Ramen used to be what we ate because it was thrifty.
Now it's what we eat because it's trendy. And because authentic prepared-to-order ramen is a genuine treat. We say that with no disrespect to the 29-cent instant package variety; it has its place in our lives and pantries too.
Aji Ramen Bar
Address: Westchase Plaza shopping center, 301 N. Shackleford Road, Little Rock
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Cuisine: Ramen, rice bowls, appetizers
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Alcoholic beverages: Beer, wine
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
In central Arkansas, Asian restaurants have been adding ramen to their menus, and Arkansas Heart Hospital's thrice-weekly ramen service has inspired not only a cult following but a food truck.
Now, in time for soup season, the capital city has its first fully dedicated ramen restaurant, Aji Ramen Bar, in west Little Rock's Westchase Plaza, home to other dining spots such as Star of India, Bobby's Country Cookin' and Jason's Deli.
The casual eatery with a colorful cartoonish wall already has outgrown its small space, with limited seating at a few four-top tables as well as at a bar, with a view of the open kitchen, and counters at the windows, with a view of the parking lot. There were far more customers than chairs when we visited for a weekday lunch and a Friday dinner.Gallery: Aji Ramen Bar
On the front of the double-sided plastic-coated menu are eight appetizers with choices ranging from familiar salted edamame ($3) to the more exotic Takoyaki ($5.95), "fried octopus balls served with green onions and creamy sauce." On the flip side are 10 entrees ($6.50-$10.95) that include several types of ramen soup -- and non-soup, there's even a Brothless Ramen ($9.95) -- as well as rice bowls ($6.50-$7.50).
There's nothing for 29 cents at Aji Ramen Bar. This ramen is souped-up. And proud. Says Aji Ramen Bar T-shirts and a sign in the window: "No Ramen, No Life."
Patrons can upgrade their entree with "sides" such as egg, corn, green onion, pork belly, chicken, seaweed, "pork tend," wood mushroom, noodles, rice or broth for an additional 95 cents to $2.95.
A limited drink menu includes soft drinks and tea, hot sake, five kinds of beer and unspecified house white and red wines. Staff replenished drinks often, even if I once received a Coke Classic instead of my requested Diet Coke.
At lunch, a friend and I split the Steam Bun appetizer ($4.25), an order of two soft buns stuffed with tasty sliced pork belly livened with fluffy lettuce and green onion and drizzled with maybe not enough of the savory Aji sauce and mayo. The result, while pleasing, was a bit dry.
Featuring aromatic pork broth, soft boiled egg, green onion, black mushrooms, corn, and "chili hair," her Chicken Ramen ($9.95) and my Cha-Siu Ramen ($10.50) were identical, except for the tender proteins. Hers contained slices of chicken, and mine featured pork belly. Under those ingredients were long, thin noodles. The soup can be eaten with provided duck spoons; for the noodles, packages of chopsticks are on the table, as are seasonings (pink salt, black pepper, soy sauce and a red chili powder) and plenty of paper cafeteria-style napkins. Just whip off your infinity scarf and slurp away.
Ordering takeout? The broth and other ingredients are packaged with care separately. So combine and slurp away.
Not all Aji's offerings are slurpable, and my date and I sampled those entrees for dinner, starting first with shared appetizers.
The fried vegetable Spring Rolls ($2.95) were standard, though a little pale -- perhaps they could have been cooked a minute longer. They were served with a pinkish accompaniment labeled "creamy sauce." Still standard, but nicely cooked, were the Gyoza ($4.95), six pork-and-vegetable dumplings served with ponzu sauce. Best was the good portion of sliced, slightly fatty, super flavorful Pork Belly ($5.95), dressed up with green onions, sesame seeds and "sweet sauce."
His meal, the Brothless Ramen ($9.95), with noodles, ground meat (comes with pork; chicken is another option), green onions, sliced greens, soft-boiled fried onion, was all the enjoyment minus the liquid.
Other ramen we didn't get around to trying: the Cha-Siu Miso and the Chicken Miso, both $10.95 and both with fermented soybean added, and the Chicken Shoyu (no description given, $9.95), the Veggie Shoyu ($9.95) and the Cha-Siu Shoyu ("chicken base broth with garnish," $9.95).
All ramen and entrees have abbreviations like S1 and T2 for easier ordering. Also worth noting: No choices on the original menu are vegetarian -- even the Veggie Shoyu contains chicken broth -- but a post on Aji's Facebook page promised vegetarian versions soon.
My Chicken Rice Bowl ($6.50), featuring saucy sliced chicken over steamed sticky rice with a garnish of sesame seeds and green onions was a safe, satisfying entree, and also the least expensive.
We were fascinated when we saw that Aji Ramen Bar's desserts included ambitious selections such as Creme Brulee ($4.50) and Tiramisu ($5.50), and ordered them. Our server said they were out of the Creme Brulee but, on her suggestion, we ordered the off-menu Red Velvet ($5.50) instead.
What we received weren't the traditional desserts but rather rock-hard frozen mini ice cream cakes accented with whipped cream and drizzle. Though not what we were expecting, they were cute and enjoyable enough -- once they thawed slightly.
Perhaps the desserts' menu names and descriptions are something Aji Ramen Bar can noodle over.
The Steam Bun appetizer consists of two pork belly buns at Aji Ramen Bar in Little Rock.
A colorful, cartoonish wall enlivens the space at Aji Ramen Bar in Little Rock.
In addition to ramen, Aji Ramen Bar also serves rice bowls with chicken (pictured) and pork.
Weekend on 11/22/2018
Print Headline: RESTAURANT REVIEW + PHOTOS: Aji Ramen Bar in west Little Rock a broth of fresh air