In the United States, the gold standard of ramen features rich tonkotsu broth, and JINYA Ramen Bar’s version is indeed a wealth of fatty flavor. The milky-white, porky broth enthusiastically takes over every taste bud with its umami goodness. It’s silky and ever so slightly sticky on the lips and tongue, thanks to long-simmering pork bones that yielded their collagen to the stock.
Samurai Noodle’s tonkotsu isn’t bad, either, but it’s not nearly as consistent as JINYA’s. Sometimes it’s on point with all of the same decadent qualities. Some days, it’s too thin; other times, it’s weighted down by a heavy, artificial note reminiscent of jarred chicken stock base.
Remember when Houston didn’t have any good ramen? Those were dark days, filled with jealousy-inspiring tales of bowls full of lip-smacking broth and springy, taut noodles from travelers who just got back from New York, Los Angeles or even Japan. Thankfully, Houston is slowly getting its fair share of ramen specialty shops. Dreams of creamy tonkotsu and toothsome noodles can now be fulfilled via automobile, not airplane.
JINYA’s Midtown location and Samurai Noodle on Durham opened only days apart, so it is interesting to compare and contrast the two. JINYA is by far sleeker, sexier and trendier, perhaps thanks to its Tokyo-meets-Hollywood pedigree. (The first stateside JINYA was opened in L.A.)
The smoky glass lanterns overhead were imported from Japan, as were the long, heavy wooden tables. Running the length of the tables are oblong wells filled with rocks reminiscent of white-hot coals, and even they were brought in from Japan. After the first JINYA Ramen Bar in Texas debuted in Webster, word quickly spread that it had some of the best ramen, and city dwellers eagerly anticipated a Midtown location.
By contrast, Samurai is much more like a casual cafe. It’s almost like someone plucked one of the many joints from a Chinatown shopping mall and plopped it down in the modest strip center that also houses a Starbucks. It’s admittedly nice to be able to show up in sweatpants or jeans and not feel awkward about it.
Ramen noodles can be straight or wavy, thick or thin and any of these are available at both JINYA and Samurai. JINYA’s are ever-so-slightly superior, as they are consistently firm. Diners at Samurai can actually specify how the noodles should be cooked, with choices ranging from extra firm to extra soft. Those who don’t specify will get futsu, or medium, which are occasionally just a fraction gummy on the exterior. Diners looking for no softness should specify kata, or firm.
(There’s a big, red noodle-making machine in Samurai behind the glass wall that divides the kitchen from the dining room. It would have been really cool to see it in action, but it was never running during our visits.)
Pay special attention at both places to the add-ons. One of the best things to have in a bowl of ramen is the addition of a soft cooked, perfectly marinated egg. Not every ramen style on the menu comes with one. They are called aji-tsuke tamago (Japanese for seasoned egg), and they are soaked in mirin, soy sauce and, indeed, even ramen broth, before serving. The exteriors take on a tinge of color from of the soy sauce. The depth of the color depends on how long it has been soaked.
In the hot, humid day, there is a very good reason to choose Samurai Noodle over JINYA, as it is serving what should be the go-to dish of Houston summer. A big bowl of steaming hot soup isn’t always appealing when it’s 90 degrees outside, but Samurai Noodle’s Kanro Tsukemen — “cold dipping ramen” — is utterly perfect for the season. The word kanro translates to nectar and indeed, the broth is a little sweet, but quite balanced by the savory and salty components. (JINYA does not yet have tsukemen but says it will be on the menu within the coming weeks.)
Upon ordering, a bowl of cold, thick, fish-based stock is brought to the table. In a separate bowl alongside are cold, thin, wavy egg noodles topped with shredded pork, wide strips of nori, or roasted seaweed, and pickled bamboo shoots that have been allowed to simply be stalk-shaped instead of coerced into little yellow strips. They look a whole lot like jarred artichoke hearts. To eat, the diner simply picks the food out of the bowl with chopsticks, dips it into the broth and eats the flavorful results. It’s a little messy, so have a plate in front to catch the drips.
For chashu pork, the marinated, braised and rolled pork that is often included in tonkotsu and other types of meaty ramen, Samurai is the better choice. While theirs is rich, rustic and succulent, JINYA’s is thin and homogenous — so much so that it could have come off the meat slicer at a deli.
Samurai’s takoyaki, or octopus balls, are also superior to JINYA’s. These deep-fried treats are spherical dumplings with a hunk or two of chewy meat at the center. They’re cooked in a special pan with deep divots. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of potential for them to be undercooked in the middle. JINYA’s were. Samurai’s weren’t, perhaps because they were smaller in size. Samurai also doses theirs with swaths of kewpie mayo, chopped green onion tops and a hearty handful of bonito flakes.
Most fetching at Samurai was the sabayaki, a plank of broiled mackerel filet that was firm, fresh and embellished with slivers of lightly pickled daikon. Mackerel can be intense and oily, and the daikon was tartly uplifting — a perfect team born of beautiful simplicity.
You can’t go wrong at either place with an order of gyoza. JINYA’s version is pan-fried until the bottoms of the dumplings get a deep amber sear. Samurai Noodle leaves on the lacy bottom accrued from excess starch that leaches into the pan. The effect is quite elegant and fun, and the crispy texture is a boon. The dumpling sauces and ginger-tinged lumps of pork enclosed in tender wrappers are both quite equivalent.
Samurai Noodle needs to educate its servers on one of ramen’s natural partners: sake. At both Samurai and JINYA, we requested cold, dry sake. (Neither had a sake list to look at.) What we received at Samurai was the exact opposite of dry: Sho Chiku Bai, a nigori that rates a -20 on the sweetness scale. (When sake is rated, negative numbers are assigned for those that are on the sweet side and positive numbers indicate dryness.) At JINYA, we were given two to choose from — both of which met our criteria — and selected the domestic Ozeki Sake Dry, an 8 on the sweetness scale.
Late-night ramen lovers will want to make their way to JINYA, which stays open later than Samurai — until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. Even on the weekdays, JINYA is open until 11 and they are so gracious, they’ll still seat and feed you ten minutes before closing time. With that said, the wait times can be quite long and, unlike Samurai Noodle, they do not accept reservations.
If JINYA Ramen Bar and Samurai Noodle had a food fight, and the criteria were strictly based on broth, noodle texture, sake program and late-night hours, JINYA would win. However, with offerings like cold dipping ramen and all those adventurous, well-executed appetizers, Samurai’s menu is more fun to explore and the casual environment is freeing. Both JINYA and Samurai are welcome additions to the area — signs that the dark ages of ramen scarcity are now well behind us.
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1801 Durham, 832-879-2982
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays.
Tonkotsu Ramen $8.95
Kanro Tsukemen $9.25
Tampopo Ramen $10.25
Spicy Miso Tonkotsu $10.25
JINYA Ramen Bar — Midtown
3201 Louisiana, 832-925-8596.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
JINYA Pork Bun $3.95
Spicy chicken ramen $11.55
Tonkotsu Assari ramen $9.95
Tonkotsu spicy ramen $10.95
Tokyo Yatai ramen $10.95