Ramen is a way of life in Japan, and lately it's found a foothold in the home of gumbo too. New Orleans is slurping up the hearty noodle soup, and the new interest is driving a diversity of different concepts.
The latest example launches Thursday, Jan. 18, when the pop-up Ramen Y'all begins a regular Thursday through Saturday dinner and late-night residency inside CBD Social, a new spot at 709 St. Charles Ave., between the well-known restaurants Herbsaint and Marcello's Restaurant & Wine Bar.
It's the next step for chef Yutaka Hitomi, a native of Niigata, Japan, Tulane grad and a cook at Commander's Palace. He first introduced Ramen Y'all last year in collaboration with his girlfriend Joni Davis. It was a recurring pop-up, making appearances at Barrel Proof and the Freret Beer Room. It acquired a cult following but still had to contend with the limitations of borrowed kitchen space.
“It's going to be nice to have a full-sized commercial kitchen available for us all the time, to meet the demand for ramen," said Hitomi.
And there is a demand. Davis said the first two pop-up events sold out in less than 30 minutes.
“Our second pop-up had about 400 people lined up outside of Barrel Proof, wrapped around the building,” said Davis, a Mississippi native and the “y’all in ‘Ramen Y’all.' ” They now sell tickets on Eventbrite prior to the pop-up events, she said.
Hitomi began cooking ramen at home, experimenting with the complex ingredients that often comprise a seasoned, soft boiled egg, long wheat noodles and sliced pork, brimming in a meat-based broth that’s flavored with miso. He delved deeper into his ramen research by traveling to Tokyo with Davis, eating “as much ramen as (they) could stand” and attending a weeklong ramen course at Yamato Noodle School.
Ramen Y’all’s evolving menu includes creamy, 12-hour tonkotsu ramen with charred garlic oil, soft, marinated egg and braised pork belly; wakame seaweed salads; gyoza dumplings; okonomiyaki fries with house-made kewpie mayonnaise and otafuku sauce, sauteed cabbage and bacon gremolata; matcha-infused cheesecake topped with pistachio crumbles; and New Orleans-style beignets filled with a sweet azuki bean filling and topped with praline sauce.
New in noodles
Ramen Y’all joins a handful of restaurants that specialize in the Japanese soup, including Royal Sushi & Bar and Little Tokyo Small Plates & Noodle Bar. Even eateries typically known for sushi, like Rock-n-Sake, have elevated their ramen options.
A cozy noodle shop called Nomiya, which opened in August on Magazine Street, offers three variations of tonkotsu pork-based ramen — including one spicy number known as geki-kara. The meals can be customized with garnishes.
“Every single ramen has its own signature, but the key is how the broth and the meat is prepared and how the noodles are cooked,” said Nomiya’s co-owner, Allen Nguyen. “You can go a little more frou-frou and add a bunch of crazy toppings, but ultimately, you want to have those things in line before you add anything to it.”
Nomiya began as a collaboration between Nguyen, who is also the owner of Bayou Hot Wings, and Hidetoshi “Elvis” Suzuki, the owner Kanno California Sushi Bar in Fat City. Nguyen’s sister, Christie Nguyen, runs the restaurant’s daily operations.
Christie has worked at ramen restaurants in New York City and Washington, D.C., and researched ramen while traveling through Japan.
“She puts in all the hard work,” said Nguyen, adding that Christie has suggested ways to expand their offerings because the response to their limited menu has been so strong.
“It's really exciting because you're bringing something to the city that hasn't been overly done yet,” said Nguyen.
Kin in Gert Town already has earned a glowing reputation on the dining scene. The narrow, isolated eatery is often packed with hungry patrons slurping long wheat noodles from artfully prepared bowls of soup.
Chef Hieu Than, the owner of Kin, believes the unusual location actually works in his favor.
“We knew we were going to be doing something that people might not even like, so why not do it in a place that is inconvenient for everyone,” Than half-joked. “I like that we're alone and we get to do whatever we want.”
Than, who was born in Saigon, Vietnam, explored the ramen world with his wife by trying the dish at a variety of restaurants.
It took the couple about two years to concoct the perfect house-made noodle and broth recipes.
“We wanted to do something entirely on our own,” said Than.
The most popular bowl — the miso bowl — features an ample Japanese miso base, a pork and chicken broth, roasted corn-cream and garlic, and seasoned pork shoulder, cooked to order.
Traces of Than’s Vietnamese heritage appear in the lemongrass and fresh cilantro.
“The miso bowl is the winner because it's a bowl that encompasses very familiar flavors,” said Than. “It's really approachable.”
A ramen moment?
Although ramen seems to be having a moment, now-closed noodle shops serve as a reminder that the dish hasn’t quite taken off the way pho has, for example.
“The ramen here doesn’t come from an immigrant community, per se. So as a consequence, it’s not developing in a way that it would in Los Angeles, where you have a large Japanese community,” said David Beriss, who teaches the anthropology of food and culture at the University of New Orleans. “There are not a lot of Japanese-Americans here, whereas there’s a big Vietnamese-American community here. The pho here arises not as a demand for exotic food.”
He also believes that foods of immigrants are treated as if they should be cheap, so some people hesitate to pay $15 for a bowl of ramen — especially if they equate the dish with the instant noodle cups eaten in college dorm rooms.
Preparing the ramen is a laborious and time-consuming process. Hitomi, of Ramen Y’all, says some customers are initially surprised by both the price and the richness of his ramen, but he continues to earn repeat customers.
Expanding the menu is a step in Hitomi’s plan. He hopes eventually to open a conventional restaurant are serve ramen seven nights a week.
“It's been a dream for a little over a year to focus full time on Ramen Y'all,” said Hitomi. “We're finally at the place where we get to do that three nights a week, which is a really great starting point.”
709 St. Charles Ave., 504-405-7360
Thu.-Sat., 6 p.m.-2 a.m.
4226 Magazine St., no phone
Tue.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
4600 Washington Ave., 504-304-8557
Tue.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
1913 Royal St., 504-827-1900
Mon.-Thu., noon-11 p.m., Fri./Sat., noon-midnight, Sun. noon-10 p.m.
Little Tokyo Small Plates & Noodle Bar
1340 S. Carrollton Ave., 504-861-6088
Daily Noon-1 a.m.
What does $5 get you these days? At Kin, a consistently unconventional New Orleans eatery, the answer is a plate of dumplings that burst with …
At the corner of Tulane and Broad, you can get a box of chicken wings and a bottle of pills with one stop at Best Life, a pharmacy that double…