Occasionally there is ramen served in Oak Cliff. It's ladled into disposable bowls in an English pub after the other neighborhood restaurants have locked their doors. Ten Bells Tavern has a reputation for well-executed riffs on bar food classics with an Anglophile slant. Ramen doesn't quite fit into the mold here, so it makes sense that it's brought in by an outside chef.
If you've sat at the bar at Lucia there's a decent chance Justin Holt tossed one of your salads or gingerly plated your ravioli. He's been working at Lucia for two years now and cultivated a lust for ramen during the restaurant's family meals. For those of you who are not acquainted with family meal, it's a means to foster camaraderie in a kitchen and also feed the troops before the battle that is dinner service. There are two types.
The fabled version involves a simple and elegant presentation of one or two courses served communally as a means to foster creativity and make use of ingredients that might otherwise go to waste. Sometimes a wine vendor leaves a bottle or two of vino behind for sampling. Sometimes a string quartet plays Dvorak from the walk-in. In other restaurants family meal is a chore pushed on the least talented cook in the kitchen under great duress. This method often yields thick and hearty "stews."
Lucia offers the storied version and Holt used his assignment to explore ramen, starting first with David Chang's Momofuko Cookbook and then branching out into other recipes as he honed his own approach. Eventually he wanted to do something larger with the soup and started knocking on the doors of various dive bars around town. He was looking for someone to host a pop-up ramen restaurant.
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"Oh, that was a huge mess," said Holt, who described driving around Dallas with fish boxes full of noodles and hot broth containers. Ramen isn't a one-pot meal; it's a layered dish with broth noodles and an endless array of garnishes. Tradition prescribes that each must be cooked perfectly, so making ramen on the go is no small chore. After setting up and sampling at several bars, which quickly dismissed him, Holt was about to give up when he dropped into Ten Bells Tavern.
Michael Hickey was out on the back patio building a table when Holt approached him. Hickey saw the pitch with clarity. Holt allowed him to offer his customers something new and interesting while also drawing new customers to his bar. "The first night we did it the weather was miserable," he said. And inside the cramped dining room it was standing room only as customers waited in line for Holt's ramen.
This past weekend's event felt like it was only gaining momentum. With nicer weather customers poured out onto the patio, each with a Styrofoam cup with two protruding chopsticks in hand. The soup had a deep, very intense broth and the noodles were what you would expect from a chef who works at a five-star Italian restaurant. I wish the bowls had been bigger and that the soup had been a little "soupier," but the garnishes were excellent, lead by a slice of sous-vide pork bells that fell apart in my mouth. It makes me wonder what this experience would be like if Holt was cooking in a full-blow ramen restaurant.
I asked, but he said it's not going to happen anytime soon. Besides "the summer is the worst possible time to try and sell hot soup in Dallas." Hickey agrees and notes the pop-up ramen restaurant won't be a regular event at his restaurant. "I have some other ideas for late night," he told me. And said I'd have to call back another time if I wanted to hear about them.