Food & Drink

Why you shouldn’t order ramen on a first date (and other secrets of Charlotte’s new obsession)

Futo Buta’s tonkotsu ramen features a long-cooked broth made from pigs feet, a runny egg and slices of pork belly.
Futo Buta’s tonkotsu ramen features a long-cooked broth made from pigs feet, a runny egg and slices of pork belly. Kathleen Purvis

Eating ramen can be a lonely experience.

It involves slurping. You need to eat it fast, before the broth cools and the noodles go mushy. To do it right, you need to get almost face-down in your bowl, ignoring friends and strangers and giving up your guilt about eating neatly in public.

Real ramen isn’t anything like the instant ramen packets that college students survive on. The restaurant-made bowls that can climb to $14 or $15 are all about the broth and the noodles, the wide slices of pork and pork belly, and the struggle to tackle it all with a wide spoon and a pair of sticks.

You’ll make noise. Things will splash. Chopstick-clumsiness will be exposed to the world. It’s not a meal that makes a good first impression on anyone eating with you.

“You’re going to make a mess, no matter what,” says Tim Groody, the longtime Charlotte chef who recently announced he’s opening a new restaurant, Ramen Soul, in Mooresville.

“You’re going to splash the person next to you.”

For all that, if the ramen is good, if the broth has been boiled out of the bones for hours and the noodles have been made or chosen well, you’ll be happy enough that it won’t matter.

Get real with your ramen

Restaurant ramen is becoming an obsession in Charlotte. Sort of the way serious barbecue started to grip so many fine-dining chefs a few years ago, ramen has become the new grail for cooks seeking street cred.

It’s the challenge of it, says Groody, who has had restaurants all over Charlotte and now has the farm-focused Fork! in Cornelius. He expects to open Ramen Soul in mid- to late April.

“It’s a new way to express yourself,” he says. “It’s low-cost. The fine-dining, expensive restaurants are still struggling. This is a way to get out there and do something differently and challenge yourself.”

Michael Shortino may have started the ball rolling here with his Futo Buta in South End. Shortino comes from a family of Italian chefs in New York, but when he ended up at a seafood restaurant just as sushi was taking off, he got hooked on the purity and focus of Japanese cooking.

Before star chef David Chang brought ramen to New York with Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004, ramen was only big in America on the West Coast, where there was a bigger Japanese population. That’s where Shortino really got to know it, in its many, many varieties.

“Ramen (in Japan) is like hot dogs (in America),” he says. “There’s Chicago dogs and New York dogs and L.A. dogs. Ramen is just like that. It’s a new food, even in Japan. There are thousands of ramens (in Japan), all different.”

In Japan, ramen’s origins are murky. The word comes from the Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese word. It didn’t become common until after World War II. By the 1980s, it had become ubiquitous as the food that feeds office workers and junior executives, usually eaten standing up at a small stall before rushing to a commuter train.

Shortino says in Charlotte, his customers are still learning the culture of ramen.

“They have a hard time slurping,” he says. “They have a hard time not sharing. You would never share a bowl in Japan. You’re face down and slurping.”

Slurping is important to experiencing ramen. It doesn’t just let you pull in the long, skinny noodles into your mouth. It also opens up your palate, he says: “It’s like tasting wine.”

Making it real

Ask chefs such as Shortino or Birdie Yang, the owner of Yama Asian Fusion and Yama Izakaya, about how to make ramen and they all tell you something different.

Shortino uses “all trotters” – pigs feet – for the gelatinous quality from the collagen and fat that gives pork ramen broth a hint of stickiness on your lips. Yang insists on four kinds of bones, a mix of pork and chicken, each adding flavor, texture and viscosity.

“There’s always a secret,” Yang says. For a restaurant, making ramen isn’t just about making ramen, it’s about figuring out a recipe that your staff can repeat every time.

“You try to simplify it,” he says.

Getting a recipe from any of the ramen chefs is difficult. A local magazine once pressed Shortino for a recipe for his tonkotsu ramen. He had to send them six – broth, from-scratch noodles, the tare and dashi that flavor the broth, the pork belly that goes into the broth, the soft-boiled egg that tops every bowl.

“They never did that again,” he says with a laugh. “It’s supposed to be layer after layer after layer.

“It’s soup and noodles.”

And even though you might want to skip the ramen on a first date, maybe ramen is a good way to know when you’re with someone who really cares about you. Groody says he fell in love with ramen eating it with his wife, Melanie.

“We love it,” he says. “It’s different. I’m used to pasta and stuff like that. If you can find a really good bowl, it’s fun.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

Ramen by its parts

Noodles: The style of noodle -- usually thin, curly or straight -- is usually matched to the type of broth. Good ramen noodles are usually chewy and made with wheat flour. Mchael Shortino at Futo Buta is the only chef we found making noodles. Until this month, his noodles were made by hand using North Carolina-grown soft red winter wheat. Shortino’s partner, Tsuyoshi Ono, just went to Japan to bring back a $35,000 noodle machine that Shortino says he’ll start using soon. Birdie Yang at Yama Izakaya and Tim Groody at Ramen Soul use the popular Sun Noodles, sold at supermarkets like SuperG Mart, while chef/owner Kondo Fumio at Musashi uses noodles he orders from Japan.

Broth: Clear broths are cooked slowly; cloudy broths are boiled hard. Pork-based broths usually are cooked for as long as 48 hours. Chicken-based broths usually are made from a whole chicken, feet and all, that’s discarded after it’s given up all its flavor. If there are other ingredients, such as ginger or garlic, they’re usually added in the last hour or two of cooking.

Dashi: A fish broth – made from kombu (kelp) and bonito flakes – that’s added to the chicken or pork broth to add umami. It’s commonly used to make the miso soup at sushi restaurants.

Tare: This is a paste, stirred into broths to add flavor, and comes in many variations. White or red miso mixed with soy sauce, garlic paste and ginger is a common one.

Egg: A common addition, this appears in various ways, from barely cooked and runny to hard-cooked and solid.

Naruto: A flat, white slice of fish cake, usually with a pink or red spiral on it. The red and white combination is associated with luck.

Menma: Flat yellow strips of cooked bamboo shoots.

Nori: A dark sheet of seaweed that’s stirred into pork-based broth to add a fishy element.

Corn: An optional addition – and the kernels are cooked – at some places, such as Yama Izakaya.

Ramen rules

1. When your bowl arrives, lean in and take a good whiff to appreciate the aroma. Break up the egg, whether it’s soft-boiled and runny or hard-cooked. If there’s a sheet of nori in the side of the bowl, push it down into the broth so it dissolves, adding a fishy hint of the ocean to complement the pork broth. Add rayu (hot chile oil) or togarashi (spicy seasoning powder) to your taste.

2. Start to tackle the noodles: Pull up a few into your mouth with chopsticks and slurp to suck them in. Or use your chopsticks to pile a few into the wide spoon. Wth some kinds of ramen, the noodles come on the side so you can add them as you go, keeping them from overcooking.

3. Eat fast: The broth will cool off and the noodles will get mushy. Don’t ask for a to-go box: Leftover ramen doesn’t reheat well. If you order it for take-out, it should come with the noodles on the side.

Where to tuck into a bowl in Charlotte

Futo Buta, 222 E. Bland St., facing the Bland Street LYNX Station. Besides tonkotsu ramen ($14), it also serves miso, shoyu, niwa (vegan) and chizu (chicken) for $12, plus the loaded-up Buta Bowl ($18). Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Yama Izakaya, 1324 Central Ave. Tonkotsu ($14); shoyu, miso and shio ($13). Hours: 5-11:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 5 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Musashi, 10110 Johnston Road. Tonkotsu, miso and shoyu ramens ($12.50). Noon-2 p.m. and 5:30-9:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, noon-2 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5:30-9 p.m. Sunday.

Ramen Soul: Opening in mid- to late April, at 694 Brawley School Road, Mooresville. Menu and prices not yet available.

Types of ramen

The basic styles:

Tonkotsu: Not to be confused with tonkatsu, the fried pork cutlet. This is the most popular at restaurants, made with a pork-based broth that’s boiled for hours, making it a cloudy white. It usually has slices of pork belly or braised pork.

Shoyu: Clear, brown broth flavored with soy sauce and served with curly noodles. It sometimes has beef instead of pork.

Shio: Salty, clear yellow broth. It’s usually made from pork bones but isn’t boiled as long as tonkotsu, so it’s clear and lighter in color.

Miso: A fishier, oilier broth that’s usually served with thicker noodles.