First Look: Ai Ramen

When’s the last time you were in a food court? Riding the escalator up through the Shops at Liberty Place felt, for me at least, like a trip back in time. Breezing through the air-conditioned chill past Express and J. Crew, I half expected to arrive on the second floor squarely in front of Border’s Books, The Limited, and Bath and Body Works. Once I had shopped ’til I dropped, suddenly that 90s movie mean girl with shopping bags slung over her arms, I’d take a break in one of the Sharper Image massage chairs or snack on an Auntie Anne’s pretzel or the candy-sweet orange chicken from Panda Express.

Fortunately (and despite what current fashion trends might indicate), this isn’t the 90s. And there are better things to eat now at the mall.

There’s no Ai in team, but it takes ai—Japanese for love—to make a great bowl of ramen. Ai Ramen is a new noodle shop from the folks behind Wok Street and Hai Street Kitchen’s sushi burritos. While Hai Street’s offerings are more fusion than Asian, things hew more towards the traditional at this new sister shop.

The menu is brief: four kinds of ramen, three bao, a handful of pre-made sushi rolls (mostly to act as grab-and-go lunch options for the many nearby office workers), and a couple of kinds of iced tea. That’s it. The brevity of the offerings makes for a lean system where orders come up quickly, assembled from pre-prepared ingredients by Ai’s friendly counter staff.

The signature Ai ramen is topped with strips of chashu pork, glazed with mirin, sake, and soy; ribbons of red ginger and green scallion; a sticky seasoned egg; and black mushroom. There’s no chance you’ll mistake this one for the spicy miso ramen, which arrives with a red-orange slick of chili oil on top, though it’s not overwhelmingly spicy. The miso butter ramen is for umami fans, the pork-chicken broth spiked with garlic butter and miso and topped with corn. And there’s even a vegetarian ramen which trades in gingery soy broth for the pork-chicken broth that warms the other bowls. Though an altogether different noodle experience from the non-vegetarian options, the subtle flavors of steamed vegetables and threads of fried leeks in the vegetarian version contribute to a subtle, nourishing bowl of soup.

Even if you’re not ready to commit to an entire bowl of ramen, Ai Ramen’s three kinds of bao—steamed buns filled with your choice of grilled teriyaki chicken, shrimp tempura, or sticky chashu pork—are a far better way to stave off shopping induced low blood sugar than a Cinnabon, and at $4 it’s easy to throw down for a one-of-each approach.

While the no-frills of the food court seating area at Ai can’t compete with the ambience at Terakawa, Cheu Noodle Bar, or any number of other noodle destinations in town, the fast-casual approach to ramen service is very much in line with the way that some ramen is served in Japan: fresh, hot, and fast, ready to be wolfed down in noisy slurps just moments after having been ordered. Are flavors as strong or sophisticated as at these other destinations? Probably not, but they’re certainly serviceable, and considering the fact that Ai is making their MSG-free broth from scratch and sourcing noodles from Sun Noodle Company, the very same that supplies ramen greats coast to coast, it’s a pretty close approximation.

And at $10.99, plus tax, for a bowl, it’s also budget-friendly, which leaves more in your wallet for your next shopping spree.

Ai Ramen [Foobooz]