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Tiger Den's Noodles and Broth Are Vying to Be Houston's Best

Tiger Den's tonkotsu ramen will transport you to Tokyo.
Tiger Den's tonkotsu ramen will transport you to Tokyo.
Troy Fields

On average, a bowl of ramen takes 27 minutes to eat.

When it comes to your table, you first must feel the bowl. Cup your hands around the patterned porcelain and let them linger a moment before the radiating heat becomes too much to bear. The bowl should be so hot that you can hardly stand it.

Next, take your chopsticks and poke around a little. Push some noodles to the side and dig deep to see how much pork is in your soup. Examine the egg, which likely took five to six minutes to cook. The yolk should be solid, but barely, and the white should have taken on a light-brown or beige tint from marinating in sake, soy sauce and mirin. Don't eat it yet. It's still marinating.

Taste the broth. Let it roll over your tongue as the rich umami invades your taste buds. It should be salty. Almost too salty, but not quite. Miso broth should be thicker than tonkotsu, but they should be equally complex, full of the flavor of boiled-down fat, soy sauce and garlic.

And then the noodles. These are Hakata-style, thin and springy and cooked, as the Italians would say, al dente. These are as important to ramen as rice is to sushi, which is to say, they are everything. Put down the oval plastic spoon that accompanies your dish; instead, focus on the chopsticks. Pick up about 20 noodles and wiggle them back and forth to detangle them from the rest of the ingredients floating at the top of the bowl. Lift one end of the clump of noodles to your mouth. Then begin slurping.

This is not a dainty slurp of the sort you might practice once you realize you shouldn't have ordered spaghetti on a first date. It's an aggressive slurp. The noodles are extremely hot, and inhaling air with the strands helps cool them down. There should be specks of broth on your shirt and on anyone sitting within splashing distance of you and your bowl. In between slurps, use the spoon to eat some broth or some mushrooms. Use the spoon and chopsticks in tandem to pull apart strips of pork and put them into your mouth with either utensil. Eat rapidly.

Ramen is to be consumed with abandon.
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Check out more photos from our photographer Troy Fields in our slideshow, "Tiger Den: A Closer Look."

I'm sitting across the table from Carl Rosa, president of the Sushi Club of Houston and resident ramen expert, and that's exactly how he's eating his. Slurping and sucking big clumps of ­noodles, indifferent to the golden-brown broth flying around him. Rosa says this is some of the best ramen in Houston.

We're at Tiger Den, a hole-in-the-wall ramen joint and yakitori that opened this past October in the Chinatown Disneyland that is Dun Huang Plaza. The restaurant, owned by partners Linh Nguyen, Martina Yang and Mike Tran, who also operate Aka Sushi, had planned on enjoying a quiet soft opening, but that became impossible after word of a new ramen hot spot began circulating around an already ramen-crazed Houston.

Shortly after the restaurant opened, the owners decided to close for several weeks to retrain the staff and make adjustments to keep up with the high demand. Tiger Den ­reopened in mid-November, with lines still out the door and around the corner. Even now, four months later, there's a waiting list hanging on the wall next to the door, and before you even enter, someone will take down your information and make sure there will be a seat for you.

It's not a huge dining room. There are a number of booths, a few long, family-style tables in the middle of the narrow dining room, and a short counter overlooking the kitchen at which diners can watch the cooks in action. One wall is lined with a black-and-white collage of snippets of life in major Asian cities, from Beijing to Kyoto to Hong Kong; the wall opposite features the undulating strokes of oversize Japanese calligraphy. The rest of the space is all wood paneling and sleek black design elements, save for the small bar, where people sit with a bottle of sake and a bowl of ramen and face the steamy kitchen.

On a Monday evening, the dining room isn't packed (though I'm pleased to note that everyone else in there seems to be Asian), so Rosa and I have a spacious booth to ourselves — I've heard in the past that people shared booths with complete strangers for a chance to taste some of ­Tiger Den's ramen.

We each order ramen from eager servers typing away furiously on iPads slung across their chests, and Rosa walks me through the criteria you look for in a good bowl. He says this is indeed some of the best in Houston, though it still doesn't quite measure up to what he finds in Japan.

 

The bowls are incredibly hot, as they should be, and the broth is ideally salted and as rich and meaty as one might hope for in tonkotsu, which is made of pork bones. Rosa's miso broth is nuttier than the tonkotsu, with a slight sweetness and an extra dose of spice, courtesy of the chef, who knows Rosa and was eager to try out a new dish on the ramen aficionado. There's ample pork in each bowl, and it's sliced thinly, with the fat still rimming the slightly pink edges. Some of the roasted pork belly is floating on the top, but most of it is buried beneath a layer of noodles. It's tender and infused with the flavor of soy, and it's lightly charred to up the umami.

Presentation is important to ramen, and though this may not be the prettiest bowl of noodles in the land, it's certainly appealing. The various elements — pork, egg, wood-ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, seaweed, ginger, green onions and a dollop of puréed garlic swirling around the middle — are arranged in sections somewhat separate from one another. Initially, I taste them on their own. Once the ramen cools enough to eat, though, it's a free-for-all.

Rosa's spicy miso ramen differs slightly from mine; it contains spicy ground pork and corn, but the basic fatty, savory qualities remain the same. Miso and tantan-men ramen are also worthy dishes, though the broth in the tantan-men failed to achieve the same depth and saltiness characteristic of the other three varieties.

Still, the combination of chewy, freshly pulled noodles, complex broth and diverse toppings makes for some supremely satisfying bowls of ramen — bowls that I'd agree are some of the best in the area. In fact, they're good enough that, on my initial trip with Rosa, I find myself forgetting about the yakitori we've ordered and, ­instead, practically burying my face in ­noodles.

Yakitori refers to Japanese skewered food cooked over a robata grill. At Tiger Den, you can find anything from chicken hearts to ribeye to lamb, all glazed in a ­similar soy/mirin/sake/sugar sauce and cooked over the charcoal grill. Some of the items, such as shiitake mushroom caps, are given a less heavy-handed treatment. They seem to be simply marinated in soy, then grilled to a smoky softness and topped with a sprinkle of sesame seeds.

Berkshire pork belly with sea salt is also more satisfying than most of the other yakitori dishes, mainly because of the simplicity with which it's prepared. No glazes or unnecessarily complex seasonings here. The grilled pork belly (along with some slivers of green onions and a dash of sea salt) speaks for itself.

The chicken wings are perfectly acceptable, but they taste just like the chicken skins, which taste much like the gizzard, probably due to the fact that they all share the same soy tare glaze. I can't fault a kitchen for saving time by marinating a number of dishes in the same sauce — I believe it's also how it's done in Japan, so it is authentic — but it means that most of the small plates are one-note. If you've had one of them, you've had them all, with the exception of the vegetables, which tend to be well-cooked, albeit bland. I want more spice from the spicy cucumber and more char-grilled flavor from the grilled mushroom medley.

On a separate visit, away from the knowing eyes of Rosa, I found myself dousing every dish in the jalapeño vinegar sitting on the table, willing the spice to extract more flavor from the yakitori. And then I committed what I can only imagine is a cardinal ramen sin. I picked up a skewer of chicken skin, completely forgoing my chopsticks, and dunked the entire thing into the rich, creamy ramen broth. I held it there for a moment, allowing the broth to completely envelop the largely flavorless chicken. Then I lifted it out of the bowl and straight into my mouth, inhaling as much broth as possible along with the chicken.

It was an improvement, to be sure. The meaty aromatics of pork fat invaded my mouth, and the crunch of the still-crisp chicken skin blossomed inside the piquant broth.

That broth! I thought, returning to the first moment I brought it to my lips the week before.

"You're drinking liquid fat," Rosa had told me upon seeing my euphoric expression. "There's nothing healthy about ramen. It's awesome."

He's right. It's the pure fat of the broth, cooked down to a slurp-able consistency, that makes it so addictive. In eating it, I can almost taste the layers of flavor that develop during each long hour of simmering on a hot stove.

 

Ramen takes an average of 27 minutes to eat, Rosa tells me after my first bite. But there's no way it's going to take me that long.

kaitlin.steinberg@houstonpress.com

Tiger Den places emphasis on aesthetics, as well as on the food that comes out of its kitchen.
Troy Fields
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