So, I’m sure a lot of you are surprised that I haven’t written about Ramen Sho yet, especially considering that I’ve been such a repetitive complainer about the lack of ramen options in the City of Trees and its surrounding areas. I have gone there (twice now), and I’ve been ruminating over how to approach writing about it. If you want the short version, I’m going to say it’s worth checking out, but that there are some caveats to keep in mind. If you just want to see those, skip to the end. If you want details, here we go. It’s a long one, so buckle in…
I had just barely returned from Portland (as in I had just gotten back into town the previous night) when a helpful subscriber to my Facebook page informed me that Ramen Sho officially opened for business that day. Even though I had just had yet another amazing meal at Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya the day before, I couldn’t resist. I ended up rushing over after work to be there for the start of their dinner service at 5 p.m. and made it with about 15 minutes to spare. There was a line of about two dozen people waiting, and they informed us the wait would be a little bit longer since they had been wiped out of food at lunchtime and had to do some prep. Small bowls of popcorn and that Asian snack mix you see everywhere (wasabi peas, crackers, etc.) had been laid out for people to munch on, but I didn’t partake. Some guy, who said he hailed from Chicago if I recall correctly, was basically giving a lecture on his own ramen experiences to the assembled would-be diners. Eventually they opened the gate and we started filing in. The tables filled up quickly and I was asked if I would mind sitting at the bar since I was alone, which isn’t at all uncommon (especially in Asian restaurants), and I gladly accepted.
Lack of lumbar support aside, the seats are more comfortable than they look. I sat at the end of the bar, which seemed only polite to any other customers who might want to sit at the bar as well, but I quickly regretted my choice.
Mostly because of the air freshener, which if I closed my eyes made me feel like I was hanging out in a bathroom. But I digress. I was brought a menu and asked what I would like to drink. I asked for hot tea. Sorry, nope. Beer or sake? Afraid not, our local liquor overlords were taking their sweet time and once again another restaurant was forced to open without the proper license (interesting side note, people actually left because they couldn’t get alcohol). Iced tea? Soon, but not today. I decided to ask what they DID have to save some time, and was informed the selection consisted of Coke products and water. Dr. Pepper? The look on her face was answer enough, so I just decided it would be simpler and faster to just order a plain Coke.
I was brought a can of Coke and a glass of ice that already had a pool of water at the bottom, which is pretty interesting unless they just had pre-made glasses full of ice ready to go. And about that can: $1.99? Really? I understand that, as ridiculous as it is, it’s not uncommon for an eatery to charge anywhere from two to three dollars for a soda at this point, but generally that includes refills. I mean you can buy a damn two liter bottle for less than that. Hell, you can buy a twelve pack of soda for about the same price on a holiday weekend. Plus it was guaranteed to be watery thanks to the melty ice. The staff was so frazzled with the rush of customers that I wasn’t even going to bother trying to get anyone’s attention to ask for fresh ice, so I turned my attention to the menu.
Now there is more to the menu than that, and I didn’t just zoom in so you could see the ramen selection better. The rest of the items were covered with black duct tape.
See? I tried to peel the tape back for a look at the coming attractions, but it wouldn’t budge. Why they wouldn’t just print temporary paper menus I have no idea, because these are pretty much screwed. Back to the ramen selections. There were three options that day: tonkotsu (my personal fave), miso, and shoyu. The vegetarian ramen, which had been much touted in the local press prior to opening, was under one of those pieces of tape. Too intensive on the prep end considering the volume of customers is what I overheard, and I saw several people leave for that reason as well. Didn’t bother me none, though, I was obviously going to get the tonkotsu. And an order of gyoza, because why not? I settled back, nursing my increasingly watery beverage to make it last because I sure as hell wasn’t going to buy another two dollar can of soda, and waited for the waitress to come back around. And waited. And waited. I took the opportunity to observe the place, the staff, and my fellow diners. I did think it was odd when the people who had been directly in front of me in the line to get in were brought their food when my own order still had yet to be taken. Eventually they brought a bowl to the only other person at the bar, who had arrived twenty minutes after I did (at this point I had been there for about forty minutes). As the waitress went to leave that customer, I fixed her with what I hoped was an inquisitive yet stern look, and she asked if anyone had taken my order. I don’t know who else would have since she’s the one who seated me and took my drink order, and she certainly hadn’t come back since, but I (mostly) politely informed her that I was still waiting for someone to do so.
Once they had taken my order, they certainly made up for lost time. Within about three minutes, I had a piping hot bowl of noodles in front of me. So piping hot, in fact, that clouds of steam billowed from it and kept fogging up my camera lens, so I apologize for the quality of the picture because after about half a dozen tries I gave up. I understand that specifics vary quite a bit from chef to chef, especially in types and amounts of toppings and the makeup of the broth itself, and I approved of all the components in front of me, at least in theory. In practice, the ratio of noodles to broth was way off. In most ramen joints I’ve been to, it’s not uncommon to have enough broth left at the end of the meal that you order another serving of noodles to help finish it off. That certainly wasn’t going to be the issue here since additional noodles weren’t a menu option. Come to think of it, there were no customization options available. Moving on, I do prefer a whole egg to half, but half is not unheard of or even uncommon. Still, this was a bit overcooked for my tastes. The consistency of the yolk was basically custardy. At least it was good flavor-wise. The menu said that an order of ramen comes with pork belly, soft-boiled egg, bean sprouts, green onion, and spinach. I saw no spinach, but there was fungus (wood ear mushroom I think?) and pickled red ginger, which weren’t mentioned on the menu. As for the pork belly, as I said I had had ramen in Portland the previous day. While that bowl had cost a couple of bucks more, it was bigger and it came with a whole egg, and while upgrading from regular pork to pork belly is an additional cost at Kizuki, it gets you a veritable slab of perfectly cooked, golden brown meat. Ramen Sho’s pork belly was pinkish grey (steamed or boiled perhaps?), about the size of a thick piece of bacon, and I have to say that it’s some of the worst quality I’ve ever been served. Rather than being succulent and melt-in-your-mouth, it was a bit on the chewy side, and the fat was still a bit more on the solid side than I like. This isn’t to say it was bad, believe it or not, it was actually okay and perfectly edible. I’m just used to much better quality/preparation from ramen eateries. The noodles themselves were a bit on the soft side for my tastes, you want them left a bit firmer so they don’t overcook in the piping hot broth while you eat. And speaking of the broth, it was tasty but a bit on the weak side. I suspect they use a higher ratio of chicken than I’m used to. The flavors also weren’t as complex as some I’ve had, though to be fair those tended to be specific derivations such as shoyu tonkotsu or black garlic oil tonkotsu, but even for a straightforward tonkotsu broth this is definitely on the mild side. Samurai Ramen in Seattle does a basic tonkotsu that tastes like a creamy pork concentrate extract, the kind of thing you could just drink a mug of on a cold winter’s day. Or at least I could. Ramen Sho’s version built in flavor as I ate it, but just as was starting to taste really good it was pretty much gone.
My gyoza were served as I was tackling the ramen, but I’m guessing they just brought everything out as soon as they could rather than serving the appetizer first due to the delay. They were good, but not noticeably better than any of the other options around town. The dumpling skins were a little thinner than I like, and small holes had allowed oil to get inside as they cooked. Plus I noticed some inconsistency in the way they were cooked as I looked around at some of the other tables. Mine were kind of an all-over golden brown, while others seemed to have been cripsed on one side in traditional potsticker style. Still, you know I love my dumplings, and as I said they were good.
I returned about a week and a half later, I figured that would give them time to work out some of the kinks and get up to speed. I brought Ms. Golden Rule’s younger daughter with me because she had been complaining about wanting ramen ever since the last time I took her for some, which to be fair was a couple of years ago on a road trip. To keep things simple, I replicated my previous order, which was easy enough because they had even less menu options (and more duct tape) on the menus this go-around. But at least they have alcohol now. This time I was just brought a glass of soda, same price but still no refill. I don’t know if they don’t give refills or whether it was just overlooked. Anyway, onto the food.
This time the gyoza was crispy on one side, maybe a bit too much for some but I personally dig the flavor of a little char. A thicker dumpling skin this time around also managed to keep the oil out of the dumplings. The filling was the same so far as I could tell, but still an improvement overall.
I was also given a dipping sauce for the dumplings this time, a slightly smoky and mildly spicy accompaniment that I found most welcome, and definitely more interesting than the plain soy sauce I’d made due with on my first visit.
My tonkotsu ramen was also mostly improved this time around. Slightly more broth with a slightly richer flavor (still a bit mild for my tastes, I’m afraid), but it definitely had more oil floating at the top and the broth had more of that rich, milky color and consistency. The noodles were firmer this visit, too. Still no spinach, but an entire egg this time!
Still firmer on the yolk than I personally prefer, but also still an improvement over the previous visit. Unfortunately, the pork belly didn’t fare as well. The serving was bigger (or at least thicker), but that just made the chewiness more obvious.
My final thoughts? I think this place will succeed because there has been a demand and they’ve been consistently busy, and I definitely recommend checking it out for a few reasons. First of all, a lot of you have never been to a specialty ramen joint before, because we’ve never had one. You stumble across the occasional bowl at a Japanese or Korean restaurant downtown, but they range from safe and boring to decidedly non-traditional. If you’re one of those with no frame of reference other than cheap packets of instant noodles that make a quick, salty dinner for under twenty-five cents, this will open up a whole new world for you. Also, if you HAVE been to a good ramen joint but it’s been a while, odds are you’ll be more impressed than the sorry son of a bitch writing this, who seeks out great ramen every time he goes on vacation and had just had some very recently. When a craving strikes me, you’ll find me at Ramen Sho because it is decent and it’s a lot easier than driving seven or eight hours to Portland or Seattle. Plus, if this place does well, other places are likely to open, and competition can only make all the players step up their game. Ramen Sho definitely has potential. If they were to ask me for my recommendations, here’s what I’d tell them: I get that it’s nice to be able to say “all our ramen options are under ten dollars”, and that perhaps they didn’t want to make the tonkotsu broth too rich for the lowest common denominator factor, but there are people here who have traveled and have some experience. Offer a few higher-end options as well. Kizuki’s biggest seller in this country (they’re a chain based in Japan) is their extra-rich garlic tonkotsu. If you want to do a chicken broth go ahead, but tonkotsu should be primarily about the pork, so maybe let that shine a bit more and do a chicken broth separately for those who don’t like pork as much as I do. If you’re overcooking the eggs because you’re worried the completely runny yolks might be off-putting for some, offer them an option. Other places have completely hard-boiled eggs available for the timid types. You have to step up your pork belly game though. A great piece of belly is a beautiful thing, and the perfect accompaniment to a bowl of tonkotsu.
I’m skylarking at this point, I know, since they don’t even have the four varieties they had planned consistently available and zero customization. And who knows, they may be planning improvements and changes once they’ve firmly found their footing, and the one size fits all approach may be merely introductory. Still, Boise needs a world-class ramen joint. We’ve waited a long time and we deserve one, damnit. At this point, Ramen Sho is not that place. At least, not yet.