Houston has been waiting for a place like Tiger Den. A strip-mall restaurant in the popular Dun Huang Plaza at 9989 Bellaire Boulevard near the intersection of Beltway 8, the new ramen shop and izakaya debuted recently, and diners have had to endure waits of 30 minutes or more for tables.
I'd been wanting to try it since I heard about the preview dinners they offered to Carl Rosa's Ramen in Common group, but I couldn't find a phone number that worked (the number listed on Yelp was not accurate), and the information available online was limited.
So, this past Friday night I arrived about 15 minutes after 5 p.m., hoping to score a hot bowl of noodle soup. The two people who greeted me at the door already looked a little frazzled, despite the early hour, but they were friendly, and because I was there solo, they immediately offered me a seat at the bar, leading me beyond the dark-wood partition at the door and into the restaurant.
The scene during my visit was lively and buzzing with energy, and the interior was exactly how I would picture a ramen shop if I were to build one. The entire restaurant was filled with a predominantly Asian crowd, with people packed in at long community tables down the center of the room and at all the booths along the walls.
Tastefully appointed, with two contemporary chandeliers hanging in the middle of the dining room, the wooden booths and flooring are framed by large-format silk-screen murals on both sides of the restaurant; they remind me a lot of the Philippe Starck designs for the upscale Katsuya restaurant chain.
I was seated at a small counter directly in front of a window overlooking the robata grill and kitchen, a perfect spot from which to admire all the action. The kitchen staff, including the older man working the robata grill, all wore bandannas, and though the scene was a bit frenetic, I could see a sort of steady rhythm to their movements.
"We've been overwhelmed," confessed Linh Nguyen, who owns Tiger Den and Aka Sushi with partners Martina Yang and Mike Tran. "It was supposed to be a soft opening, but the word of mouth has been so strong." When I told Nguyen that the phone number on the restaurant's Yelp page was incorrect, he told me that it wasn't something they'd set up. "People have been posting pictures of ramen that isn't even ours, and we never even set up that page," he said, rather incredulous about it all, telling me to go to Tiger Den's Instagram account, @TigerDen9, for authentic photos.
The word-of-mouth buzz is not without cause. Though I wanted more depth in the broth, and more broth in the bowl (would have loved another inch worth of broth), I'd definitely return for another serving of Tiger Den's spicy miso ramen. The made-from-scratch broth was well-balanced: creamy without being oily, with a good dose of umami that wasn't overly salty and a spiciness that left your lips tingly without too much burn. The toppings of torched chasu rounds, bamboo shoots, parboiled egg half, and white and green onions were added in good proportion to the noodle and broth.
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The house-made ramen noodles were thinner and firmer than those I've tasted elsewhere, and on first sight I thought that they were going to disappoint, but I found myself surprisingly pleased by the good bite that they had, and I was happy that they stayed firm in the bowl from the first bite through the last. I still prefer a chewier, thicker ramen noodle, like the champomen used at Kata Robata and Soma, but these noodles were definitely good ones.
I enjoyed my orders from the robata grill as well. Two chicken wings came slightly charred, glazed with a light teriyaki sauce, and though I would have preferred them crispier, they were so tasty that it was all I could do to stop myself from ordering more dishes, such as the chicken hearts and gizzards, from the robata grill. My grilled ika, or squid, arrived with a slight char on the outside, served with a fluff of bonito flakes. I would have liked it charred a bit more for a more pronounced smoky flavor, with perhaps a dipping sauce of kewpie mayo, but it met my expectations, and I would order it again.
Overall, I was happy with my visit to Tiger Den. Service was attentive, and you get the impression that everyone who worked there wanted to please despite the place being crazy busy. The food is reasonably priced; bowls of ramen cost at $9, and items from the robata start at around $1.50 for two chicken wings or skewers of gizzards or chicken hearts. There are, of course, things that could be improved upon, and the owners are still waiting on their liquor license, but for a soft opening, the experience that I had was more than satisfactory. Just be prepared for a wait. The current popularity of ramen, Tiger Den's small location and limited seating add up to the fact that unless you arrive right around 5 p.m., there will definitely be people in line ahead of you.
(Update: I am glad I visited Tiger Den when I did, because the restaurant's owners announced they have temporarily closed shop in order to further train their staff and "make some adjustments." The restaurant is scheduled to reopen on November 12 at 5 p.m., and we'll keep you posted.)