Two years ago it was barbecue. Last year, it was fried chicken. This year, the food world is going gaga for ramen, even going so far as to christen 2016 "The Year of Ramen," in publication after publication.
(Cue eye roll.)
It's not that there is anything wrong with ramen per se, or even its increased popularity stateside. When done well, the steaming hot noodle soup is a delightful mélange of nuanced flavors and layers of texture — luscious pork broth and funky miso surrounding vegetables, spongy noodles and soft-boiled eggs. It's a meal in a bowl that has grown so popular outside of its native Japan that just about every self-described foodie in the country has jumped on the bandwagon. Head to L.A. or New York and you'll see ramen shops in every neighborhood, filled with diners clamoring to slurp up the trendy dish.
Judging from the number of ramen shops that have opened or are slated to open later this year, local restaurateurs are banking on the dish's popularity to translate to St. Louis diners. Jason Jan is the latest person who hopes to capitalize on all of that buzz with his latest venture, Nami Ramen.
Jan, who made a name for himself as the founder of the frozen yogurt chain FroYo, opened his fast-casual noodle shop in Clayton this past January, with clear aspirations to do for ramen what Chipotle did for the burrito (or, maybe, what FroYo did for fro yo). Smartly packaged and accessible, Jan's Clayton shop shows clear signs of a concept designed for franchising.
For Jan, however, Nami Ramen is about much more than just cashing in on a trend. It's born out of a love affair that began when he started making ramen for himself as an international student at the University of Missouri St. Louis way back in 1997, well before slurping was the "it" way to eat. He studied the intricacies of the dish — the broth, the noodles, the accouterments — and learned to make everything himself from scratch.
The endeavor was little more than a labor of love turned family dinner favorite, but Jan could not shake the feeling that he should open a ramen shop of his own. About two years ago, Jan saw an opening in the market. Determined to fill it, he began sketching out an idea for what would become Nami Ramen. He spent six weeks working in a ramen shop in Yokohama, Japan, so that he could hone his technique and get a clear picture of the type of place he wanted to recreate stateside.
The resulting restaurant is a sleek, modern eatery located on the corner of Maryland and Central in the old House of Wong. The space is much changed since its days of churning out General Tso's chicken. The room is painted charcoal grey with exposed brick accents. Wooden communal tables of varying size provide seating for roughly 75 guests. An open kitchen that allows diners to witness their dishes being made sits off to the side, behind the order counter. The light fixtures are the most striking aesthetic features: Exposed bulbs hang from a web of red cords that evoke ramen noodles.
The other thing that struck me about Nami Ramen is how well-branded it is. From the logo to the packaging to a note about the "Nami Ramen Green Initiative" on the hand dryers in the bathroom, I was so convinced this was a national chain I had to check myself on multiple occasions. It's clear that Jan is banking on this being the first of multiple locations.
For that to happen, though, Jan needs his flagship to be a big success, which was not fully in evidence on my visits. Of the ramen dishes on offer, the "Nami Signature Tonkatsu" is the strongest, rich with flavor from pork bones that have simmered with shio tare (salt and seasonings) for 24 hours. Corn, wood-ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots and onions bob in the opaque broth with appropriately spongy noodles made locally, with Jan's input, by Midwest Pasta. The highlights of the bowl are the thin discs of succulent braised pork that float atop the liquid. The fatty, ginger-scented belly is a welcome change from the often tough and lean loin served at other shops in town.
"Jigoku Ramen," however, was less successful. The dish is referred to as a "bonfire in a bowl," but the significant spice factor was drowned out by how fatty the dish was. The broth was so oily it had the texture of a meat-based soup that hadn't been skimmed. Adding to the effect, the bowl was filled with minced pork — together, the meat and unctuous broth were as if someone had rendered a pack of fatty ground pork, then emulsified it with hot chili water. A few bites were tolerable; any more was too much.
The "Breakfast Ramen" did not fare much better. The base of the soup is tonkatsu broth, though it tastes like the chef dumped a can of corn into some chicken stock and didn't bother to season it. The bland broth teemed with corn kernels, a poached egg, bean sprouts, spinach and onions — all fine enough, though the dish's protein was problematic. Taking the breakfast schtick too literally, Nami Ramen uses actual strips of bacon in the dish. Pork belly would have been delightfully tongue-in-cheek; actual bacon had the texture of jerky and just seemed out of place.
Nami Ramen offers a few rice bowls, each served with assorted vegetables and meat options all dressed with a sweet and salty soy-based glaze. Chicken katsu is tender and coated in crisp, herbed breadcrumbs. Tempura shrimp is crunchy and fried golden brown. Both get a little dry without additional soy or one of the other tableside condiments but are otherwise pleasant enough options.
The small appetizer menu consists of "Karaage Chicken," a heaping bowl of white and dark meat nuggets that have been coated in perfumey breading. A creamy, mayonnaise based chili sauce works well for a dipping sauce, though the heaviness of the breading and mayo gets overwhelming a few nuggets in. The excellent gyoza, or pork dumplings, however, benefit from a crunchy, pan-fried exterior. They pair well with the accompanying ginger soy sauce.
Of the steam buns, the braised pork belly is far and away the best — the melt-in-the-mouth meat is glazed with a sticky soy and ginger sauce that gets cut by strips of crisp cucumber. Shredded curry chicken was moist, but overwhelmed by lemongrass. Both are wrapped in soft, fluffy steam buns.
For a fast-casual restaurant in the middle of Clayton, I was surprised that Nami Ramen wasn't packed on either of my visits in the heart of what should have been a lunch rush. The price point may be a factor. The ramen and rice bowls are massive — you could easily make two, if not three, meals out of one order. And this is the real stuff, not the packeted provenance of poor college students. Still, the $14 to $15 price tag makes this a pricey lunch for a meal without table service.
I also question whether the Clayton lawyers who comprise the city's lunch crowd want to run the risk of splattering noodles and broth over their business suits before heading off to mediation. That's never a great look — no matter how trendy it may be.