Ramen goes gourmet
It’s 2 a.m., my eyes are fatigued after staring at hydrocarbon structures for the past 12 hours and my stomach whines in hunger. What rises to the occasion? Beloved Shin ramen. Nothing is more blissful than the crinkling sound right before the iconic red package bursts open. Ever since it evolved from the traditional East Asian noodle dish to the widely available product sold today, Shin has become quite the collegiate favorite. College students adore Shin because it’s a comfort food staple that is simple, easy and delicious. It consistently delivers quality and quantity. But what about the newfangled rise of gourmet ramen? Restaurants are popping up all over America and serving a taste of Japan’s famous noodles. Customers can enjoy steaming, large bowls of handcrafted ramen in sleek, vibrant nooks that defi nitely surpass eating instant Shin in a dingy dorm room. However, classy ramen usually costs around $11 to $12 while a pack of Shin is cheaper than a dollar — yet people are still fl ocking to these noodle destinations in droves. What makes gourmet ramen so popular? I recall the very fi rst moment I faced o with a fancy bowl of ramen. It looked stunning, with thin noodles bobbing amid a light pork broth with pork belly, bean sprouts and green onion adorning the top. It was a scrumptious, hearty meal created with plenty of meticulous detail. Since then, I have scarfed down many more bowls and come to believe that ramen has gained such a delectable reputation because it manages to blend versatility with simplicity. The dish basically consists of noodles in a soup or broth, which are topped with a couple slices of meat and a sprinkle of vegetables. Yet there are multiple kinds of broths, noodles, meats and toppings, like the infamous soft boiled egg. The possibilities are endless. More components can be added and some can be removed. I’ve been to numerous ramen restaurants and come to expect staring contests with the menu. Will it be spicy miso or low-sodium chicken? Braised pork or seafood? With the horde of options, ramen manages to cater to every customer’s taste. Gourmet ramen doesn’t just stick to the curly, wavy noodles like Shin does; there are thick noodles, thin noodles and even ones that resemble spaghetti. Noodle style changes from restaurant to restaurant, and many places boast ornate noodle-making machines. There are ramen bars in Japan that serve noodles almost the size of udon while the noodles at Jinya Ramen Bar here in Houston are vermicelli-thin. Broths, on the other hand, are judged based on their degrees of savoriness and spiciness, hints of dashi (the base for miso) and thickness. Some ramen spots serve soups with a disconcerting fi lm of oil on top, but Kukai Izakaya in Portland presents a sublime concoction that is tinged with the right amount of salt and tonkotsu richness. To be honest, I always leave a ramen restaurant satisfi ed even if I do not end up loving that particular place, because certain components of the meal are still stellar if others fall fl at. That’s the beauty of ramen. Since every restaurant’s take on these noodles di ers, a wide audience can be reached. Japan may look at ramen as a common staple, like how Americans view hamburgers, but America is catching on to ramen’s marvelous versatility and ability to please many people’s palates. Check out some of Houston’s popular ramen places, such as Tiger Den, Ninja Ramen, Samurai Noodle and the aforementioned Jinya to dis
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