Ramen in Austin: The best bowls to get your noodle on
Not sure about the whole ramen noodle craze sweeping Austin right now? Well here's a word of encouragement: ramen is to Japan as barbecue is to Texas.
Ramen is the people's food of Japan, about as far from sushi and haute cuisine as smoked brisket is from filet mignon. It also requires long hours (days, actually) of prep time to get it right, meaning that every bowl is a labor of love.
Yes, the $9 bowls prevalent across Austin are technically the same species as the $0.90 variation sitting in Styrofoam cups on gas station shelves across the nation, but we're talking about the difference here between a jalapeno sausage fresh out of the smoker in Lockhart and a bowl of lil' smokies at the church potluck. When done right, ramen is so much more than a cheap, filling snack; it's a flavorful, indulgent, robust meal that's a good deal harder to make than just boiling water.
Since last summer, ramen shops have been popping up all over Austin and onto Japanese restaurant menus. But ramen is no gimmick. Need proof? Sit down for a bowl at one of these restaurants and get slurping.
Waiting in line for food in Austin is easy fodder for cynics, but let's be honest: the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is generally worth the wait and then some (and we're only talking fifteen minutes at Tatsu-ya on a week night). Tatsu-ya is counter service, but as soon as you catch the smell from the kitchen (which is easily smell-able from your spot in line in the parking lot), you know you're in for a treat.
The broth at Tatsu-ya is exquisite. Whether you order the tonkotsu broth (pork bone stock, thick with delicious fat) or the miso broth (get it spicy, no questions asked), you'll receive a base so tasty you can throw out the toppings and drink it on its own. (Not that you would ever want to, as both bowls come with thin, soft noodles that you are suggested to slurp into your mouth.)
With all the other goodies in the bowl, the noodles themselves often ride the backseat, but don't overlook them: in Japan, noodle makers make noodles and nothing else (Jiro might not dream of noodles, but many other Japanese cooks do). Tastu-ya outsources noodle making as well, and it's a culinary lesson in opportunity cost.
The tonkotsu bowl has a sweet, wrapped, marinated pork belly — called chasu — that's hard to pass up, but there's something about the sweet and spicy miso broth that, when combined with tasty ground pork, crunchy cabbage, corn and a marinated soft boiled egg with a deliciously gelatinous yolk, precludes me from ever ordering anything else. Tatsu-ya bowls are loaded with toppings, so come hungry.
Tatsu-ya's following is well earned, especially when you consider that most foodies aren't venturing north of 183 on a given Tuesday night. But make the trek, and you'll be happy to see what the fuss is about.
Michi Ramen was the first to tease Austin with ramen, and tease it did. After opening a trailer this past summer, Michi decided that serving hot soup in a Texas parking lot in June wasn't the way to go. So the trailer shut down, and the restaurant found a space to call home three weeks ago. (It's across the street from the Yellow Rose, a fitting picture of Austin if ever there were one).
If you don't mind parting with an extra dollar, order your broth stout. Stout means extra pork fat, extra bone marrow goodness, extra decadent flavor that you came here to eat anyway. (This is not Japanese health food; this is Japanese hungry-on-a-cold-day food). Yes, Michi offers a regular broth (and even a light broth, in case you don't like happiness), but the Japanese Austinites who visit Michi order their ramen stout, so they must be on to something.
The noodles are the thickest in town and a little chewy, giving them an enjoyable, pasta-like quality. Toppings are less forthcoming than might be hoped, so definitely drop the fifty cents to get a scoop of fried garlic chili oil. Michi, if you are reading this, any chance you could sell that stuff by the jar?
Michi flew a ramen chef out from Japan to spill his secrets, and the result pays off. A Michi dish may not come with all of the extra entertainment of the all-you-can-eat shrimp and steak buffet across the street, but it pleases the body in the soul-warming kind of way.
East Side King @ Hole in the Wall
Paul Qui's latest East Side King at the Hole in the Wall goes the opposite direction with the Japanese classic. Rather than strive for Tokyo street corner cart authenticity, Qui plays with the Ramen base to make new flavors, a trick he has been up to since the original ESK menu at the Grackle (although he has since stopped serving his ramen in the original, Styrofoam bowls).
Squid ink curry ramen broth comes out dark black with a flavor to match: a hearty, earthy fish sauce/squid ink/curry broth that coats your throat as it goes down. Add pieces of potato, squid and tomato, and you've made a concoction that's half ramen, half witch's brew, and undeniably tasty on a winter's day.
A little further down the unique scale is the chicken tortilla ramen, which mixes chicken thigh with avocado and jalapenos with cilantro. Sapporo beer bacon miso ramen comes topped with a haunting layer of beer foam, meaning that you don't know what you'll find when you stick your chopsticks in it. If you're smart, you'll find the soft boiled egg you added to your bowl that manages to ooze yolk even when submerged in soup.
It's hard to argue with bacon flavored broth, but the original flavors have so much to offer that it would be nice to see Qui's expert hand put together a tonkotsu bowl for the undergrad masses. But on a Saturday night, beer in hand, band blaring on the inside stage, we don't think anyone will complain.
Since expanding from the well-loved Sushi-A-Go-Go trailer to the full-fledged Japanese restaurant on Airport Blvd., Komé has been winning over Austin with a neighborhood vibe that puts out city-best food. Ramen is on the lunch menu, but so are a host of other Japanese favorites such as grilled mackerel and sushi that make it hard to go with the noodle bowl, all things considered.
On the tonkotsu, the broth is on the light side, definitely more watery than milky, which means the flavor is enjoyable, but lacking punch. The hefty helping of toppings pick up the weight, as mustard greens, bamboo shoots, pickled ginger and nori (seaweed) add the strong flavors the broth is missing. As a bonus, the fall-to-stringy-pieces-in-your-mouth pork belly is actually edible with chopsticks, and its indulgent flavor easily makes it the highlight of the bowl.
House made gyoza (pork dumplings) come recommended, and they're wonderfully light and fresh, going heavier on the vegetables and garlic than the meat. But they're the perfect example of the skill of Kome's kitchen and why I'll continue to order from the rest of the menu during lunchtime.
Maruchan Instant Lunch
Having eaten the best bowls of Ramen in Austin, it was time to revisit my old friend: instant ramen. I must have eaten 300 bowls of this stuff in college.
Personally, I like the instant ramen where you have to open the little packet and sprinkle on the flavoring yourself (you feel more accomplished this way), but Maruchan Instant Lunch (all that was available at Monarch Food Mart) comes pre-sprinkled. Disappointing.
As far as spiced water goes, Maruchan was just as good as I remember in college, which is good enough for something costing less than a handful of nickels. The random corn pieces were a nice touch, as were the random peas. All in all, not as bad as I feared. Well done, Maruchan. Well done.