While there were certainly ramen restaurants in New York City before David Chang began rolling and cutting his alkaline noodles in the East Village, they have exploded since he opened up his famed Momofuku almost a decade ago. Chang made waves with his creative take on traditional Japanese cooking, viewed through the lens of his Korean upbringing. In the years since, hundreds of ramen restaurants have garnered a cult following, percolating like lazy bubbles in a murky stockpot in New York and beyond.
But Dallas is one major city that hasn't experienced the ramen tsunami. Oblivious to the national trend, Japanese restaurants like Sushi Saki, Kazy's, Mr. Max and others have been serving unfettered bowls of ramen alongside their traditional Japanese menus for years. Tei-An, the modern Japanese restaurant run by James Beard-nominated Teiichi Sakuri, has produced elegant bowls of silky tonkotsu, too. But no local restaurant has been devoted solely to the glory of ramen noodle slurping. Without a ramen house to anchor them, there has been no throng of curious diners looking to remedy the plastic-wrapped Maruchan experiences of their poor and destitute college days, either. Ramen just isn't a thing here.
Enter husband and wife team Joey and Chi Le. The couple pushed aside careers in project management (Joey) and dentistry (Chi) to open Wicked Po'Boys and Seafood, a casual New Orleans-themed sandwich shop in Richardson, in 2012. They announced a coming second location in Plano later that summer, and then at the end of the year announced they still weren't done.
Tanoshii Ramen Bar
2724 Commerce St., 214-651-6800, tanoshiiramen.com. 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday. $$$
Pork belly dumplings $9
Spicy miso $12
For their third act, the Les said they were tackling ramen, and had secured the spot next to Angry Dog in Deep Ellum. Their Tanoshii Ramen Bar promised to give Dallas a dedicated ramen restaurant and a late-night dining spot that didn't involve cold eggs, too. It took almost a year, compounding anticipation that was already swelling, but this fall Tanoshii finally opened its doors and customers poured in like a deluge.
Tanoshii's dining room may not be as chaotic as it was those first few nights, but it has been respectably busy since. Designer Jon Paul Valverde (Outpost, Mesero Miguel, Pakpao) is responsible for the dark-colored mix of brick, wood and cement, anchored by a mural of a crazed, staff-wielding monkey painted on the wall. The simple palette of grays and wood tones make for a clean and modern space, but the open floor plan could have been carved up a little. The large dining room is composed of one run from the front door to the open kitchen in the back, with high ceilings and lighting only adding to the cavernous feel.
Still, there's romance in the details — the three wood blocks the size of small bears used as seats at the end of the bar; the communal table that holds 12 mostly mixed and matched patrons desperate for a seat when the restaurant is packed; the Asian pop music videos dancing on screens in the bathrooms. They all affirm that you're not eating in another steak-and-two-sides Dallas restaurant, that Tanoshii has the requisite hip. It just needs some intimacy.
Oh, and some better ramen. The noodles, while made on-site, are cranked out of a machine you might find at any ramen chain restaurant. Despite the mechanization, they have an acceptable, toothy consistency some days and the texture of wet clay they next. Even at their best, they lack that springy, chewy texture and the trademark yellowish tinge of authentic ramen.
The broth they swim in can be inconsistent too, unless you're referring to the temperature, which is always warm and never piping hot. Expect a tepid noodle-slurping session less than halfway through your bowl if you don't eat fast.
The tonkotsu is a decent bet, with its silky broth and mild flavor, and a viscous, spicy miso puts in a good showing too, though the heat is modest. But all the soups, including a lemon grass version with floating pork-stuffed dumplings, and the curry, which is thick, clingy and heavy with coconut, suffer from a lack of identity and personality. None of them speaks with a careful creativity that says, This is Tanoshii ramen and, more important, this is why you should return. The rubbery pork belly slices that garnish many of the soups could use an upgrade, too. It's often inedible.
The best option may be the tsukemen, or dipping ramen, which arrives in two bowls and not one. The noodle bowl, dressed with nori, bamboo shoots and pork belly that is more palatable than what floats in the soup, is joined by a bowl of steaming dipping broth that's dark and rich with soy sauce. "Are you left- or right-handed?" your waiter will ask before carefully placing the dipping bowl in front of your dominant hand. What follows is a test of chopstick dexterity as you grab morsels from one bowl and baptize them in the ginger-laced broth in the other.
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According to the website, Joey Le is listed as chef and takes responsibility for all the recipes, but he needs to find cooks who can handle the basics better if he plans on being taken seriously. Bone marrow arrives so undercooked it can't be cut with a butter knife, and crepes wrapped around over-salted mushrooms are delivered so burnt that they're bitter.
Rubbery pork belly, soft and mealy hamachi crudo, rubbery soft-shell crabs with heavy breading — many dishes point to a kitchen staff that is pushed beyond their ability and given ingredients that don't stand up to the recipes. They're dishes that can leave you confused — and completely underwhelmed if you've had them elsewhere. Tanoshii seems to hope that you haven't.
Dallas didn't need a ramen bar simply because there wasn't one. It needed a new and interesting ramen bar capable of surprising and delighting its customers — a ramen shop that practices thoughtful execution with good ingredients. It didn't get one.
Stick with the tsukemen ramen and an order of the pork belly or braised chicken buns topped with lettuce dressed in spicy mayo, and you may find yourself happy. Do the same with an icy cold draft beer and you'll be even more so. Dive too deeply into Tanoshii's menu and you'll likely find yourself caught up in the tide, wishing Dallas could have avoided the ramen tsunami a bit longer.