A Tale Of Two Ramens, Part 2

Yesterday, we had Part 1 of Trey Popp’s ramen adventure. Today, we present the conclusion, in which he and his faithful companion actually go and eat some ramen in an attempt to determine what the big deal is all about. ~JS

First, we went upscale.

To my palate—unschooled and therefore unspoiled by expectations—the pork belly ramen at Morimoto (above) was remarkable mostly for how thoroughly porky its broth was. As Asian soups go, my touchstones are the intensely aromatic soups of Thailand, and the heavily spiced and condiment-doused foe of Laos (the identical twin of Vietnamese pho, only spelled in accordance with a different transliteration system). The tonkotsu at Morimoto struck me as the product of a different priority: It was less about showing off its ancillary aromatics than emphasizing pork flavor to the nth degree. This it did splendidly, with a full-throated flavor but without the off-putting coagulation of fat that marred a subsequent bowl at Nom Nom Ramen. The noodles were cooked the way I like most noodles: Tender but retaining the spring promised by their kinks. On top were a couple quarter-inch thick slices of pork belly and a hard-cooked egg split down the middle (a minute or two past the soft-cooked egg the menu advertised). Still, it was pretty delicious. I’d slurp it up happily in the winter, though $15 is a stretch for any soup.

My friend the globetrotting ramen expert, though, dismissed the pork belly as inauthentically thick “window dressing.” But it was exquisitely tender, and the soup overall was good enough to win the Iron Chef’s “schtick” a pass in his book.

“What we had today was a 6/7 on the zero to ten scale of ramen I’ve had in my life,” he reckoned. The 10 was from that black tarp joint in Tokyo with the bone out front. “What David Chang and Ippudo’s doing in New York may be coming in at a solid 8. Not every day, though.”

And yet, there were a couple other things drove him slightly crazy. One was our server’s likening of the pork belly ramen to the soups he’d slurped in Hokkaido on a recent personal vacation.

“Hokkaido-style ramen is a miso-based broth, which is actually my favorite ramen,” my pal wrote later. Tonkotsu “is actually from Southern Japan, though—around Kyushu. I mean, you can get it all over Japan, so he could have had tonkotsu ramen in Hokkiado. But semantics aside, I think that they’re playing a dangerous game.”

His other beef was also outside the bowl, so to speak. “I didn’t see gyoza on the menu,” he wrote. “Any restaurant that has ramen on the menu HAS to have killer gyoza. If not, Morimoto should be charged with a felony … This is a key point that should not go unpunished.”

He eased off this doctrinaire position, though, after eating at Nom Nom Ramen. “They broke the gyoza rule right off the bat, and if you’re going to be a ramen house exclusively, this is the crime of crimes. Morimoto gets a hair of a pass because he does a lot of other things pretty damn good. When you’re JUST making ramen, you HAVE GOT to serve gyoza.”

What can I say?  Dude loves his pot-stickers.

I ate at Nom Nom first. I tried two tonkotsu variations: Shio, which kicked the salt level up with soy, and miso. Predictably, the miso version had a very full mouthfeel, but so did the shio—almost to a fault, on the hot day when I stopped in and only started sweating halfway through the soup. It felt thicker than Morimoto’s. My hunch is that Nom Nom’s broth relies more on fatty pork and less on bones. A week or so later, my friend relayed the same impression about the miso version.

“I noticed that it was gaining a film of fat on the surface of the broth after a short time,” he remarked. “I’m not sure what they’re doing to create this film, but it’s wrong.

“The big mistake in both Morimoto’s and even more pronounced in Nom Nom’s take on ramen,” he went on, “is the pork pieces inserted as window dressing. It’s supposed to be a crucial element of the dish, so thin that it literally dissolves into the broth upon tap of the chopstick. Nom Nom’s was not only not dissolving, it was barely chewable. I left 80% of my pork in the bowl. Not a good sign.”

I’d downed well over half my own pork belly slices at Nom Nom, but they, too, had been on the chewy side.

Advantage: Morimoto.

That said, for $7 Nom Nom puts out a rich and hearty soup. It featured good mushrooms, rounded notes of sesame delivered by seeds and oil, and a little white fish cake whose pink spiral lent a Hello Kitty vibe. The unctuousness of its broth will make it a tough sell for me in summer, but winter’s another story.

My friend also cut his criticism with a dose of reality—tinged with the pessimism that’s part and parcel of Philadelphia foodie-dom.

“I’ll eat here again because it’s the only option, and as Vince Vaughn so correctly pointed out in Wedding Crashers, ‘Who gives a shit? It’s like pizza. It’s good no matter what.’

“Ramen generally follows this rule for me. I’m heartbroken to see people do it badly, but then again, it took how many years for Philly to make a decent pizza (Dock Street & Stella) [despite] being less than 100 miles from the birthplace of the worldwide staple?

“Maybe it will be another 100 years until we get a decent bowl of ramen here, or maybe I should just burn off all of my tastebuds now.”

If you can measure a food by how well it lends itself to impassioned hyperbole, the fact that real ramen is landing in Philadelphia is a welcome one. The rising tide of tonkotsu broth may not drown true aficionados in unconditional enjoyment, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the only ramen I knew before. The year Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen, died, the company he founded sold 7 servings of the stuff for every man, woman, and child on earth. After sampling the genuine article at Morimoto and Nom Nom, I’ve got to think that most of them would smile wide when treated to a taste of what they’ve been missing.

In case you missed it, A Tale Of Two Ramens, Part 1 [Foobooz]