You could buy 36 packages of 25-cent grocery-store ramen for the price of an Underbelly Bowl ($9) at That Ramen Place, recently opened on Kavanaugh Boulevard in Pulaski Heights.
The former — dry noodles with a flavor packet — are fine for quick hot meal. Boil them for three minutes — or not. We once watched renowned chef David Chang, reminiscing about his college days, pick up a brick of uncooked instant noodles, bite off a big chunk, crunch and swallow. Con brio. Like Ozzy Osbourne with that bat.
That Ramen Place
Address: 5711 Kavanaugh Blvd.
Cuisine: Japanese ramen
Alcoholic beverages: Not yet; on the way
Take out: Yes
Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D
Wheelchair access: Yes
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday
"It's pretty tasty," Chang said with his mouth full.
Not as tasty as what you'll find at That Ramen Place.
Restaurant ramen focuses on the same two ingredients — broth and noodles — that come in the grocery-store ramen, with the difference being a rich, complex and long-simmered broth and fresh noodles, enhanced by a variety of toppings such as pork, chicken, egg, and soy-based meat substitute.
Ramen doesn't have an ancient history — Chinese in origin, it has been around in Japan since the late 19th century, a comfort food staple of the working classes that has recently become semi-trendy in the U.S. But despite its humble roots, most traditional Japanese restaurants in this country don't bother with ramen; to do it right is fairly labor-intensive, and requires simmering broth all day. So you mostly get restaurant ramen in places like That Ramen Place that specialize in it.
A city has to reach a certain critical mass before it can support a ramen restaurant; there are a lot of them in Los Angeles, and Vancouver, B.C., where we've enjoyed it several times; a couple in Cleveland; and now we have them here. And That Ramen Place is a welcome addition to the area's ever expanding ethnic restaurant offerings.
If (more on this later) we can keep it.
Part of what's fun about a ramen place is watching the experienced devouring the noodles while they're still hot by bringing the bowl close to their mouths and using chopsticks to slurp them up (slurping, in some quarters, is considered a compliment to the chef). Right now, there perhaps aren't that many highly experienced restaurant ramen slurpers around Arkansas (although many may have refined their technique with the grocery store stuff). So if you're looking for instruction, there's a scene in the Japanese film Shoplifters (now available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime) we can recommend. Just ask David Chang. It's not a dainty business.
Then, after the noodles have been sucked up and taken down, you use a soup spoon, along with chopsticks, to enjoy the broth and toppings.
But you don't have to eat ramen this way. You can eat it any way you want. No judging here.
Not after we've seen Chang crush ramen.
The space at That Ramen Place is cool and contemporary: Big windows facing the street, black walls, spotless angular tables, a gleaming concrete floor meant to "look like a rainy night in Tokyo," subtle lighting, a Starbucks pop soundtrack quietly playing. (Or, during a recent lunch visit, playing loudly. But they turned it down.) Diners walk up to a minimalist uncluttered counter where the first question is: Dine in or to-go?
This was perplexing, as all the blogs on the subject insist that quality ramen should be consumed within 15 minutes of being served, before the noodles break down, the broth cools and the fats separate. The staff has this covered: To-go orders are packaged with the wheat-based noodles separate from the broth — choices are pork-based tonkotsu, salty shio or original soy milk), so those who are carrying out can combine them when arriving at their destination for a more authentic experience.
After this discussion, an understandably (given that restaurant ramen requires a lot of attention to the broth) limited menu is presented, with appetizers including fried or steamed gyoza (dumplings; four for $2), edamame ($3), kimchi and cucumber salad ($4), seaweed salad ($4) and salted wings ($4).
The stars of the show are Underbelly Bowl (tonkotsu or shio broth with pork belly slices, $9), the It Tastes Like Chicken Bowl (either broth with chicken breast, $9), Tonkot-Soy Bowl (mock tonkotsu broth topped with soy-based meat substitute, $9) and Big Boy Bowl (either broth with pork belly, chicken, bacon and gyoza, $12).
Each table is enhanced with small pots of fresh, fragrant strips of ginger and zesty house-made chile sauce that's similar to Sriracha.
Server James (who mentioned he's also employed at a poke restaurant downtown) brought water, plenty of napkins and utensils (chopsticks, a deep soup spoon and a fork) and soon produced steamed gyoza, firm but not rubbery, with a soy sauce for dipping. He kept an eye on our progress; as soon after the gyoza was demolished he placed good-size round red bowls in front of each of us.
The scent was intoxicating.
The Tonkot-Soy Bowl ($9) is loaded with sliced green onions and triangular chunks of seitan (wheat meat substitute), its broth flavored with sesame, miso, and shiitake mushrooms. The serving on this evening wasn't vegetarian as it came with a soft-boiled Ajitsuke Tamago egg (delicious). Order of consumption and tools used: Egg, seitan and noodles (chopsticks), then broth (spoon).
The Big Boy Bowl ($12) loads on the meat — the bacon has the most assertive flavor — along with that delectable soft-boiled egg.
A midweek lunch visit offered similar results: big bowls of ramen, plus appetizers of salted marinated chicken wings (three large, meaty wings for $4, enough to make a meal on their own) and the always popular edamame (soybeans in pods, $3).
The only disappointment, at least for these early visits during That Ramen Place's soft opening, is the lack of customers. At lunch, we arrived right around noon and walked into an empty-but-for-staff restaurant. Had our visit not been professional in nature, we probably would have pretended we'd entered the wrong storefront and walked right back out. Nobody wants to go to a restaurant to sit at a lonely table without the burble and hum of other diners.
Fortunately, about seven tables' worth of guests arrived while we were having lunch, which seems encouraging. Perhaps the owners of That Ramen Place have the patience, discipline and capital to build their business through word-of-mouth. Certainly the quality of the food isn't keeping customers away.
We try to steer away from voicing opinions on restaurant pricing; there are, after all, plenty of expenses involved that don't come into play in a home kitchen. But in this case, most people's experience with ramen is the one noted in the opening paragraph of this review. It may be hard for some — especially newcomers to restaurant ramen — to justify $9 for a bowl of noodles and toppings, no matter how savory, when a downmarket example of the genre can be had for much, much less.
But grocery store ramen, as glorious as it can be (even for breakfast), is hardly the same as what That Ramen Place offers. We'll be back — though if it feels too lonely, we'll probably take ours to go.
Weekend on 04/25/2019