Houston's Ramen Obsession Isn't Dying Down in 2014
Whenever my parents come to visit, I give them a verbal tour of notable restaurants and my favorite spots as we drive around town.
Photo by Mai Pham This ramen from Soma Sushi contains sous vide pork belly, a parboiled egg and shiitake mushrooms.
"There's House of Pies," I'll say, "still under construction from that damn fire. Nara just opened in that big complex. I'll take you there sometime. And there's Fat Bao, where you can get a good, quick lunch. Sometimes they even have ramen."
"Ramen?" my mom said during one of my tours. "I can make ramen. But I don't, because it's gross. Who eats ramen after college?"
I've learned a lot about food from my gourmand mother, but clearly it was time for me to school her a bit. I explained that what she's thinking of is instant ramen -- the dried noodles that come in a hard brick with a packet of seasoning and microwave instructions. She was right in thinking this mass-produced ramen is a favorite of college kids. I once heard a story that a friend of a friend got scurvy in college, because all he ate was ramen. But she was wrong in assuming that the overly salty DIY noodle soup is what we eat at restaurants here in Houston.
Over the past several years, traditional Japanese ramen has become a bit of a phenomenon across the country, and now that it's arrived in Houston, it seems it's all anyone talks about or writes about. Some argue it's not that popular and food writers have created hype that wouldn't otherwise be there. Others claim food writers don't cover the emerging ramen scene enough. Here are the actual numbers.
Since August, Eater has published ten stories with the word "ramen" in the headline or that focus primarily on ramen. In the same time, CultureMap has published seven stories, and the Chronicle, six. For our part, well, I stopped counting after 12.
Photo by Mai Pham The spicy soy milk ramen at Kata Robata will keep you coming back for more.
A few months ago, Robb Walsh wrote a series of articles about ramen fanaticism in Houston for Houstonia Magazine. In them, he charted ramen's humble beginnings as Japanese street food to its entrance in the American culinary scene thanks in large part to David Chang of Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York. In 2004, Chang hipsterized ramen by turning a cheap bowl of soup -- the equivalent, Walsh argues, to a fast food hamburger -- into a chef-driven meal composed of only the finest exotic ingredients prepared with the utmost care and attention.
Today there's a veritable Momofuku empire, and Chang's version of ramen has spread far and wide, eventually after far too long a gestation period, arriving in Houston, where some unfortunate food trends come to die (gourmet burgers, anyone?). Houstonians have embraced ramen, though, in spite of the fact that as of the first day of 2014, we still don't have a dedicated ramen restaurant in town.
Hank Lewis of the blog Hank On Food remembers eating Chinese ramen in the early '90s around Bellaire and Beltway 8, but he says the restaurants that once served it have since closed or changed owners. Not a problem, though, because he thinks the quality of ramen in Houston has improved as chefs try to create the spot to enjoy the dish.
In Japan, ramen is served at stalls in the street or in bus stations or off of little carts where hungry passers-by can pull up a stool and slurp down a bowl, the faster the better. If your noodles sit in the broth too long, they'll become mushy, and the integrity of the ramen will be compromised. The ramen restaurants springing up around Houston aren't the type of places that you dash in and dash out, though.
Kata Robata has been dishing out ramen for years, much to the consternation of chef Manabu "Hori" Horiuchi. In his story on ramen, Walsh compared a sushi chef being asked to produce ramen to a master pâttisier making brownies. Other restaurants without sushi chefs, like Goro & Gun, tried to embrace the ramen trend, but wound up better known for their wings, brussels sprouts and Phat Ass Ham Hock, which have eclipsed the ramen. Still, when Goro & Gun opened in 2013 with the promise of being Houston's first ramen-ya, the lines were out the door and the place was packed. Just the promise of ramen brings crowds.
Recently, a number of dedicated ramen joints have announced plans to open in Houston, giving well-known spots like Kata Robata, Soma, Goro & Gun and Fat Bao, as well as lesser-known ramen joints Nippon and Sakasi, a run for their money. Sometime in 2014, Ninja Ramen will open in the Washington Corridor after failing to find a place to set up shop in Austin. Still doubt that ramen has crossed into the land of the gimmick? The owner tells CultureMap he'll offer a discount to anyone who comes to Ninja Ramen dressed as -- you guessed it -- a ninja.
JINYA Ramen Bar, a California-based chain, is scheduled to open in Midtown in 2014, and Fat Bao, known more for its puffy bao than ramen, is expanding to Katy in the coming year. These openings come on the heels of Tiger Den and Ramen Jin, both of which opened to long lines and sold out ramen in late 2013. I recently caught a Twitter argument between local food writers regarding these new ramen spots and whether they're really as exciting and delicious as the local media would lead you to believe. The argument got heated, with one person unfollowing another. Though I haven't heard of any non-cyber fist fights breaking out over ramen, I'm inclined to ask: What gives?