There are many ways to disguise a restaurant located in the aesthetic black hole of a strip mall, but most designers start with the windows. When used properly, drapes, blinds and window tints wrap the dining room in a shroud, creating a cocoon that transports customers far from the concrete jungle and blurs the memory of the ugly maze of parked cars out front and the appliance shop next door.
Don't expect this treatment at Ramen Hakata in Addison, where a window frames two seats in the back corner. Sit here and you'll come face to face with a Honda's front bumper. Not that you'll mind. Despite the dismal view, the dining room is no less transporting than a Murakami novel.
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A valance of blond wood wraps the space from above; booths flanking the perimeter are made of the same material, as is the bar that frames the open kitchen. Columns of light are cast on surfaces and resolved in glowing circles. The ambience is serious but relaxed, and that's the sort of experience you get when you pull out a chair at Hakata.
For all the well-done carpentry, what really takes you out of the suburban expanse are the people who fill the dining room. They're at the tables and at the bar, fumbling to pick up dumplings with chopsticks and slurping away at noodles. They're at the door in an amoeba-like queue, oozing into every open space while waiting for the next name to be called. Servers wear Ramen Hakata shirts and shuffle back and forth with trays of steaming bowls. In the kitchen, cooks boil noodles, plate appetizers and delicately arrange garnishes. The collective buzz suggests that this isn't just another soup place. You've stumbled onto a ramen den unlike any other noodle restaurant in Dallas. It feels like a movie set, if movie sets were bathed in the smell of delicious, steamy tonkotsu. But don't get ahead of yourself, because there are starters worth mentioning, too.
By the looks of the gyoza dumplings I was served on a Tuesday evening (ten-minute wait, absolutely packed), the cook hadn't washed out his wok mid-dinner service, at least not very often. And that's not a bad thing; it produced the most delicious dumplings I've had in some time. The pork inside was boring and bland, but it was greatly improved by a coat of blackened remnants from previously fired orders. Like pizza and hot dogs with a natural casing, some foods taste better when subtly burnt.
Chicken karaage is just as addictive, especially the spicy version, which boasts mild heat and subtle sweetness. Nab a piece and gently dip it in the pile of salt and cracked pepper on the side of your plate. Be more aggressive with the chile powder. You could pass hours nibbling away at a snack like this, especially if you wash each bite down with a cold sip of beer. Ramen Hakata operated as a BYOB when they first opened early last summer, but they now sell booze.
You're really here for the ramen, though. Order it "regular," or get the miso version, which is a bit more savory. Either can be made spicy, and the added heat is just enough to get your nose running.
The tonkotsu broth is substantial and milky, obscuring noodles (fresh, shipped in from California) and other garnishes that are just millimeters from the surface. Made from heavily boiled pork bones, the broth is lightly seasoned, so if you want more salt, reach for the clay container of tare sauce on your table. The condiment is milder than the soy sauce you've poured from similar vessels, but go slowly anyway. The ramen at Hakata is very rich. As you nibble away on floppy chashu -- a flat disk of tender pork belly with gently charred edges -- or fish for a hardboiled egg that's stained from a bath in more tare, it's easy to get lost.
But, right now, Ramen Hakata is a victim of its own success. Having heard that the hippest ramen restaurant in town is open, Ramen Heads are descending en masse, taxing both the kitchen and the wait staff. Pork buns arrived tough and cold to the touch one evening, and soup ranges wildly from scalding hot to lukewarm. A quick glance toward the kitchen reveals the problem: Cooks pass tickets around with puzzled looks, drop plates on the pass that haven't been ordered and generally appear to be in chaos. It's worse at nights and on weekends, when the amoeba grows.
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But the chaos is displayed for your amusement. Sit at the bar and watch small baskets filled with soft noodles get dropped into a pot of boiling water. Minutes later they're removed, shaken vigorously and dumped in a serving bowl. Broth is sloshed around, while an explosion of flames warms the dining room and signals that another batch of dumplings has been fired. In the background, two cooks bicker about who's responsible for the spicy miso bowl at table 21.
The drama might even be worth a few errors. Some subtle tweaking could take Hakata from a good ramen shop to a great one, but there are many who will happily get lost in things just as they are. Lost before they fight through the amoeba barring the door. Lost before they're once again greeted by that Honda in another suburban parking lot.
Ramen Hakata 3720 Belt Line Road, No. 3714, Addison, 972-247-2401, ramenhakata.com, 11 a.m- 3 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m-3 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-8 p.m. Sunday, $$
Hakata ramen $8 Miso ramen $8.50 Gyoza $4 Chicken karaage $5 Chashu bun $5