha squash, cabbage, enoki mushrooms and nori would be right up my alley, a rich and satisfying vegetarian dish. But the contents of the bowl were lazy and scattered in presentation, and it tasted more of salt and scallions than fermented miso. The saving grace was the dense and creamy squash, which was a tasty treat.



Ki Ramen has a small selection of non-ramen dishes. All of them are enjoyable, and few, especially the bao buns, are noteworthy. The fillings change often, but so far, none have let me down. I especially enjoyed a duck confit permutation filled with luscious meat, lemon peel for beautiful pop and added umami from enoki mushrooms. All of that was stuffed inside a bun crisp on the outside and pillowy inside.

Service at Ki Ramen varies from exceptional to off-putting. On one visit, a server’s rundown of the menu walked a magical line of being hyper-informative, conversational and professional, down to a whimsical and entertaining visual explanation of what’s in the spice rack (props, Ki Ramen, for letting us sprinkle on MSG if we want to — it sure helped in the miso ramen). It was an impressive feat of hospitality and was on-point with Ki Ramen’s vibe. Another server was mellow, informed and warm, but way too casual — even at a chill place like this one, you don’t need to pull up a chair to talk about the menu and take our order. But, I’ll take that over a bartender who made it seem as if he were doing my friend and me a favor by taking our drink and noodle orders — then again, maybe he was, because the restaurant’s bespoke cocktails veer significantly too sweet for my taste.



Up the block from Ki Ramen is Ki Pollo. It’s a casual walk-up counter serving quick, inexpensive food. It should be renamed Ki Best Empanadas In Town because Moyano’s stuffed, savory pastries are the reason you want to come here.

Empanadas are ubiquitous in many Central American, Caribbean and South American food cultures, though the specifics of dough, stuffing and cooking method vary by geography. Moyano grew up in Argentina and learned the art of the empanada from her mother.

Moyano serves six permutations of empanada at Ki Pollo. They all have a thin, crispy and flaky crust that gives way to a pleasantly chewy center. She stuffs all of them with mouthwatering fillings.

Moyano prepares her beef empanada with a traditional mix of raisins, egg, onion and manzanilla olives. It’s juicy, lush and has a pleasing pop by way of the onions and olives. Skip a sauce and enjoy it as it is — it’s my favorite of the bunch. Pollo, bright and lively with red pepper, onion and capers, is even tastier when it’s enhanced with housemade chimichurri. Vegetarians should opt for pumpkin, a resonant and earthy mix with cabbage, caramelized onion, kabocha and gouda; brighten it with sambal.



What a shame then, that the restaurant is Ki Pollo. The chicken isn’t yet where it should to be.

Li aims to serve Korean fried chicken, an increasingly popular style that features impossibly juicy meat protected by a porcelain-thin, shatters-like-glass crust painted with a spicy-sweet chili sauce.

None of that is happening here. Well, some of the chicken was impossibly juicy but also indelibly undercooked, so that wasn’t helpful. The edible pieces had too much oily breading, likely because they weren’t fried at the proper temperature, mainly during the second fry, which is designed to get the chicken extra-crispy.

There’s reason for hope. When Li and Moyano opened Umami, dishes with a lot of potential felt frayed at the edges because there wasn’t enough attention to detail. Recently, the izakaya is operating with a more precise vision, and it now is one of my favorite destinations in Pittsburgh for a late night bite. Ki Ramen seems to be following suit, steadily getting better as it grows into itself. I hope the chicken kitchen at Ki Pollo will take a cue from those establishments and start leaning forward with their work, too. If they do, it has the potential to be one of the better budget food options on this side of town.

At the moment, though, Moyano and her empanadas are leading the triumvirate.

Ki Ramen: 4401 Butler St., Lawrenceville; 412/586-4796, kiramenpgh.com
Ki Pollo: 4407 Butler St., Lawrenceville; 412/224-2518, kipollopgh.com
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

Director and “Mr. McFeely” Discuss “Won't You Be My Neighbor?”

The director of the forthcoming Mr. Rogers documentary sits down with the longtime Mr. McFeely and Pittsburgh Magazine.

Pittsburgh Teen Chess Phenom to Host Her First-Ever Tourney

Chess enthusiast Ashley Lynn Priore hopes to enrich the Steel City’s involvement in one of the most classic and challenging of board games.

Hungry for Something Good, Pittsburgh? Where We're Eating in June

We're obsessed with Greekfreez vegan frozen treats, taking a first look at the new menu at Independent Brewing Company and traveling to The Tavern on the Square. Plus, we talk to Poulet Bleu pastry chef James D. Wroblewski II.

Working in a Steel Mill Turns Fantastical in 'The Glass Lung'

Pittsburgher Anjali Sachdeva’s first book blends the normal with fantasy in nine short stories.

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.

Pittsburgh Flicks and Nightlife in June

PM Nightlife Editor Sean Collier explores the popularity of Coughlin's Law on Mt. Washington and the future of Jump Cut Theater.

Pittsburgh's Can't Miss Concerts in June

The Pittsburgh music calendar is packed this month. Check out some of our suggestions for the best ways to spend those steamy summer nights.

June: Best of Culture in Pittsburgh

Check out some of the finest stage plays, dance performances and exhibits taking place this month in Pittsburgh.

Undercover: What We're Reading in June

Reviews of Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance by Mark Whitaker and Abandoned Pittsburgh: Steel and Shadows by Chuck Beard

Perspectives: How Cold Is Too Cold for Spiders to Live?

A former Marine and Pittsburgh firefighter comes face-to-face with his biggest fear.

Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Faces Centennial Challenges

This year marks a milestone anniversary — and questions regarding the emerging digital economy — for the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh.

Highmark Stadium Struggles To Accommodate Music Fans

The Station Square venue could be a good place to see a concert. It's not there yet.

CMU Launches America’s First Degree in Artificial Intelligence

Starting this fall, undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon will have the option to earn a degree in one of the world’s fastest growing fields.

Hog Wild at Fallen Aspen Farm

Owners Jake Kristophel and Desiree Sirois are committed to compassionate animal husbandry at Fallen Aspen Farm.

This is Where ‘Pittsburgh's Paul Bunyan’ Would Have Lived

The living emblem of Pittsburgh steelwork, immortalized in a Braddock statue, has been reborn with a titular space in Bloomfield.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


Director and “Mr. McFeely” Discuss “Won't You Be My Neighbor?”

Director and “Mr. McFeely” Discuss “Won't You Be My Neighbor?”

The director of the forthcoming Mr. Rogers documentary sits down with the longtime Mr. McFeely and Pittsburgh Magazine.

Comments

Pittsburgh Teen Chess Phenom to Host Her First-Ever Tourney

Pittsburgh Teen Chess Phenom to Host Her First-Ever Tourney

Chess enthusiast Ashley Lynn Priore hopes to enrich the Steel City’s involvement in one of the most classic and challenging of board games.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Lorelei Will Open in the Former Livermore/Pines Space

Lorelei Will Open in the Former Livermore/Pines Space

The owners of Independent Brewing Company and Hidden Harbor plan to bring a beer hall and cafe to East Liberty.

Comments

An Inclusive Community Breaks the Ramadan Fast at Salem's Market & Grill

An Inclusive Community Breaks the Ramadan Fast at Salem's Market & Grill

The Strip District restaurant draws a diverse community to its nightly ifṭār buffet.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best Places to Introduce Children to the Performing Arts

Best Places to Introduce Children to the Performing Arts

When you see a show at one of these organizations, you may enjoy it as much as the children.

Comments

The 4 Best Sports to Try This Spring in Pittsburgh

The 4 Best Sports to Try This Spring in Pittsburgh

Looking to switch up your physical activity now that it finally feels like spring? We found four sports you can play locally that you may never have considered.

Comments


Highmark Stadium Struggles To Accommodate Music Fans

Highmark Stadium Struggles To Accommodate Music Fans

The Station Square venue could be a good place to see a concert. It's not there yet.

Comments

Take a Tricky Trip To Mars at Escape Room 51

Take a Tricky Trip To Mars at Escape Room 51

The new escape room in Pleasant Hills is a great game for newer players.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Here We Go? Steelers Have More Than a New England Issue This Time

Here We Go? Steelers Have More Than a New England Issue This Time

At this time last year the Steelers perceived themselves, and rightfully so, as a team that was a mere win over the Patriots away from returning to the Super Bowl. This year, the focus is elsewhere.

Comments

Surprising Pirates Proving to be an Acquired Taste This Season

Surprising Pirates Proving to be an Acquired Taste This Season

For the time being, at least, fans continue to send owner Bob Nutting a message wrapped in apathy.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

The 400-Word Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

The Star Wars series experiments with telling an origin story, with mixed results.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

The 400-Word Review: Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

The careful documentary is a valuable document of the pontiff's philosophy. As a film, there are issues.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Wine Classes Keep the Pre-Wedding Celebration Classy

Wine Classes Keep the Pre-Wedding Celebration Classy

Palate Partners School of Wine & Spirits offers a chance for brides- and grooms-to-be to explore libations before (or instead of) a night on the town.

Comments

He Recovers from Stroke to Officiate Granddaughter's Wedding

He Recovers from Stroke to Officiate Granddaughter's Wedding

It was always Ashley Watkins’ dream to have her grandfather perform her wedding ceremony — but a serious illness almost got in the way.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
From Milan to Pittsburgh: These are the Kitchen Concepts of the Future

From Milan to Pittsburgh: These are the Kitchen Concepts of the Future

Local interior designer Lauren Levant traveled to Italy for the influential Salon del Mobile show featuring the latest innovations in the furniture and design industry. With an emphasis on quality over quantity, these are the kitchen concepts she says will be making their way stateside.

Comments

Get Creative: Pittsburgh Podcast Inspires 'Girl Bosses'

Get Creative: Pittsburgh Podcast Inspires 'Girl Bosses'

Thinking about starting a creative business but don't know where to start? From photography to interior design, Gamechangers, the new podcast from local textile designer Savannah Hayes, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the design industry from the female perspective.

Comments