Ramen was the name of the game last night at the First Annual Great Ramen Challenge held at Ikea. Six sous chefs got their chance to shine as they competed for a golden ramen trophy and bragging rights as the creator of the best bowl of ramen made with $3 or less.
The free event, organized by Dutch Small and open to the public with an advance RSVP, was a tremendous success. Hundreds showed up as early as two hours before the event to wait in line for wrist bands that would grant them access to the competition, where, in addition the ramen samplings being offered, there were finger foods provided by Ikea, cocktails by Deep Eddy Vodka and ByeJoe Spirits, beer by 8th Wonder Brewery, and fantastic 80's tunes spun by a DJ.
I bopped in my seat for most of the night as chef after chef stepped into the spotlight to demonstrate just how easy or complicated it would be to make their ramen creation with little more than a cutting board, a burner, a pot, and a handful of ingredients.
As a judge for the event, we were asked to score each of the dishes on taste, how easy it was to make, plating/presentation, originality and traditionalism. There were six competitors in all, and in truth, they were all winners for me, just each in their own different way.
Here's how the competition played out according to my scorecard:
Winner, Most Authentic: Cyrus Caclini and Masahide Wakatsuki of Kata Robata Even before we were served our sample, the aromas coming off of their steaming pot smelled like authentic, restaurant-quality ramen. Nonetheless, a peek at the ingredients showed a simple bag of Sapporo Ichiban miso ramen, a couple of eggs, and a few veggies. The final offering was a tasty ramen topped with green onions and a simple ground meat and egg omelette -- very Japanese in style and flavor, and quite delicious.
Winner, Best Plating/Presentation: Jordan Economy of Bar Boheme Economy also used an egg as his main protein, but it came with a twist. He covered the egg what tasted like a spicy meat paste, and crusted it with panko crumbs before deep frying it. The egg was then halved, exposing a runny inside. Served with pickled corn and a thickish noodle, I ate this one with my eyes before actually tasting it -- it looked that good.
Winner, Easiest to Make and Winner, People's Choice: Mike Castillo of Uchi Houston Castillo's dish made use of an ingredient that we all hold dear to our hearts: Pepperidge Farm's classic Goldfish. By sprinkling the goldfish with some paprika and spice, he created a topping that was easy to make and tasty to boot. Combining it with shredded rotisserie chicken and some simple peas, his dish also looked like something you could whip up in minutes, and it turned out to be a crowd pleaser, earning him the People's Choice Prize of the evening.
Winner, Most Tasty: Patrick Hart of Eatsie Boys Some people were confused by the fact that Hart's ramen didn't have broth, but it was purposefully made that way. Entitled "Ramen Pad Thai," Hart took simple ingredients like cucumber, bean sprouts, peanut butter, and crushed peanuts to create a flavorful dry ramen noodle that was empirically good, and tasted remarkably close to the real Thai version.
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Winner, Most Original: Jean-Philippe Gaston of Cove and Haven Gaston's vegan ramen was not only a beautifully colored beet red, it was also vegan. Using store-bought fresh ramen noodles, unlike some of the other chefs, Gaston didn't bother with packaged dry ramen. For a broth, he steeped lemongrass tea for four hours, adding sriracha, sesame oil, soy, lemon and a pickled beet juice for flavor. The result was light and healthful, a totally out-of-the-box interpretation of what ramen broth should look or taste like.
Winner, Best All Around, and Winner of the Ramen Trophy: Lyle Bento of Underbelly Just one bite of the hotdog-spam-kimchi-American cheese ramen by Bento, and the rest, as they say, was history. There was a richness and spiciness to the broth that came from the use of meats and kim chi. Tomato soup added acidity, and melted American cheese on the bottom of the bowl gave it a dose of creaminess. The flavors were simply outstanding, and the story that went with it was notable as well: The recipe was inspired by a Korean dish called Budae Jige, which was originally created by soldiers on the army base with the ingredients they had on hand -- spam, hot dogs, american cheese, and ramen.