I once took my mom to a traditional ramen restaurant and watched as she nervously prodded the steaming bowl of noodles and broth with her chopsticks for 30 minutes. Like many people, her experience with ramen has been limited to the little plastic packages or dinky Styrofoam cups of instant noodles that prevent thousands of broke college students from starving each year.
She was never able to break past that association. It’s tragic really, that she’ll never enjoy the densely packed flavors that blend together in traditional ramen like a typhoon of flavor. It’s an eye opening experience for anyone who hasn’t slurped the real deal.
Chef Jesus Garcia, 28, opened Oni Ramen on Sunday on the edge of the West 7th shopping center, across the street from Urban Outfitters, and most of the patrons are local college students and young professionals. The restaurant was originally destined for Richardson but when the lease fell through, Garcia decided to bring the restaurant home to Fort Worth where he grew up.
Garcia’s restaurant is a little rough around the edges as the first-time-owner adjusts to managing the front-of-the-house, but the food is worth the kinks. The steaming broth Garcia serves has many qualities that constitute traditional ramen, but he’s also added his own ingredients like corn and exotic peppers.
“Oni” is the Japanese word for demon and an allusion to Garcia’s love of spice.
“We have a mix of every kind of pepper here,” Garcia says. “Carolina reaper, bhut jolokias, scorpions, seven pots and habanero.”
You can pick your level of heat for every dish, but the ratings are a little skewed. The mild is probably closer to a medium or hot and it only escalates from there, all the way up to "demon." The ramen itself may just give established joints like Ramen Hakata a run for their money.
That said, the front of the house is suffering from an identity crisis, treading water between a fast casual and sit down experience. Reservations are available and tables are assigned by the host, but instead of navigating you to your seat, he points you to the end of the bar to give your order. You pour your own drinks from the soda fountain into plastic cups and sit at the numbered table until your food is delivered.
Service is pleasant and the staff is warm. Whenever a customer walks in, the staff turns and yells a hearty Japanese greeting from wherever they are in the restaurant. Depending on how busy the kitchen is, Garcia will randomly deliver orders to tables and ask how things are going while he clears plates.
The savory Kuro-Edamame ($4) arrived lightly sprinkled in salt. The spicy version is a must. The blend of spices adds a little kick to the soybeans that we never knew had been missing. Baked buns topped with crisp romaine and pickled veggies arrive next, one with shredded pork belly ($4.5) and the other with chicken ($3.5). The toasted brioche buns, crowned with a light smattering of sesame seeds, hold up well to the hoisin sauce and moist meats.
The chicken thigh meat is cooked sous vide and seared on each side. The chicken is so moist and tender, we wondered if we'd accidentally received the pork belly buns. The pork belly is also cooked sous vide but for much longer.
“I could eat the pork belly all day,” Garcia says. “I think I’ve eaten more than my fair share.”
Straight Outta Kyushu ($12) is one of Garcia’s ramen specialties. The broth walks a thin line and narrowly avoids being too salty. A respectable portion of pork belly sits on top of the noodles with tender bamboo shoots, green onion, mustard greens, black garlic and an egg. Wood ear mushrooms add an earthy note to the kaleidoscope of flavors. Toward the bottom of the bowl the broth becomes slightly too salty, but Garcia is prescient to provide unseasoned broth to mellow the flavor of any ramen dish at no extra charge.
For those with the gumption to try it, the Oni Reaper ($14) contains ghost pepper, scorpion pepper and the Carolina reaper, frequently cited as the "hottest pepper in the world." Good luck.
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If you tackle the Oni Reaper and need to cool off, the Mochi ($4) will be the best decision you’ve made all night. A thin layer of rice cake is wrapped around either green tea, mango or red bean ice cream.
Oni Ramen has all the ingredients to be a successful, hip restaurant in a great location. If Garcia can expand his mastery of the kitchen to the front of the house, he may have something special on his hands.
“It’s been a learning curve,” Garcia says. “We’re headed in the right direction.”
Oni Ramen, 2801 West 7th St. 817-882-6554, OniRamen.com. Open 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily, open until 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday