Tucked away in a strip mall on the corner of Westheimer and Wilcrest is Ramen Jin, a cute, trendy ramen shop by owner Brian Chen. Chen had no prior experience making ramen, but he did all the homework, reading cookbooks, going online and experimenting in the kitchen until he found the right formula for his prized tonkotsu ramen, which he makes from scratch every day.
Asked how long it takes to prepare the ramen broth, he hesitates, saying that it's very complicated. "Do you want me to start a the beginning of the process and the washing of the bones? Or just from the time of cooking? If you start with just the cooking, it takes 12 to 13 hours."
In Chinese, "Jin" means "King," which is why Chen, who is part Japanese and Taiwanese, named his place Ramen Jin, i.e., Ramen King. He designed his restaurant himself, drawing pictures of what he wanted his furniture to look like, and employing a craftsman to construct each of the stools, tables, and booths in his restaurant. Details, such as the custom napkin, spoon, and chopstick holder -- custom, hand-carved pieces, were also his design.
The restaurant opened last December to mixed reviews, but at Thursday night's Ramen in Common event hosted by founder Carl Rosa, the reviews were largely positive.
Sitting at the beautiful communal table in the middle of the room, a group of hard-core ramen enthusiasts shared their impressions of the night's ramen offering. "I waited for three hours for a bowl on the first day that Ramen Jin opened," a young Asian man named Joshua told me. "They've improved so much since then."
"I live 15 minutes away and come here all the time," said another man named Brad, "and the ramen is so different than when they first opened. It's creamier and richer, and the egg is so much better."
For the event, which sold out in minutes, 20 Ramen in Common members were invited to dine on their choice of ramen at Ramen Jin for just $5 per bowl. The event was partially subsidized by a Japanese production company, JPV, that is working with Rosa on his upcoming ramen documentary, "Spilled."
Ramen Jin offers three hot ramen options, all regularly priced at $9. The traditional pork bone-based broth, or tonkotsu, is the first item on the menu, and the most popular. There is also a miso, spicy miso, and a mixed tonkotsu/shoyu (soy) option, which has a heavier consistency.
Asked which ramen would be good for a first-timer, everyone suggested the tonkotsu. It didn't disappoint. Though I would have liked the bowl to be filled a little bit more (there was more than an inch between the top of the ramen broth and the rim of the bowl), the ramen itself was rich, hearty, and satisfying. The broth was creamy without being too oily and a tad salty. The noodles, a thicker, squiggly noodle, were the correct doneness, not quite al dente, with a firm elasticity that became slightly softer the longer the noodles stayed in the bowl.
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What made it a standout bowl of ramen was the big fatty slab of crisp pork belly -- Chen's own version of Japanese chashu pork -- which arrived with a crispy outer sear and slight char at the edges. "I braise it for about three hours to soften the meat, then pan sear each piece for each bowl," says Chen. That extra bit of TLC makes all the difference. The slab is about four inches wide and a centimeter thick, and just melts in the mouth. Also very good is the half egg, which comes standard in each bowl. When Ramen Jin opened, Chen would serve a whole egg stamped on the outside with the restaurant's logo. As time wore on, and taking into account his customers' feedback, he decided to serve only half an egg, cooked to perfection with a soft yolk in the middle. It's all part of his continual process of trying to create the perfect bowl of ramen.
Asked if he's happy with his current recipe, Chen is reflective, replying with an earnest sincerity, "This ramen thing is endless. You can always make it better and better. It's very hard to perfect. I spent the whole year playing around with the recipe daily. I've been using the current recipe for about a month, and I'm satisfied with it for now." Ramen in Common members -- many of them regulars who nonetheless turned out for the event -- seem happy with it, too. I know I certainly was: Not only did I finish my bowl of ramen, but when the noodles were gone, I took the bowl in my hands and sipped the broth straight from the bowl, slurping up every last drop until the bowl was empty.