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The Ramen Experiments at Soma

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I love ramen. Like the ubiquitous pho (Vietnamese beef noodle soup) you find all over Houston, to me, ramen is comfort in a bowl of noodles. Hearty, filling and affordable, if done well it's one of those dishes that you'll come back to time and again. It's one of those dishes I crave. Regularly.

Whenever I fly back to California, ramen is always on my agenda. I have a few favorite spots I unfailingly visit: in San Francisco, my first stop is always Genki Ramen, which is always open when I arrive after 9 p.m. In Los Angeles, it's Santouka, which I always try to visit more than once if I can.

If you find it strange that I'd do this when I live in a city boasting 8,000-plus restaurants, it's not. Houston excels at many things -- steak, burgers, Tex-Mex, Cajun-Vietnamese -- but in the ramen department, we still have a long way to go. We need a bona fide ramen shop, or at least a place where we can get a good bowl of ramen whenever the whim hits us. For me, that place of late is Soma on Washington.

For the past several months, Soma has been quietly reworking its menu, with former Kata Robata chef de cuisine Mark Gabriel Medina at the helm.

One of his passions? Ramen. It's a project he's been working on for a few years now under the tutelage of Kata Robata's executive chef, Manabu "Hori" Horiuchi.

The project, which Medina dubbed "The Ramen Experiments," has not been to create traditional ramen per se, but to experiment with traditional methods to spawn new flavors. Instead of a traditional tonkotsu, or pork-based broth, he'd experiment with oxtail, for instance, and create something like the oxtail ramen that I first tasted in late 2011. I hear that they still get requests for it to this day.

Now at Soma, Medina has already introduced three solid ramen flavors over the last several months. His spicy, beef-based Black Bean Ramen, made with a bulgogi-marinated short ribs, and topped with house-made kimchi and sushi egg tamago, is something that even has my non-beef-eating friends cooing in excitement. "This is GOOD!" several of my friends have exclaimed on first taste, surprised at the flavor-packed punch you get when you take a sip of the broth and slurp up the noodle.

Though it was inspired by the Korean jajangmyun, or black bean noodle, the base flavor is more akin to the Korean kalbi tang, or short rib soup. Imagine kalbi short ribs stewing for hours to give you the flavor of the broth, then add the tangy spiciness of kim chi, the sort of smoky fermented flavor of the black bean, and the sweet fluffiness of the tamago, and that is what you get in this black bean ramen.

His seafood, or kaisen, ramen, was something I'd overlooked over several visits, opting instead for his meat-based broths, but over dinner with a group of friends the other evening, it emerged as the star ramen of the night for its super creamy, incredibly delicious curry-coconut seafood broth.

If you're not a curry lover, there's nothing to fear. This was more like a coconut bouillabaisse, with just a hint of curry flavor for effect. Medina used king crab shells and cooked them down with other seafood shells to make the base, grinding the shells after they were cooked to use as a flavor additive to the broth. The resulting broth was dense, creamy and rich, with multilayered, robust oceanic flavors that complemented the u-10 scallops, mussel and fresh corn kernel topping. Fantastic.

For those who want a more traditional ramen, the house-named Soma ramen is the closest you'll get to a traditional tonkotsu-based ramen broth, but it still comes with a twist.

Instead of the boiled chashu meat you'd get in a standard bowl of ramen, Medina piles on chunks of sous-vide pork belly, adding shiitake mushroom and a partially boiled egg. The egg is gloriously soft in the center, the yolk oozing to add more creaminess to the broth, while the sous-vide pork belly is melt-in-your-mouth tender, with this sort of charred, caramelized sweetness to it. It's been my go-to bowl for the past few months, and it's made me happy every time.

Now to the noodles. To date, the ramen noodles he's been using are called champomen. They are mid-sized, kind of curly and have a nice elasticity to them on the bite. I like a noodle that doesn't immediately break apart, and this noodle fits the bill. Texturally it's sort of the ramen equivalent of the Italian al dente, only slightly chewier.

The champomen noodles are consistent with the noodle quality I'm used to getting in California, but, ever the perfectionist, Medina has been taste-testing freshly made ramen noodles to perfect his creations.

He also visited California recently for a ramen eating spree, not only to get a feel for the flavor and the craft, but also for inspiration. He's currently working on a spicy miso ramen and duck shio ramen, and a tsukemen, or dipping noodle ramen, with plans to have five standard ramens on the menu at all times.

And me? I'm just happy to have this place where I can get my ramen fix. On a recent trip back from Southern California, despite having had my fill of Santouka's spicy miso ramen and Tsujita's tsukemen, what did I crave most when I landed in Houston? A bowl of Medina's steaming hot Soma ramen. I drove there straight from the airport to get it.

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