On average, a bowl of ramen takes 27 minutes to eat.
When it comes to your table, you first must feel the bowl. Cup your hands around the patterned porcelain and let them linger a moment before the radiating heat becomes too much to bear. The bowl should be so hot that you can hardly stand it.
Next, take your chopsticks and poke around a little. Push some noodles to the side and dig deep to see how much pork is in your soup. Examine the egg, which likely took five to six minutes to cook. The yolk should be solid, but barely, and the white should have taken on a light-brown or beige tint from marinating in sake, soy sauce and mirin. Don't eat it yet. It's still marinating.
Taste the broth. Let it roll over your tongue as the rich umami invades your taste buds. It should be salty. Almost too salty, but not quite. Miso broth should be thicker than tonkotsu, but they should be equally complex, full of the flavor of boiled-down fat, soy sauce and garlic.
And then the noodles. These are Hakata-style, thin and springy and cooked, as the Italians would say, al dente. These are as important to ramen as rice is to sushi, which is to say, they are everything. Put down the oval plastic spoon that accompanies your dish; instead, focus on the chopsticks. Pick up about 20 noodles and wiggle them back and forth to detangle them from the rest of the ingredients floating at the top of the bowl. Lift one end of the clump of noodles to your mouth. Then begin slurping.
This is not a dainty slurp of the sort you might practice once you realize you shouldn't have ordered spaghetti on a first date. It's an aggressive slurp. The noodles are extremely hot, and inhaling air with the strands helps cool them down. There should be specks of broth on your shirt and on anyone sitting within splashing distance of you and your bowl. In between slurps, use the spoon to eat some broth or some mushrooms. Use the spoon and chopsticks in tandem to pull apart strips of pork and put them into your mouth with either utensil. Eat rapidly.
Ramen is to be consumed with abandon.
Check out more photos from our photographer Troy Fields in our slideshow, "Tiger Den: A Closer Look."
I'm sitting across the table from Carl Rosa, president of the Sushi Club of Houston and resident ramen expert, and that's exactly how he's eating his. Slurping and sucking big clumps of noodles, indifferent to the golden-brown broth flying around him. Rosa says this is some of the best ramen in Houston.
We're at Tiger Den, a hole-in-the-wall ramen joint and yakitori that opened this past October in the Chinatown Disneyland that is Dun Huang Plaza. The restaurant, owned by partners Linh Nguyen, Martina Yang and Mike Tran, who also operate Aka Sushi, had planned on enjoying a quiet soft opening, but that became impossible after word of a new ramen hot spot began circulating around an already ramen-crazed Houston.
Shortly after the restaurant opened, the owners decided to close for several weeks to retrain the staff and make adjustments to keep up with the high demand. Tiger Den reopened in mid-November, with lines still out the door and around the corner. Even now, four months later, there's a waiting list hanging on the wall next to the door, and before you even enter, someone will take down your information and make sure there will be a seat for you.
It's not a huge dining room. There are a number of booths, a few long, family-style tables in the middle of the narrow dining room, and a short counter overlooking the kitchen at which diners can watch the cooks in action. One wall is lined with a black-and-white collage of snippets of life in major Asian cities, from Beijing to Kyoto to Hong Kong; the wall opposite features the undulating strokes of oversize Japanese calligraphy. The rest of the space is all wood paneling and sleek black design elements, save for the small bar, where people sit with a bottle of sake and a bowl of ramen and face the steamy kitchen.
On a Monday evening, the dining room isn't packed (though I'm pleased to note that everyone else in there seems to be Asian), so Rosa and I have a spacious booth to ourselves — I've heard in the past that people shared booths with complete strangers for a chance to taste some of Tiger Den's ramen.
We each order ramen from eager servers typing away furiously on iPads slung across their chests, and Rosa walks me through the criteria you look for in a good bowl. He says this is indeed some of the best in Houston, though it still doesn't quite measure up to what he finds in Japan.