Maybe it's my bad for thinking soft-shell crab would survive the eight-minute drive from the ramen hot spot on Main to my office all the way down Milam. I'm a sucker for crab in any form, and the second I saw it on the menu, I had to have it, risky maneuver that it was. When I sat back down at my desk and began to poke around at the sandwich, I discovered the tempura batter on the soft-shell crab to be cold and mushy. The baguette-type bread was stiff and chewy and already a little soggy from the chowchow sauce. To be fair, I did eat the entire sandwich, but it was the pickled chowchow (and my hunger) that kept me going, not the limp tempura or the tough bread.
The summer soba noodle salad fared better during the drive and proved to be a cool, refreshing lunch on a hot summer day. The buckwheat noodles were firm but not, to borrow from the Italians, al dente, and I could have eaten an entire bowl of the ponzu pickled mushrooms that had been soaking in a "traditional chasoba sauce." (A quick Internet search of "chasoba sauce" revealed that "cha soba" is actually two words. The menu, it seems, doesn't always get the spelling of foreign words right.) Cha soba sauce ingredients vary from recipe to recipe, but this one was definitely heavy on the horseradish, which I enjoyed. A tiny quail egg and sesame seeds topped off the dish and added elements of light protein and crunchiness, respectively. I really wished I had tackled the salad before the soft-shell crab. And I wondered if the much-talked-about ramen would have traveled better. That would have to wait for another trip.
Experiences like mine seem to have plagued Goro & Gun since its opening last March. The much-anticipated fusion joint with a focus on ramen has been raked over the coals by Yelpers and critics alike for what they consider to be inconsistent service and inauthentic ramen. Still other critics and diners tout the unusual menu and a few standout dishes while giving the restaurant a bit of a break because it's still somewhat new.
In the months since it opened, Goro & Gun has created a number of stellar recipes. Unfortunately, it has been so busy coming up with experimental new dishes on a weekly basis that the menu is constantly in flux. The result: Sometimes innovative dishes that maybe haven't quite made it past beta testing replace older dishes that people might hope to see on a return visit.
The soft-shell crab? Not on any menus posted online anymore, though I believe it's still a lunch offering. Swordfish poke wasn't on the menu I saw in the restaurant, but after seeing it on a menu on Goro & Gun's Twitter, I got a serious hankering for it. Consistency is something people look for from a restaurant, but it's missing from the menu at Goro & Gun.
When Joshua Martinez closed the Modular food truck to make way for Goro & Gun's brick-and-mortar restaurant, diners lamented the loss of cutting-edge Asian fusion cuisine. The truck churned out dishes like kimchi Gulf shrimp and grits or Copper River salmon collars glazed with soy and mirin. It was perhaps best known for its caveman-style bone marrow and lobster risotto, which make appearances on Goro & Gun's menu from time to time but aren't regular offerings. Martinez honed his craft as the general manager of Kata Robata before going the food-truck route with chef Lyle Bento (formerly of Feast) and finally settling in the historic Market Square district with Goro & Gun, which he co-owns with Brad Moore and Ryan Rouse.
The shotgun-style space on Main Street reflects Martinez's taste for the fun and funky; like his food, the crimson-walled spot is a fusion of ideas. There's some Asian-inspired art on the walls along with mounted horns and knickknacks and sconces rescued from the Houston Club. The bar is built up rather than out, and shelves of liquor bottles reach toward the ceiling like rows of shiny library books. A library ladder is actually built into the shelving, and bartenders often have to climb a few rungs to reach a bottle on an upper level. What appears to be a taxidermied African wildcat or bobcat lounges on a bar shelf while a lion watches over the space from a landing in the back.
The whole place feels like the den of someone's wacky uncle who spends his summers traveling the world and collecting "treasures" that generally confuse his family but make for eclectic interior decorating. I love it, and I feel it reflects the amalgamation of influences apparent in the cuisine, but I've heard other people ask about the curly gazelle horns and gold-framed artwork with a mix of distaste and bewilderment.
Martinez himself is often seated at the end of the bar by the kitchen, munching on something special he's whipped up or taste-testing a new dish. He's constantly interacting with customers on Twitter, and it's reassuring for someone who's both a critic and a patron to see an owner taking such an active role in his business. The best thing about Martinez, though, is that he seems unfazed by the conflicting reviews of Goro & Gun.
The primary point of contention seems to be the ramen. When it opened, Goro & Gun was touted as the first ramen restaurant in Houston, though Soma Sushi, Kata Robata, Jenni's Noodle House and a number of Japanese restaurants have had it on the menu for a while. Though the question "Who can build a better burger?" has been contested around the country for decades, the current food battle in Houston seems to be "Who can build a better bowl of ramen?"
And "build" really is the key word when it comes to ramen. Creating a perfect ramen dish is a process that involves making noodles — something Goro & Gun does in-house rather than ordering them from a distributor — and making a complicated broth with at least a dozen ingredients that can take up to two days to complete. Once the noodles and broth are done, various other ingredients are added. Goro & Gun currently offers four varieties of ramen along with eight add-ons to further the complexity of the dish.
I tried three of the four ramen and was intrigued by each of them, but perhaps would return only for the pork and the lobster. The miso ramen didn't have enough of the salty miso I had hoped for. Instead, it seemed heavy and oily, possibly due to too much yuzu-shiso (think citrus mint) butter. I read that it was supposed to come with miso foam, but there was no foam in sight. Instead, the dish seemed muddled with too much corn, cilantro and yuzu-shiso butter and not enough good old-fashioned miso. Perhaps I'm too accustomed to miso soup from a Japanese restaurant — warm, soothing and uncomplicated.
The lobster ramen, though not something I would have called ramen had it not been labeled as such on the menu, was divine. This dish has the simplicity that I sought out in the miso ramen, with perfectly cooked noodles, a briny broth that reminded me of super-fresh raw oysters and lots of lobster. At $16, it's the most expensive item on the menu, but you get quite a bit of lobster for that price. It was more noodles and lobster than I could finish without feeling over-full, but I desperately wanted to, because it's not often that I find wonderful fresh lobster swimming in a broth that seems to be composed of cilantro, spices and pristine ocean water.
The best and most authentic ramen on the menu is the pork, which features three strips of crispy, crunchy, fatty, juicy pork belly. The tonkotsu broth was just as David Chang, chef and founder of the New York sensation Momofuku, says it should be: "Not quite too salty but almost." The noodles, again, were perfect: soft enough to slurp but not so soft they disintegrate while you're eating them. The ramen is garnished with salty fish cakes, spinach, dried seaweed, bamboo shoots and a 63-degree poached egg, whose runny center added a smooth texture and buttery flavor as it mingled with the broth. This ramen made me pick up the bowl and drain every last drop of broth into my mouth.
Other standout dishes include "tha hustle sprouts": flash-fried Brussels sprouts with pickled white raisins and rice wine vinegar. A bowl of them is $9 and easily serves as an appetizer for two, if you can find it in your heart to share after your first bite of crunchy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside earthy goodness. The Phat Ass Ham Hock is also well worth its $14 price tag. It's served with cucumbers, carrots and pickled mushrooms, and a side of steamed buns, all of which I dragged through the char siu sauce, then topped with steaming, fall-off-the-bone pork to make a weird steamed bun taco-type thing. I just needed a vessel to eat the pork as quickly as possible. The skin was crispy and sweet thanks to the glaze, and even after the soft interior meat was gone, my dinner date and I kept crunching on the little bits of leftover skin and moaning in delight.
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Like me, many have found the restaurant to be inconsistent and even confusing, but that's not going to keep Martinez from trying new things and changing the menu every chance he gets. And I totally respect that. Many restaurateurs choose to sacrifice some of their vision to please critics and diners, and in the process, they lose some of the whimsy that makes a restaurant unique.
That said, Goro & Gun is no longer a kid or even an awkward teenager. It's time for it to grow up and offer diners some consistency. I appreciate the spirit of adventure, but give us a chance to try everything on the menu before you change it again.
And for God's sake, if you're going to be Houston's ramen joint, perfect the ramen. The invasion is headed to Houston, and you can be either the first to get it right or the first casualty of the ramen onslaught.