Whenever my parents come to visit, I give them a verbal tour of notable restaurants and my favorite spots as we drive around town.
"There's House of Pies," I'll say, "still under construction from that damn fire. Nara just opened in that big complex. I'll take you there sometime. And there's Fat Bao, where you can get a good, quick lunch. Sometimes they even have ramen."
"Ramen?" my mom said during one of my tours. "I can make ramen. But I don't, because it's gross. Who eats ramen after college?"
I've learned a lot about food from my gourmand mother, but clearly it was time for me to school her a bit. I explained that what she's thinking of is instant ramen -- the dried noodles that come in a hard brick with a packet of seasoning and microwave instructions. She was right in thinking this mass-produced ramen is a favorite of college kids. I once heard a story that a friend of a friend got scurvy in college, because all he ate was ramen. But she was wrong in assuming that the overly salty DIY noodle soup is what we eat at restaurants here in Houston.
Over the past several years, traditional Japanese ramen has become a bit of a phenomenon across the country, and now that it's arrived in Houston, it seems it's all anyone talks about or writes about. Some argue it's not that popular and food writers have created hype that wouldn't otherwise be there. Others claim food writers don't cover the emerging ramen scene enough. Here are the actual numbers.
Since August, Eater has published ten stories with the word "ramen" in the headline or that focus primarily on ramen. In the same time, CultureMap has published seven stories, and the Chronicle, six. For our part, well, I stopped counting after 12.
A few months ago, Robb Walsh wrote a series of articles about ramen fanaticism in Houston for Houstonia Magazine. In them, he charted ramen's humble beginnings as Japanese street food to its entrance in the American culinary scene thanks in large part to David Chang of Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York. In 2004, Chang hipsterized ramen by turning a cheap bowl of soup -- the equivalent, Walsh argues, to a fast food hamburger -- into a chef-driven meal composed of only the finest exotic ingredients prepared with the utmost care and attention.
Today there's a veritable Momofuku empire, and Chang's version of ramen has spread far and wide, eventually after far too long a gestation period, arriving in Houston, where some unfortunate food trends come to die (gourmet burgers, anyone?). Houstonians have embraced ramen, though, in spite of the fact that as of the first day of 2014, we still don't have a dedicated ramen restaurant in town.
Hank Lewis of the blog Hank On Food remembers eating Chinese ramen in the early '90s around Bellaire and Beltway 8, but he says the restaurants that once served it have since closed or changed owners. Not a problem, though, because he thinks the quality of ramen in Houston has improved as chefs try to create the spot to enjoy the dish.
In Japan, ramen is served at stalls in the street or in bus stations or off of little carts where hungry passers-by can pull up a stool and slurp down a bowl, the faster the better. If your noodles sit in the broth too long, they'll become mushy, and the integrity of the ramen will be compromised. The ramen restaurants springing up around Houston aren't the type of places that you dash in and dash out, though.
Kata Robata has been dishing out ramen for years, much to the consternation of chef Manabu "Hori" Horiuchi. In his story on ramen, Walsh compared a sushi chef being asked to produce ramen to a master pâttisier making brownies. Other restaurants without sushi chefs, like Goro & Gun, tried to embrace the ramen trend, but wound up better known for their wings, brussels sprouts and Phat Ass Ham Hock, which have eclipsed the ramen. Still, when Goro & Gun opened in 2013 with the promise of being Houston's first ramen-ya, the lines were out the door and the place was packed. Just the promise of ramen brings crowds.
Recently, a number of dedicated ramen joints have announced plans to open in Houston, giving well-known spots like Kata Robata, Soma, Goro & Gun and Fat Bao, as well as lesser-known ramen joints Nippon and Sakasi, a run for their money. Sometime in 2014, Ninja Ramen will open in the Washington Corridor after failing to find a place to set up shop in Austin. Still doubt that ramen has crossed into the land of the gimmick? The owner tells CultureMap he'll offer a discount to anyone who comes to Ninja Ramen dressed as -- you guessed it -- a ninja.
JINYA Ramen Bar, a California-based chain, is scheduled to open in Midtown in 2014, and Fat Bao, known more for its puffy bao than ramen, is expanding to Katy in the coming year. These openings come on the heels of Tiger Den and Ramen Jin, both of which opened to long lines and sold out ramen in late 2013. I recently caught a Twitter argument between local food writers regarding these new ramen spots and whether they're really as exciting and delicious as the local media would lead you to believe. The argument got heated, with one person unfollowing another. Though I haven't heard of any non-cyber fist fights breaking out over ramen, I'm inclined to ask: What gives?
"Goro & Gun was the catalyst," says Carl Rosa, Director at The Japan-America Initiative and founder of The Sushi Club of Houston and the Ramen in Common Facebook group. "For years there was talk among Japanese communities, and a lot of people throughout the community who aren't Japanese but have lived in Japan. They kept saying, 'If only there was a real, authentic, honest-to-goodness ramen shop in Houston.' That was the dream. Then Goro & Gun announced they were doing it, which initiated a response from Houston. It was something the city had never tapped into."
It's no secret why it took ramen a while to become popular in Houston. The city just doesn't have the Japanese population of cities like New York, L.A., San Francisco or even Detroit, where Japanese auto manufacturers attract immigrants. Rosa says that there are only about 3,000 Japanese families in Houston, and the majority of those who own and operate restaurants focus on sushi. Why serve ramen, a cheap street food?
Rosa and the other members of the group Ramen in Common are certainly pleased to have options in Houston now, but Rosa acknowledges that the ramen scene here definitely isn't what it could be.
"Houston is lacking a fundamental understanding of what real ramen is," Rosa explains. "I think there are a couple of restaurants working very hard on it. It's going to take time before people who really understand ramen can say with confidence, 'Now you're doing it well.'"
And real ramen? Should we be doing something more to achieve this nebulous goal? Yes, but also something less. Rosa compares it to sushi:
"Long before anything does well with fusion, it has to be done well traditionally. Ten years ago, sushi was absolutely ruined because Americans who didn't know what to do just found a passion for fusion. So all of the authentic and traditional spots were scratching their heads and wondering how to get the same crowds. And they started making contemporary concoctions. And now, some people really believe a spicy tuna roll is something you can get in Tokyo. I think until ramen can be perfected in a traditional way, it should not be touched.
"That's the reason I created Ramen in Common," Rosa says. "To hopefully prevent the bastardization of ramen."
According to Rosa, there are four primary criteria that make ramen ramen.
First, temperature. Ramen should be piping hot when it's served. Not so hot that you burn your mouth, but you should have to slurp a little to cool down the noodles as you eat. You want the soup to still be hot by the time you reach the bottom, so if you feel the bowl and it's just lukewarm, send it back.
Second, broth. There are three common types of ramen bases: miso, tonkotsu and shoyu. Rosa notes that many ramen places -- even the traditional ones -- are starting to mix the broths to create new ones. That's fine, he says, so long as the flavor of the broth can continue to stand on its own. "It's gotta get your attention."
Third, noodles. Depending upon each chef's preference, the type of noodles used will differ. Some use flour-based noodles, others egg-based. Some prefer long and wavy noodles, while others like short, thick ones. Sometimes noodles are served soft, and other times al dente. The main thing is that the noodles should never stick together in the broth.
Fourth, the eggs and the pork. Both must be cooked right. There are several ways to prepare the egg (63-degrees, five minutes) and several ways to prepare the pork, but the pork should never be too fatty, and its rich flavor should always complement the broth.
As for which restaurants in Houston have perfected these four criteria, Rosa says, in general, we're getting there. He likes Kubo's Sushi Bar and Grill, Kata Robata, Sasaki and Teppay for ramen, but laments that some of the new ramen-centered restaurants moving into town are neglecting to learn traditional ramen techniques before skipping straight to contemporary and fusion versions.
"There are two types of Japanese cuisine," Rosa says, "the traditional and the contemporary. I really believe that the hard work and discipline that goes into traditional cuisine is overlooked in Houston. I don't think restaurants should start serving contemporary until they get the traditional down, but unfortunately, it's the contemporary that is getting the attention."
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When asked what it's going to take for good, traditional ramen to become the norm in Houston, Rosa provided us with his forecast: "It's going to take one ramen house to do it very well. And when all of the true, serious, die-hard, ramen-lovers fall in love with it and start eating there, you'll see other restaurants going there and figuring out how to do it right."
For example, he says, Kubo's lets the pork bones for its tonkotsu broth marinate for three-to-four days. That's how you do ramen broth right. But with few places in town really doing their best to create an authentic product, Rosa isn't overly optimistic.
"I'm just terrified of the day I read that a new ramen joint is coming to town and offering crunchy Cheetos on top."
We're scared too, buddy.