Ramen is a national icon in Japan, and now the noodle soup is turning into a food craze in the United States. When ramen shops started popping up in New York City about five years ago, most of them were the kind of hole-in-the-wall places that make diners feel like they had made a clever discovery. Ramen has gone more mainstream now, but for whatever reason, ramen has taken its sweet time getting to Baltimore.
Now TenTen Ramen has arrived. The new spot opened this spring in the elegant townhouse space that used to be Joss Cafe & Sushi Bar, which closed last summer. The owners are the same, but TenTen is being run by Jason Jiau, the 27-year-old-son of Jane and Joseph Jiau; they still run the original Joss in Annapolis.
Scene & Decor The main space consists of an ordering counter with seating at tables, at a ledge near the front picture window and at the counter alongside what had been the Joss sushi bar. With its hardwood floors and high ceilings, it's a comfortable and attractive setting that seems to work for everybody, including couples on dates, families with children and large groups of friends.
Drinks TenTen offers a small selection of popular Japanese beers like Asahi, Kirrin and Sapporo along with popular brands of "one cup" sake, small bottles designed for one serving. Other beverages include hot tea, bubble tea and sugary bottled sodas imported from Japan.
Appetizers You don't want to overdo it with appetizers. Ramen is filling. The essential starter at a ramen shops is the gwa bao, or pork bun ($6.50), a plain, spongy steamed bun stuffed with braised pork. Think of it as something to wake up your taste buds. The version at TenTen is a good one, with a tasty barbecue tang. Also try the tako yaki ($6), a savory Japanese treat sold by street vendors. It's a fried buckwheat croquette filled with minced octopus, garnished with bonito flakes and Kewpie mayonnaise, a popular Japanese brand made from rice vinegar.
Entrees "Ramen is like a hamburger," proprietor and chef Jason Jiao says. "It's kind of a comfort food. But you can do whatever you want to it." Ramen categories can be confusing, with different, sometimes overlapping, terms for styles of broths and preparations. One ramen shop might use the terms differently than its neighbor. At TenTen Ramen, you'll want to start with the shoyu ramen ($9.50), which has a clear soy-flavored broth with strong pork tones. By comparison, the broth in the shio ramen ($9.50) is deliberately and assertively salty, and the miso ramen ($10.50) is chalky and sugary.
Ramen is something you eat fast, but the broth should taste like it's been simmering all day. Jiao's broths do just that, and they're prettily garnished, too.
Of course, the big pleasure of ramen comes from the long, slurpy wheat noodles. You'll end up using a combination of a spoon, for the broth, and chopsticks, both for the noodles and the traditional ramen toppings — bamboo and bean sprouts, scallions, nori, a soy-braised egg, and a slice of chashu, or braised pork belly. Sprinkle in some ground sesame seed and add a few shakes of sesame oil, and you're in business.
Besides ramen, there are a few other entrees, two of which are standard ramen-shop offerings — the chasu don, which is pork belly over rice, and chahan, an Okinawan fried rice dish. There are vegetarian versions of ramen as well.
Dessert: There are no permanent dessert items, but TenTen Ramen has started dessert specials like Anmitsu, a Japanese favorite consisting of translucent squares of agar jelly over green-tea ice cream, topped with sweetened azuki beans. It's oddly appealing.
Service The friendly young staff shouts out the greeting "Irrashai-mase" to all incoming guests. The staff also helps you place the order, which can be tricky on a first visit. Orders are taken at the counter, and when your food is ready, they call out the number on your receipt. The plastic printed menus near the register show photographs of food items, but most items have no descriptions and some are only listed by their Japanese name — gwa bao instead of "pork bun," for instance. There are better descriptions on the restaurant's website.
Back story: TenTen Ramen is from the Jiau family, who owns Joss Sushi Bar & Cafe in Annapolis. A Baltimore version of Joss closed last summer, but the space was revived this spring with a new name and a fresh concept, one the owners think better serves a neighborhood that tends to clear out in the evening. TenTen Ramen is not related to the Harbor East restaurant Ten Ten American Bistro. "Ten" in Japanese translates loosely to "heaven" or "skyward."
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: The classic versions of ramen — shiu ramen, shoyu ramen and tonkatsu
Where: 413 N. Charles St., Baltimore
Contact: 410-244-6988; tentenramen.com
Open: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Credit Cards: All major except Discover
Reservations: Not accepted
Bottom line: Baltimore's first ramen shop provides a fine, casual introduction to the ramen craze.