Sushi has been part of the American dining scene for decades, as has its sense of public awareness, regardless of whether or not one happens to be a fan of the Japanese delicacy.
Ramen, on the other hand, has had an odd place in our nation’s collective culinary perception, despite its being a staple food source in Japan and other East Asian nations for centuries.
Many tend to associate ramen with the inexpensive, microwavable noodle soup often packaged with a dried flavor packet, a meal that has been a longtime fixture in college dormitories, along with instant mac-and-cheese.
In reality, however, ramen prepared properly by a savvy chef using quality ingredients can be a heavenly culinary experience, and one that has recently begun to rapidly infiltrate the American dining scene the way sushi started to 50 years ago.
Eric Zheng has owned and operated two sushi restaurants in Egg Harbor Township for several years. About four months ago, he repurposed one of them into Ramen Wakana, an establishment specializing in the noodle-based soup whose preparation is literally open to hundreds of different combinations.
“The other place still specializes in sushi and hibachi, but we changed this to a ramen shop since there are not many ramen shops in this area,” Zheng says. “We wanted to help bring different options to the public. You can see, especially in the big cities, that it is becoming more and more popular in American culture.
“It’s going to take some time for the metropolitan areas to accept it in the same way they accepted sushi, but you go to places like New York, Philadelphia, and you’re starting to see ramen shops pop up left and right. More and more people are getting to know what it is.”
Various high-grade, thinly sliced raw fish are the big stars of sushi establishments, but it is the noodles and the broths that are the standouts in ramen restaurants. Ramen Wakana allows patrons to check off, on paper menus, how spicy they would like their broth, what style they would like their noodles to be, and the texture that they would prefer their noodles to be cooked.
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“It’s good to have choices to better accommodate customers’ taste preferences,” Zheng says. “Some prefer al dente (noodles with a more firm texture) and some prefer a softer noodle. This gives them that option, and we also give them the options of spicy, mild or in between for broths.”
Pork-bone broth is the prevailing style used in nearly all ramen main-course dishes, of which there are seven basic options at Ramen Wakana ranging in price from $11 to $16. There is also a vegetable-broth option ($11) in a dish that features bamboo shoots, wood-ear mushrooms, bean sprouts, scallions, corn and ajitama, which is a soft-boiled egg.
One of the most popular dishes, says Zheng, is Tonkotsu — a pork-bone broth with chashu (roasted pork), seasonal vegetables, scallions, a fish cake and nori seaweed served over a chosen noodle style and texture.
“That’s my personal favorite, and what I’d recommend if someone asked for a recommendation, if they are open to all options,” he says. “We also make an excellent miso, and prepare it a little different from what you would probably be served in a sushi restaurant. It’s similar, but ours is a little stronger, because what you need with noodles is a broth that can carry the flavor of the noodle. We want to bring out the flavor of the noodles with the broth.”
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Ramen Wakana also offers about a dozen different appetizers ranging from a potato croquette, to chicken or roasted-pork buns or a five-piece takoyaki — spicy balls containing minced octopus, pickled ginger and green onion.
There are also two types of rice bowls for $10 each, including chicken or chashu served with pickled radish, ajitama and fresh veggies. The restaurant also serves mochi ($2 each), which is a compressed rice cake that comes in flavors of vanilla, mango, strawberry and red bean.