Until a few years ago, I thought ramen noodles were those cheap packages you can get at the grocery store with that odd square of noodles and really salty seasoning packet. My most vivid memory of eating this type of ramen was on 9/11, while watching footage of the Twin Towers falling on a friend’s TV, so it seems fitting that my first time eating “real” ramen was recently in New York City. This memory was much happier, and the ramen was much tastier!
You see, ramen is like the Japanese equivalent of a hamburger. You can get a fast, mass-produced, convenient version, find an amazing mom and pop type operation, or go high-end with lots of expensive add-ons. There are tons of versions and lots of overlap, as described here in this article on Serious Eats. As you can imagine, the high-end ramen is a distant cousin to those square packages in the discount bin at the store, but I hadn’t had a chance to try it until a recent work trip took me to New York City.
I was there a few weeks ago when the entire Northeast was in between winter storms. I barely managed to get in (my flight was the only one from Nashville that wasn’t canceled) and flew back out just before the next round of winter weather. So it was cold and snowy, and I wanted something to keep me warm and toasty. A big bowl of steaming ramen sounded perfect and Ippudo West was the ideal spot.
As a starter I got their special buns. (Hmm, it’s hard to write that sentence with a straight face!) I can’t remember all the details since I failed to take note of the ingredients, but I know there were spareribs and cucumbers. Now, I hate cucumbers, so it is a testament to the deliciousness of these that I didn’t even notice the cucumber- normally a deal breaker for me!
For my main course, I got the Akamaru Modern, described on the menu as, “A more bold, modern translation of the original pork broth; thin noodles topped with Ippudo’s secret ‘Umami Dama’ miso paste, pork chashu, cabbage, sesame kikurage mushrooms, scallions, and fragrant garlic oil.” I don’t know what’s in that secret miso paste, but this was so good I couldn’t stop eating. I was painfully full by the time I left! And that pork on top- it’s one of the many reasons I can’t fully follow my husband in his vegetarian ways.
Then, on Feb 15, I had the opportunity to eat more ramen, this time in Nashville! Authentic Japanese fare has made it’s way to Music City in two forms: Otaku South, a pop-up ramen shop that I have been wanting to try for months, and the new Two Ten Jack that just opened in East Nashville. Both were serving ramen along with several other chefs from Atlanta, Lousiville, and NYC at the recent Extra Large 2 charity event led by Sarah Gavigan of Otaku South to benefit the Pablove Foundation.
When I first heard about this event, I was eager to try Edward Lee’s ramen, but the line was way too long. I had heard good thing about the Skinny Kimchi Ramen by Mibo Love Ramen of Atlanta, so got that instead.
Now, I love kimchi and the version in my bowl was tasty. In fact, the whole thing with the seaweed and egg was good, but it didn’t quite match up to the Ippudo version, in large part due to the noodles. These seemed a little too much like the ones that come in the cheap package from the store. This was a large event so it is possible that the noodles suffered a bit from being made in bulk or they were using store bought of some kind as a time saver, but they did affect the overall dish. I had also heard that earlier in the evening this dish included a chicken skin crisp, but I’m guessing they ran out because mine lacked this element.
My husband and sister-in-law got Two Ten Jack’s vegetarian offering. While they liked theirs, both agreed that it was just OK.
That said, I’d still like to give Two Ten Jack another try. I’d order their ramen with pork or chicken broth instead – or maybe even skip the ramen and try a different menu option. And I am still hoping to try Otaku South. According to Mister Eats, the husband of Lesley of Lesley Eats, their vegetarian ramen is better than the pork! If you’ve eaten at Mobi Love in Atlanta I’d love to hear your thoughts. They appear to have been operating at the fundraiser as a pop-up and are currently not serving, but I hear they are looking for permanent space.
Are there any other favorite ramen spots I should try if I am traveling to a city near you?