Back in Chow, Baby’s college days, it slurped down more than its share of ramen noodles. I used to buy them for 50 cents a pack, toss in a little soy and sriracha sauce, and — voilà! A meal fit for a broke, dateless English major. Now ramen joints are popping up all over the country, and the wave has even reached our steak-crazed shores. But these new places aren’t offering the kind of noodles you get at Sack ’N’ Save. No, these new culinary darlings offer authentic, often elevated fare –– an Asian version of upscale comfort food. But unlike the American version of fancy-homey grub, I’m not tired of it yet.
A few weeks ago Hanabi Ramen & Izakaya (3204 Camp Bowie Blvd., Suite 106) opened its doors in the West 7th Street area. Surely, I thought, the place would be filled with skinny-jeaned hipsters hoping to earn cool points. Instead, I was pleased to see the place populated mostly by Asians (including some of the skinny-jeaned sort, to be sure). I took that as a good omen.
The décor is strip-mall swank, with dark wood tables, half-brick walls, hanging light fixtures, and a little Ikea shelf housing a four-book library. Ordering required some pointing and gesturing because of the language barrier, but it wasn’t for lack of effort on the part of the service staff to understand my lame guesses at pronouncing Japanese words.
The place doesn’t serve just ramen. It also has a large selection of izakaya, essentially Japanese tapas. My guests and I started our dinner on that page of the menu with the moist, intensely flavored, grilled yellowtail cheek and collar ($9.50), served with a semi-sweet, lemony sauce. The cheek meat was delicate and succulent. The collar was more steak-like and flaky, served on the bone, which added a depth of sweet flavor. The offering was delicious, but it’s the kind of plate that makes my lack of chopstick chops all the more glaring. The pork and chicken gyoza ($5), served with spicy chili oil, was decent, if forgettable.
A ramen joint is not the kind of place you’d want to take a first date. There’s a lot of slurping, splashing, and noodles slipping off your chopsticks. The kara miso tsukemen entrée ($13) is even more fraught with peril, since it’s designed to be a noodle-dipping dish. The sauce and noodles are served in different bowls, though I cheated and just dumped one into the other. It made for a delicious, soupy bowl that was well worth the splash risk. The noodles are thicker and more spaghetti-like than your average ramen, and the sauce contained every ingredient in the cupboard: miso, chicken stock, pork belly, bamboo, chives, cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, and white and green onions. The fatty, tender pork belly flavor shone through the miso-heavy mix.
The kara miso ramen ($12) entrée was similar, though the noodles were regular-gauge ramen, and the sauce was served in the same bowl. Both entrées came with ajitama, a soft-boiled egg soaked in soy and sesame oil, dashi stock, garlic, ginger, and mirin. The egg added a pleasant, subtle level of umami, a Japanese word for a savory, pungent taste.
Yeah, (sniff), you could say I’ve matured a lot since college. Not only do I know how to point to menu items in four Asian languages and talk convincingly about cheek meat and feng shui, but I know top-quality ramen when I wear it. … I mean, slurp it.
Contact Chow, Baby at firstname.lastname@example.org