Austin Eats Series: Ramen

If a great bowl of Ramen is what you’re hungering for the city of Austin has you covered. Austin has developed a world-class food scene recognized nationally by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, thrilllist.com and Travel + Leisure magazine. That’s a pretty impressive resume!

So it would make sense that if Ramen’s your game, Austin’s your place. With that in mind we’re going visit and compare three of Austin’s most well-known, and highly regarded, Ramen haunts. But first, we need to know more about this inexplicably addictive noodle-soup.

History

The history of Ramen is messy, hotly debated, and incredibly fascinating. For the sake (not saké) of brevity we won’t go into the specifics of it, but check out this article if you’re interested. What we need to know is that Ramen originated in China but became hugely popular in Japan due to its low cost and satiating nature. It was considered a unique reflection of the chef and an act of rebellion.

After being all but wiped out due to the food and fuel shortages during WWII, instant ramen was introduced in 1958, which forever changed the perception of the dish. Instant ramen gained popularity, dropped in price thanks to mass production (I’m looking at you Maruchan), and became ubiquitous with college-dorm life.

To know what truly makes ramen different then other noodle soups you have to look at the noodle itself. Unlike rice and udon noodles, ramen noodles are made with sodium carbonate, an alkaline salt produced by baking sodium bicarbonate (thanks for the recipe David Chang!). This produces the yellow color and elasticity we have come to expect from ramen noodles.

Luckily for foodies, restaurants like Rai Rai Ken and culinary leaders such as David Chang and Ivan Orkin have put the “soul” back in ramen with their inspired creations. This has birthed a market for “gourmet” ramen, which, coincidentally, just reflects the dish’s original nature.

The Eats

Okay, now on to the good stuff. Let’s compare Austin’s three heaviest hitters in the ramen scene.

#3. Komé

http://www.kome-austin.com/

With an elegantly minimalistic interior, juxtaposed bamboo and cerulean blue walls, and an exposed sushi counter, Komé feels akin to stepping into a traditional Japanese sushi den. It’s bright and quiet, with the chatter of guests providing the only soundtrack.

Only three ramen appear on the menu: tonkotsu, miso, and vegan miso. Very traditional in style with beautiful design, the Tonkotsu and Miso broths are light, delicate, and have a definitive scale of flavors. If you, like me, find them a bit lacking in assertion, you can add in a spicy kimchi side. The ramen noodles are springy, tender, and have great texture.

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Overall it’s apparent Komé’s goal is to offer very traditional and subtle ramen options. While their vegan ramen was surprisingly flavorful, and the caramelization of the chashu in the tonkotsu was wonderful, the lack of complexity and creativity left Komé flat in the ramen department.

Side Note: The takoyaki (squid dumplings) are a true thing of beauty, don’t sleep on them

#2. Michi Ramen

http://www.michiramen.com/

Right off the bat, Michi Ramen comes at you with high energy and creativity. The music is loud, the walls are adorned by local artists, and the bar takes center stage with a generous selection of drafts. It’s dark, it’s utilitarian, it’s to the point. With big screen TVs playing live sports in main view Michi definitely comes across as a bar first, restaurant second. But don’t let that fool you, there’s talent in that kitchen.

Michi offers an unparalleled amount of innovation on their menu, which includes ten ramen options, three of which are changing seasonal creations. From there you choose from three different broth types: light, regular, and stout (which I can only describe as a concentrated flavor grenade). Care for something extra in your ramen? No problem, you can have any of the twenty-six toppings to make your ramen as unique as you.

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The ramen noodles were angel hair thin while maintaining great dexterity. The tonkotsu broth is definitely one of the absolute best I’ve taste. And while Michi gets tons of extra credit for ingenuity, they get docked for execution. The Texas ramen falls flat with a heavily seasoned but ultimately bland broth and a fairly chewy BBQ pork rib.

They’ve got this for a redeeming factor though, the chashu “burnt ends” are moist, tender, and packed with flavor. The chashu don starter could be a stand-alone meal, and one I would happily order.

#1 Ramen Tatsu-Ya:

http://ramen-tatsuya.com/

Bold, hip, loud, Austin. Four words that describe Ramen Tatsu-Ya to it’s core. From the moment you’re faced with the mural of Japanese fan art along the entry wall (where you will likely wait to gain entry) to grabbing a box seat in the predominately wood grain dining room, you’ll thing only one thing: awesome. Tatsu-Ya is unabashedly audacious and thoroughly dedicated to its craft of making ramen.

The tonkotsu is rich and luxurious, with an incredible mouth feel and clean flavor profile. My personal favorite, the mi-so-hot, packs an intense punch of miso and red chile. I recommend adding in kikurage (woodear mushroom) and beni shoga (pickled ginger) to provide some balance to the heat. And don’t worry vegetarians, they’ve got you covered with an equally delicious veggie ramen that offers complex flavor and full-bodied umami.

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Tatsu-Ya’s ramen noodles have great integrity and flavor, perfect color, and come piled high. The various bombs and extra toppings allow you to add a personal touch to any of their seven ramen options.

Overall Ramen Tatsu-Ya nails the dish in every way. From creativity to execution, they are on point. The painstaking amount of effort they put into their tonkotsu broth cannot be subdued by even the most complex flavor arrangement on the menu. Seriously, try to, it can’t be done. Combine that with the hip ambience, unique starters (the Sweet & Sour Yodas are like candy), and local buzz and you’ve got a real winner in my book.

Hope you enjoyed this version of Austin Eats. Check back soon as we take on another Austin staple: Tacos!

Cheers!

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