When Carl Rosa started the Ramen in Common Facebook group in April 2013, Houston was just in the fledgling stages of the ramen craze. Since then, we've seen several new ramen restaurants open. The group has grown its membership to 800-plus, and has a huge voice on the ramen scene.
The group's mantra, as stated on its landing page, is this: "Ramen is considered 'Serious Business' for those who truly enjoy it. In Houston, we will (as a group) sample every bowl of ramen available, learn about the finer aspects of ramen while giving our best recommendations for all of Houston."
Members post pictures of ramen bowls they've tasted around Houston and in other cities. Critiques are often posted along with photos, including specifics about temperature, taste, toppings, noodles, etc. And ramen restaurants seem to love it, opening their doors for exclusive Ramen in Common tastings, just so they can get feedback.
I attended one of these focused tastings this past Thursday at Soma Sushi. Chef Gabe Medina, who has been experimenting with ramen recipes for several years (read my coverage on those experiments, here) currently serves anywhere from six to seven different types of ramen daily. But he's still working on new recipes, trying new things, looking for ways to bring new offerings to the table. This is where Ramen in Common comes in.
He's been working with Rosa to offer small tastings to Ramen in Common members as sort of a focus-group type event. The event that I attended, called Bring-Your-Own-Bowl, was intimate, fun and interactive. For $30 per person, 12 attendees, seated in groups of six in the private dining room upstairs, were treated to a four-course meal. Attendees were asked to bring two medium sized bowls per person for the event, which would include two tastings of Medina's newest, not-yet-offered-to-the-public ramen creations.
Rosa and Medina did some very brief introductions to kick off the event, and soon, we were sampling our first course. My table had a great time, bonding immediately over shared love of food and ramen. We talked about our favorite places to eat around town, our various ramen experiences across the city, and shared general reactions and opinions on the dishes presented to us.
The first, a watermelon yuzu snapper ceviche, was a refreshing summertime dish. A collaborative effort by the Soma team (including sushi chef Pascal Choi) the colors and plating were just lovely, with bright pops of red from the watermelon, and delicate fennel crisps that jutted upright, and bright green, house-grown nasturtium as garnish. I ate the dish with my eyes before scooping up bites of with my chopsticks, and though I would have liked for a more yuzu in the dish, it was an auspicious way to start the evening.
Soon afterward, the first of the ramen courses, a koteri ramen, was served. Medina described the broth before serving it, saying that it was a tonkotsu-based broth that was intentionally fatty. In fact, he said that part of the method for making it was to "slam pork fat into the broth," so that you'd see little droplets of fat floating on the surface of the broth.
The aroma of the koteri was decidedly pork-y in a comforting, I-want-to-devour-this-now sort of way. The broth was indeed rich and unctuous, but didn't leave a greasy mouthfeel. It was full of flavor and had a strong salt element, something you want in a good ramen.
Medina had used a thinner noodle for this ramen. It was a pale cream color and cooked slightly al dente, with a nice bite in each noodle strand. And the toppings, for me, where just right: A crisped, thin round of sliced rolled pork, half of a perfectly cooked egg (the yolk was still soft, but not runny), wakame, shiitake, wood ear and green onion. This story continues on the next page.
We were given comment cards and asked to be brutally honest. The broth could have been hotter, yes, but how did I like it? My only constructive criticism would have been that I wanted more thickness in my meat, and maybe some vegetables with a crunch (bamboo, or corn), to help cut through the fattiness of the broth. Overall though, it was pretty fantastic. "I would gladly buy this again," I wrote.
The second bowl of ramen we received was preceded by the most delicious garlic aroma. Exclamations erupted around our table about the wonderful smell as the bowls were set in front of us. The broth was this deep, inky black color, and you could see squares of pork belly, half an egg, and corn kernels partially submerged, but peeping through the surface of the broth. A black garlic ramen called Hakata Kuro, Medina said that it was considered a rustic ramen and that the black garlic flavor was meant to be strong.
He wasn't kidding; the the black garlic was a little bit too strong in this case, leaving a slightly bitter aftertaste that overwhelmed the pork flavor. Though I loved the thick-cut slices of crisped pork belly and the addition of corn to this ramen, the toppings weren't enough to override the strong garlic flavor. Our table reached the same general consensus, agreeing that the first ramen was the winner.
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Medina, who had conducted a similar tasting with a different group of 12 the previous week, took the constructive criticism in stride. It was what he'd invited us in for, after all. "Last week, the group said the Hakata Kuro could use more black garlic, and I adjusted tonight's tasting in response to their feedback," he said pragmatically, adding that he'd play with the recipe some more.
The meal ended with a delicious dessert of apricot mango cornbread, toasted rice, mango chutney and yogurt ice cream by Soma's in-house pastry chef, Hui Lim. Not overly sweet, the textures of the toasted rice kernels gave the dish this Rice Crispies enjoyability, and we all loved it.
Ramen in Common is an open group on Facebook. To participate in events like these, visit Facebook and just join the group. There are no fees to join.