What is Ramen anyways? It doesn’t always come in cheap packs from the grocery store?
Japanese Ramen has it’s origins in the Chinese noodles 拉面 “La-Mian” which literally means pulled noodles (see this picture of this guy the Chinese version). In fact, in Japan Ramen is still sometimes called Chinese style noodles. Somewhere along the way, The Japanese took the Chinese import and morphed it into something all their own.
How is authentic ramen different from instant ramen?
Real ramen broth has a depth of flavor not present in the instant form, which relies on salt and MSG to enhance taste. Good ramen derives it’s flavor from boiling a combination of animal bones and vegetables for a long time to give the broth a richness that that can’t be replicated otherwise. Much in the same way that Texas BBQ meat tastes magical when exposed to slow and low heat, the same is true of soup broth. Good ramen when done right, is a time intensive labor of love (just like great TX BBQ). Good ramen also comes garnished with all sorts of fresh, delicious things as well that complement the broth.
Simply put, great ramen can blow your mind.
For an in depth explanation about Japanese Ramen culture and the different styles of Ramen, David Chang and Anthony Bourdain dedicate 20 minutes to the subject in the awesome series “The Mind of A Chef” (bonus @ 8:45 for learning how the noodles are made in a factory from a man in a bright red wrestling style mask)
There’s also this great how to make ramen article on Serious Eats.
Ramen in Austin – sad beginnings
With all of the great food in town, the absence of a truly authentic ramen restaurant in Austin was one of the most obvious gaps in Austin cuisine. I had many conversations with Austin foodies about how one of the only things holding Austin back from being a great food city was the lack of more authentic Asian restaurants, specifically a Japanese ramen place. Most restaurant ramen in town served noodles that weren’t much better than the kind you can make from a package.
A couple years ago, along came Kome with it’s better, but not quite authentic ramen which expanded local palates. Later came (and soon went) the Michi Ramen food truck, which frequently sold out and commanded long lines – their broth showing great promise. Shortly after, Ramen Tatsu-ya exploded on to the scene – their product creating even longer lines on the daily despite scorching Texas summer heat.
Currently, Michi has returned with a brick and mortar and very recently Daruma Ramen came on to the scene. There’s another Austin ramen place rumored to be opening in June called Ramen Ninja. East Side King @ Hole in the Wall serves “ramen” but it’s so far from traditional that it’s not on this list.
How does the ramen in Austin stack up to the other good ramen around the world?
Austin ramen is currently really good at some places, and just OK at others. Haven eaten some very good and very dissapointing ramen in my time, I feel like I can give an informed opinion. Here are my reference good ramens:
Kyushu Tonkatsu Ramen in Japan – first time I ever had “real” ramen – thick broth with delicious slices of pork belly
Ramen in the back of a grocery store @ Santouka in LA – amazing and only 6 bucks – served along with fermented Natto (which is nasty).
I’ve also been to Ippudo in New York, but felt like it was extremely overrated and not worth $16 a bowl or a 2 hour wait. Also, recently I’ve had ramen from Miso Izakaya in Atlanta, which is great and a chef friend has made good homemade ramen based on the Momofuku recipe for me too.
The State of Austin Ramen – which ramen is best?
Ramen Tatsu-ya – my favorite ramen in town and the only broth that really stands up to the other non Austin places I’ve had. Everything here is good, and I’ve almost eaten the whole menu. Favorites are the Shoyu ramen and the miso ramen.
All of their sides are on point too – whether it’s the chashu bowl, brussel sprouts (yodas), curry bowl, almond tofu, or the cocopioca. The toppings in the ramen here are the best of any ramen spot in Austin too, especially the chashu (pork belly) and the ajitama egg (the yolk is sweet, gooey, and perfect). Ramen Tatsuya also has a good, inexpensive beer and sake selection, so that’s always a plus. Also, it’s owned by one of my favorite DJs in town – so that’s a plus.
You can also get the Tsukemen (dipping ramen) at Tatsu-ya that David Chang mentions in the “Mind of a Chef” video linked above.
Only downside here is a line to get in – I usually show up at 6pm and wait 20 minutes. If you go during prime time, you might have to wait 45 minutes.
Daruma Ramen opened in early 2013 and is related to Kome, the Izakaya / sushi restaurant in central Austin. The ramen at Daruma (which means a wooden doll) uses a chicken based broth, which is much lighter than the traditional pork based broth. Also, instead of pork belly, they give you chicken meat – so it’s a little hard to judge Daruma against the other spots in town, but I think the product is good for what it is.
Despite being lighter (notice no fat floating around), the shoyu broth still has a depth of flavor and you can tell that much care went into it and the toppings that are served with the ramen. The ajitama egg at Daruma is almost as good as the one at Tatsuya, and I enjoy the sweetness of the bamboo shoots. Their miso ramen packs A LOT of flavor, but might be a little salty for some people’s taste.
Sides at Daruma like the delicate croquette and the special soft serve ice cream (I had the chocolate / ginger) are also light but full of flavor. I recommend them both. I’d say Daruma is my 2nd favorite ramen joint in Austin.
Michi Ramen started as a truck and they opened a brick and mortar restaurant in late 2012. There was a huge amount of excitement when they first opened because they were the first ramen restaurant on the scene.
I enjoyed Michi when it was a truck, and I really want to like Michi as a brick and mortar. I have friends that are huge supporters whose taste I trust, but I think I’ve been going on off days and they are experiencing growing pains. I’ve been there 2 times and each time there were some technical difficulties. Pictured above is the Michi regular. The broth is pretty good, but I don’t feel that Michi’s product has the balance of the other 2 places in town, or that the staff is as obsessed about the broth / authenticity.
Here the ginger is very overpowering and the pork keeps changing every time I go. This time around it tasted like honey baked ham. Other times it tasted more like pork belly, but Tatsu-ya’s is definitely better. My friend swears I need to get the stout broth, but I have not tried it yet.
The sides I’ve had at Michi are not refined or original, they are your standard octopus salad, seaweed salad, and edamame that you’ve seen at countless generic Japanese restaurants or the sushi section of your local HEB (grocery store for you non Texans). Most people seem to like the noodles at Michi best, so they do have that going for them.
Bonus Tanuki for good luck in the Ramen Tatsuya mens’ bathroom
So there you have it, the current state of ramen shops in Austin Texas. Agree, disagree? Did you learn something new about ramen?
Let us know in the comments.