Ramen, pho bowl over Baltimore's fast casual scene

For The Baltimore Sun
There's a noodle pho-nomenon on Baltimore's fast casual dining scene.

On a recent Friday afternoon, chef Edward Kim was holding court at the counter of Mi and Yu Noodle Bar in Federal Hill. He was explaining the ordering system to customers at the restaurant he opened in September: Pick a protein, a noodle and a broth.

"There are no bad choices," he said afterward. "People catch on very quickly."

Diners Madi Galvan of Lansdowne and Matt Goldman of Riverside were soon slurping steaming bowls of the aromatic soup at the restaurant's communal table. She opted for pho. He had the braised short rib, udon and spicy kimchi broth.

"It's an awesome idea that you can select everything in the soups," Goldman said.

Asian noodles — especially ramen and pho — have gone mainstream in America in a big way. In the past two years, Baltimore has seen a spate of places opening, including Ten Ten Ramen in Mount Vernon; Ejji, an Asian Ramen Bar, in Belvedere Square; and Pho Viet near Charles Center.

Kim, who was previously a chef at the now-closed fine-dining spots Ixia and Soigne, is planning to open other noodle bars in Hampden, Charles Village, the Canton-Fells Point area and Mount Vernon. He's confident of success.

"Everybody knows chicken soup," he said. "It's an elevated version."

Many credit New York chef David Chang, who launched his Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan in 2004, with ramen's popularity in the U.S. He certainly has inspired a lot of people, said Peter Meehan, a business partner and co-founder of Lucky Peach magazine with Chang.

"But at the same time, there's a growing awareness outside of Japan that ramen is a culture unto itself, and there's a lot of creativity within the strictures of making a 'traditional' bowl of ramen," he said. "It's an appealing place for chefs to do their own thing."

While ramen has no official rules, each bowl typically has broth, noodles, toppings like roast pork or seafood, a soft-poached egg, and vegetables like scallions, enoki mushrooms and kimchi.

Kim, who attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York, appreciates the endless ramen combinations. "I wanted to do soup my way based on flavor and texture," he said. "It's about harmonizing."

He acknowledges that he was influenced by Chang. "It was because of him that I wanted to do it," he said. "I always wanted to do fast-casual."

The fast-casual concept — the No. 2 hot trend in the culinary world for 2016, according to the National Restaurant Association — doesn't offer table service but promises a higher quality of food than a fast-food restaurant.

Kim's soup definitely isn't your college dorm dried brick of ramen dropped into hot water. His broths are complex, and his fresh noodles include ramen, pho and udon.

The choice of noodles is all about texture, Kim tells his customers when they are ordering. Udon noodles are thick and chewy; ramen, which can be curly or straight, are chewy, too, but thinner than udon; and pho's rice noodles are flatter and softer.

But Kim doesn't make his noodles at the restaurant. Nor do many noodle bars, said Meehan, who is also co-author of the cookbook "Momofuku."

Sun Noodle, a company that produces fresh Japanese noodles, has increased the availability of noodles in the U.S. and has helped to supply the increasing number of noodle bars, he said.

Based on the rising interest in noodles, chef Jerry Pellegrino, who runs the cooking school Schola in Mount Vernon with chef Amy von Lange, has been teaching several classes on "The Art of Ramen." The next session will be held March 22.

"Ramen has become a popular item these days," he said. "It's an elaborate chicken-soup comfort food. People can identify with that."

His students learn about how the alkalinity of ramen noodles affects texture and how to prepare an elaborate dashi, a Japanese soup stock. They make the soup's signature egg, placing it in boiling water for six minutes and 10 seconds before cooling and marinating it in soy sauce and mirin, a low-alcohol, sweet wine.

Students also braise pork belly for the protein. By the end of class, they have assembled their own bowls of ramen.

"It's fun to make it," Pellegrino said. "It's a self-contained, one-bowl meal."

Andrew Woods of Bolton Hill recently took one of Schola's ramen classes to learn more about the noodle soup.

"I'm a pretty curious cook, but I don't do high-flying Asian cooking," he said. "You think of ramen as the dry packet of college dorms. I wanted to see the other side."

At Belvedere Square Market, ramen restaurant Ejji (pronounced "edgy") is relishing the noodle phenomenon. Diners sit at a counter, ordering from a menu that has a four-step choice process: broth, noodles or rice, toppings and sauce.

Diners can also "be bold," according to the menu, and order dishes like tonkotsu ramen, which has pork broth, char su pulled pork, pork belly, miso egg and scallions; or laksa ramen, honoring the restaurant owners' Malaysian heritage, with curry shellfish broth, crab, shrimp tempura, clams, bonito flakes, bean sprouts, fried tofu, basil and lime.

As Pellegrino said, "Ramen is a free-for-all without rules. There are at least 30 styles with each person putting on their own spin."

Another noodle soup that's gaining in popularity is Vietnamese pho (pronounced "fuh"). While Howard County, home of many Asian transplants, has been a stronghold of pho houses, more of the noodle restaurants are opening in other areas.

In 2013, Pho Towson set up shop in an unusual location — a Best Western hotel on Cromwell Bridge Road within earshot of the busy Beltway. On a Saturday afternoon, the formal dining room was busy with college students, parents and other diners dipping into bowls of pho laced with ginger, star anise and strings of rice noodles.

The broth is more delicate than that of its cousin, ramen. And additions like sweet-smelling basil, thin wheels of jalapeno peppers and bean sprouts are served on the side.

Lucky Peach is betting on pho becoming the "new ramen."

"It's a roulette table we're putting our chips on," said Meehan, whose next quarterly issue, on newsstands May 17, will focus on pho.

"Pho requires a less-dense broth and is more affordable to make," he said.

Pho Viet, which opened downtown in September, might be ahead of the curve. The restaurant serves 11 varieties of pho in a dining room that seats 40 and is usually packed.

"Pho has been in the United States for many years," said restaurant manager Katie Dang. "A lot of Americans know about it."

To accommodate the crowds, Pho Viet, owned by Henry Tran, who runs the Quality Inn next door, is enlarging its space to add 100 seats and expand its menu items, including rice dishes. But pho will still be king.

"It's healthy and fresh," Dang said. "The taste is very comforting."

To Meehan, the appeal of noodle soups is the slurping.

"There's a relationship between the broth and the noodles. Slurping is getting the two together," he said. "You shut down and eat it. Then you go on with your day."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad

Ramen-making class

Schola will host its latest Asian noodle cooking class, "The Art of Ramen" on March 22 from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at 1005 N. Charles St. Cost is $49. Call 443-714-7516 or visit scholacooks.com for more information.

59°