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Pondering Ramen Across the State, as Houston Finally Joins the Fun

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Although all the wild press coverage of Goro & Gun (my own coverage firmly included) may lead you to believe that ramen -- that national craze and newest foodie obsession -- didn't exist in Houston until last month, that simply isn't true.

As Mai Pham pointed out earlier this week, Soma Sushi has been serving great bowls of Japanese noodle soup for a couple of years now -- the Hokkaido-style broth with a pat of Way Back When butter being my own personal favorite -- under chefs Gabe Medina and his predecessor, Jason Hauck (whose own noodle recipe was used as the template at Goro & Gun). So have several other restaurants, most notably Kata Robata and Cafe Kubo's.

Still, it took a while to get here.

In my review of Cafe Kubo's nearly two years ago, I wrote that the ramen craze which had washed up on the shores of both the East and West Coasts had yet to reach Houston:

Much of that, of course, can be attributed to our rather lackadaisical attitude towards the stuff. Many Houstonians think that ramen is the cheap brick of crap that comes in orange-and-white dust jackets from your local Fiesta, so why seek out "real" ramen?

Even some Japanese don't really care for it. Witness the young Japanese woman behind the counter at Cafe Kubo's who, when I complimented the kitchen on my bowl of miso ramen, shrugged her shoulders and simply said: "Eh. I don't really like ramen."

It's one of the food trends Houston was slow to embrace, as was Dallas. Still, notes Dallas Observer food critic Scott Reitz, "the deluge has already started here in Dallas." The fish-focused restaurant 20 Feet Seafood Joint near Casa Linda from chef Marc Cassel is offering a shōyu-style bowl that I tried a few weekends ago, although I was ultimately disappointed in the overly sweet, peppery broth. The soft-boiled egg was perfect, however, and the thick tangles of curly, chewy noodles were a treat.

Far superior ramen is still, for now, to be found in our state capital. Ramen Tatsu-ya is a force to be reckoned with in Austin, where hungry diners begin lining up at 4:30 p.m. on the hot sidewalk in a rougher part of town that's far enough outside the hip hustle and bustle of SoCo or downtown one could mistake it for Houston. I was one of those hungry diners last weekend, and patiently waited my turn at the Ramen Tatsu-ya counter with my buddy Kyle, a frequent traveler to Japan and bonafide ramenphile.

He ordered us a tableful of his favorites: the classic tonkotsu broth that derives most of its creamy flavor from the long process of boiling down pork bones until they impart their fat and collagen into the broth; Mi-So-Hot, which is a sweet and spicy twist on a basic miso broth; and the relatively new tsukemen, in which the noodles are served separately from the broth. You dip half the noodles into your broth one mouthful at a time, then turn it all inside out by liberally squeezing a lime onto the remainder of the noodles to flip the flavor on its ear.

Eating our way through the bounty, it was suddenly easy to see why ramen fans call Ramen Tatsu-ya the best in the state.

To a number, every bowl of noodles had its own distinct personality and intricate layering of flavors that demanded slurp after slurp to explore further. I loved the contrast of the skinny angel hair-style pasta in the tonkotsu against the fat, nearly udon-like jiggly noodles in the tsukemen. I also loved the efficiency of the counter service, the swiftness of the kitchen and its strict demand of no to-go and no carry-out, so as to preserve the texture of those all-important noodles.

I also understood more keenly why some ramen purists were so tough on Goro & Gun when it first opened a few weeks ago. They were expecting something like Tatsu-ya: a full-scale ramen shop that also happens to serve a few side items where it can.

What they got was a restaurant that serves a couple of different bowls of ramen, but also offers a full-scale cocktail program on the level of Anvil Bar & Refuge and a kitchen that can turn out completely non-Japanese -- but still terrific -- dishes like roasted brussels sprouts with pine nuts and sultanas or fried chicken livers on miniature waffles.

I unabashedly love Goro & Gun's concept, just as much as I loved Ramen Tatsu-ya's. They're entirely dissimilar places, but share a mutual love and respect for the noodle soup. They just show their devotion in different ways. And guess what? There's room for both types of restaurants.

Good thing, too, as rumor has it Ramen Tatsu-ya may be opening a Houston location sometime soon.

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