In Japan, ramen is a labor of love: Stocks are cooked for hours, flavors are cultivated through decades of experience, and family recipes are fiercely guarded. It's serious business which, despite its difficulty to perfect, has found a successful foothold stateside, where people line up for hours in New York and D.C. for bowls of the not-in-college-anymore noodles. Unfortunately for Baltimore, TenTen Ramen (413 N. Charles St.,  244-6988, tentenramen.com)—the city's first dedicated shop—has, as the Righteous Brothers famously sang, lost that loving feeling.
We say lost because we stopped in twice when they opened back in April and, as we wrote online at the time, "were blown away." The love was definitely there then, so we're left to wonder what exactly happened in the ensuing months that left us feeling so unfulfilled this time around.
I recently spent three weeks exploring Japan and its food culture—eating my way through a maze of tiny izakayas (Japanese drinking taverns) that hawked things like charcoal-grilled eel, tempura soba, and nikomi (a not-for-the-faint-of-heart stew) and exploring the biggest fish market in the world, where I snacked on pieces of fatty tuna freshly carved off a 300-pound catch—and came home with a full-on love affair with the country. Now back in the states, I was eager to show some friends (two of whom are Japanese) just what Baltimore had to offer. So as we walked up the stairs past the red Kanji flag marking TenTen's entrance, slurp anticipation (a real thing) was high.
The staff was quick to greet us with a loud "irasshai!"—Japanese for "welcome"—which we acknowledged as we took in the Asian-inspired decor. TenTen Ramen is the kind of place where you order at the counter, take your number, grab a seat until it's called, and return your tray when you're done. Considering that this is the way it's typically done in Japan (some joints don't even let you talk, as it would be considered an insult to the chef that you're letting your noodles get soggy), we were perfectly OK with that style of service—authenticity!
The space, previously Joss Café, has the same owners, and the layout hasn't changed much. The dining area, which has about 20 seats, is half bar seating—some looking out onto Charles Street, the others along the counter—and half tables, so finding enough seats to fit your whole party can be a challenge. We quickly snagged a coveted four-top and sipped on an Asahi Super Dry beer ($3.50) and green tea ($4) as we waited for our food.
Upon hearing our number, we snatched our bowls and prepared to dig in. Right away we noticed that all four of our soups arrived barely steaming, more lukewarm than hot—a sign of things to come. All the ramen on the menu (minus the vegetarian) feature a pork-based tonkotsu-style broth as its base, with different tare (seasoning) added to define each style's unique flavor. Unfortunately, TenTen's base broth, the heart and soul of any ramen, was so severely lacking in seasoning and depth of flavor that the ramen bowls were dependent on how much extra tare—if any—was added.
We started with the shio style ramen ($9.50), a dish made up of traditional alkaline noodles in a sea-salt-seasoned broth with bean sprouts, sliced scallions, half a soy-braised egg, menma (fermented bamboo shoots), and a slice of ch¿sh¿ (pork) floating on top. The egg was perfectly soft-boiled, something often overcooked in ramen, and the noodles were cooked firmly enough to hold up to the broth without being too chewy—a crucial detail. The pork was tender and flavorful with bits of melt-in-your-mouth fat. Still, it looked a bit gray floating in what turned out to be the best ramen of the night, if only barely so.
The two other ramens we tried were the soy-sauce-seasoned shoyu ($9.50) and the spicy tonkotsu ($10.50). Both included the same accompanying toppings as the shio. However, there was zero evidence of soy sauce in the shoyu, and while the spicy tonkotsu did include house-made la yu (hot oil), even the additional heat couldn't make up for the lack of substance in the stock. In fact, the same shoyu we'd raved about months earlier was so bland now we debated sending it back.
Our sole non-ramen noodle dish, the braised beef ($11.50), turned out to be, surprisingly, the best of the bunch. Featuring thicker wheat noodles, baby bok choy, mustard greens, and slices of braised beef shank floating in a rich beef broth, it was the lone beacon of light.
We had better luck with the sides than the ramen, but even those could use some tweaks. The geso ($7) consisted of lightly battered squid tentacles, which while tender and tasty, would been much better with a sauce or more spice. The guo tie ($7.50), similar to the more common Japanese gyoza, included five handmade dumplings filled with minced pork and cabbage that we happily gobbled up, only stopping to nitpick that it could have used a bit more zing in the filling.
And that's how it went with everything. After walking in with such high expectations, it was letdown after letdown. We couldn't help but think it was like having a great first date, only to be stood up on the second—left sitting there like a chump wondering, where's the love?