Chances are your relationship with ramen was forged back in your college days, when the cheap and easy meals were synonymous with the make-believe poverty of campus life. Or, perhaps you lost your way a bit and became acquainted with the noodles while serving time in area correctional facilities, where the ubiquitous soups have the status of near-universal currency. Whether you enjoyed them as suggested in a piping hot broth of MSG, or ate the freeze-dried noodle cakes straight out of the package like a giant cracker, ramen was a food that had a place — and we knew what its place was.
That made it a little difficult to fathom, starting several years back, when our friends on the coasts began to speak of ramen noodles as an elevated, subtle, and sublime dish. It ran counter to plain horse sense that our foodie cousin would pay $16 for a bowl of soup in SoHo when the commissary cart at the jail downtown was only charging $0.27… But we don’t know what we don’t know.
[box_info]Oni Ramen, 2801 W 7th St, FW. 817-882-6554. 11am-2:30pm daily, 5pm-10pm Sun-Thu, 5pm-4am Fri-Sat. All major credit cards accepted.[/box_info]
Real ramen took its time wending its way into our part of the world, but, like sushi, pho, and falafel, the Japanese comfort food is here to stay. There are now several spots in town to grab a bowl and find out what the fuss is all about. The newest venue is headed by Chef Jesus Garcia, a Houston native whose West 7th Street noodle shop serves classic Japanese preparations spiked with the heat of the American Southwest.
It hardly needs be said that the bowls of rich, luscious soup served at Oni Ramen bear only the faintest resemblance to a Cup Noodles eaten in the teachers’ lounge. There are varieties of noodles available, certainly, but the broth is what good ramen is all about. Oni’s kitchen offers interpretations of shio, a light salt broth often paired with fish, velvety tonkotsu broth rendered from pork bones, and miso broth sweetened with fermented soy bean paste. The menu features recommended combinations of noodles, broths, and toppings. Extra toppings, from chicken thighs to marinated eggs, may be added à la carte.
Oni Ramen has been open less than two weeks, but a recent weekend dinner service was already packed with an appreciative crowd. The friendly staff was still finding their feet as they ushered my guest and me to the well-appointed bar to place our order, but we got plenty of help sorting out the menu. We soon took a seat by the tall windows to enjoy a Bloody Mary and steamed soybean edamame while watching the traffic on West 7th Street. Dressed in soft woods and punctuated by colorful devil masks (oni means “demon”), the dining room is a cool and pleasant respite from the Texas heat.
In addition to the salted black soybeans, the kitchen served an appetizer of gyoza, crispy dumplings of ground pork spiced with ginger and garlic to be dipped in a vinegar-soy sauce. The wonton-style wrappers are so thin and crisp, and the pork filling so succulent, it would be tempting to make a meal of these little morsels.
My guest enjoyed the house’s vegetarian special, a briny shio broth packed with squiggly yellow noodles and topped with steamed greens and bamboo shoots. For an extra dollar each, my companion souped up his bowl with woodear mushrooms and shredded leeks.
I had hoped to try the kitchen’s tonkotsu soup, with its slippery constellations of forgotten bits salvaged from those less-publicized parts of the pig, but we were informed that it was temporarily unavailable. Instead, I was content to lose myself in the “Signature Miso” ramen, a sour broth decorated with kernel corn, bean sprouts, and a thick, soft slab of pork belly –– like a bacon-flavored pot roast.
An interesting upcharge on the menu is an invitation to “make any ramen spicy” by purchasing the kitchen’s signature blend of ghost and scorpion peppers. “Mild” costs an extra 50 cents; “demon” costs $3. I tried the $1 “hot” option with my miso broth and I spent the rest of the evening dabbing sweat from my forehead. It was an exciting, euphoric kind of heat — Chef Garcia knows his peppers — but I decided that I am a “mild” kind of guy, at least when it comes to Oni Ramen.
In addition to lunch and dinner service, Oni Ramen is making a play for the late-night crowd on Friday and Saturday nights, staying open until 4 a.m. As good as these noodles are in the summer heat, they will be even better in the small, cold hours of a November morning.
Gyoza dumplings $5
Light shio ramen $8
Signature miso ramen $9[/box_info]