Remember when the ramen craze hit? Every writer in the world wrote some form of this sentence: “This isn’t your college dorm room ramen.” Or: “Chef So-And-So is turning everyone’s favorite bargain noodle into something blah-blah-blah.” It was kind of the same deal with food trucks: “These aren’t the same roach-coaches you’re used to blaming for your botulism.”
We’re past that, aren’t we? I can write a column about Chef Jesus Garcia of Oni Ramen (2801 W 7th St, 817-882-6554) without having to preface the whole thing with some inane nod to the fact that most people’s introduction to the noodle involved a Styrofoam cup, water, and a microwave, right? Probably not, since I just did it sneakily.
Haute ramen, the kind served at Garcia’s outstanding new soup kitchen, hasn’t yet taken hold in Fort Worth as strongly as it did in, say, Dallas and other large cities. By my math, we have three such places: Oni, Hanabi Ramen & Izakaya, and Chef Kevin Martinez’ Yatai Food Truck. But it’s quality that matters, right?
Garcia’s road to restaurant ownership was as circuitous as a child’s placemat maze. His path started as the chef of Little Lilly Sushi (6100 Camp Bowie Blvd, Ste 12, 817-989-8886), where he was lauded by a certain local food critic (it was me!) as the best chef in this city. After a dramatic and sudden exit from the sushi shrine, he left for Seattle to work and learn about how to run a ramen joint, and found himself training in Japan for a brief time. The Sushi Axiom ownership group, who also partly owned the now-defunct Kin-Kin Urban Thai and Bite City Grill, recruited him back to the area. Oni slid on into the company’s lease of Kin-Kin’s former space.
As happy as I was that Garcia returned, I was also a little bummed that he wasn’t doing sushi. But, much like TV shows produced by Dick Wolf and music by Radiohead, I trust anything the guy puts his name on.
Garcia’s menu asks diners to make a lot of choices. You can choose the broth, protein, and everything else in your soup –– there are also a few signature dishes for those who can’t make decisions, but you still have to pick a spice level. (The “Oni,” which is Japanese for “demon,” features the tear-jerking Carolina Reaper pepper.) If you opt for the poke bowl, you also have to decide what kind of fish and extra toppings come with it.
Maybe I was just being stubborn ordering the only raw fish dish on the former sushi chef’s menu, but the first time I checked out the place, I chose the large poke bowl ($14), which comes with two toppings. The mix of sushi-grade salmon and tuna sat atop perfectly sticky rice, and, at my request, were accompanied by thinly sliced avocados and salty salmon roe. The sum of the parts was a fresh-tasting, light, delightful combination of straightforward ingredients mixed with a citrus soy sauce, green and sweet onions, ogo seaweed, cucumber, and sesame seeds.
I’m hardly averse to making decisions –– the Kyushu Tonlotsu ramen ($11) just looked better than anything I could have come up with. Spicy black garlic oil pooled atop the rich pork broth like an oil spill. The thin noodles were perfectly al dente and begged to be slurped. The accompanying succulent pork belly, woodear mushrooms, and mustard greens desperately needed the bright tones of the red ginger to cut through the dark, belly-warming series of exquisite but simple tastes.
Oni is open until 4am on weekends, which kind of fits with the noodle’s college days party image. But that’s about the only thing Garcia’s ramen has in common with the stuff you get at 7-Eleven for 89-cents.