In a 2009 movie entitled Ramen Girl, Abby, a wayward American girl unacculturated to life in Tokyo witnesses the radiant smiles on the faces of diners as they eat ramen and receives an epiphany that her life’s calling is to become a ramen chef. Over time she persuades a ramen restaurant’s temperamental Japanese chef to mentor her. Initially he assigns her to perform the most menial and degrading tasks, but she perseveres and eventually convinces her tyrannical mentor of her sincerity and he teaches her how to make ramen. Alas, it’s ramen with no soul until she also learns that ramen must be prepared from the heart and not from her head.
Ramen with soul? Ramen chefs? Ramen prepared from the heart? That just doesn’t describe the ramen experience for most Americans. In the fruited plain, ramen is typically thought of as “budget” food, something to fill your belly when your bank account is empty. Few foods offer as much bang for the buck as the ubiquitous low-brow meal most often associated with the college student demographic. Fittingly, in Japan ramen is often called “gakusei ryori” which translates to “student cuisine.” It’s not just students and budget-conscious diners, however, who love ramen.
Ramen is beloved worldwide to the tune of 95 billion servings in 2011. That’s enough ramen to feed 260 million people for an entire year. Invented in 1958 by Nissin Foods, the original “Top Ramen” noodles with which most of us are familiar, rakes in some 3.2 billion dollars a year. Throw in competing ramen clones made in other countries and you have an estimated world market of ten billion per year. That’s a lot of noodles.
When first introduced in Japan, ramen was considered a luxury item and was six times more expensive than homemade noodles found in Japanese grocery stores. Ramen made its ways across the Pacific in 1972 and was marketed as “Oodles of Noodles” throughout the East Coast The following year saw the introduction of “Nissin Cup Noodles” in the familiar and convenient Styrofoam cups. Before long, hundreds of knock-offs flooded the market.
How important is ramen in the Japanese culture? In a poll conducted by the Fuji Research Institute, instant ramen was named by Japanese respondents as the greatest “made in Japan” invention of the 20th century, edging out karaoke, headphone stereos, TV game players and compact disks. Attribute its popularity in part to economics. It’s been estimated that a person can live off ramen for an entire year at a cost of under $150, approximately three-percent of what Americans spend a year on food.
It’s not solely the inexpensive instant ramen that has captured the hearts and imaginations of connoisseurs throughout the world. The gourmet ramen craze has dispelled the stereotype that ramen is cheap food reserved exclusively for broke college students and that it’s always served in Styrofoam packages. Gourmet ramen is an epicurean experience showcasing deeply soulful (there’s that term: soul) ramen dishes such as Tonkotsu soup with roasted Kurobuta pork for which the bones have simmered for hours, if not days. This ramen is fresh and handmade, not instant or dry. The quality is telling.
When fellow gastronome Chris Reddington told us about Mekong Ramen House on the northwest intersection of San Mateo and Candelaria, we entertained faint hopes that the Duke City had finally graduated in culinary sophistication to have its own gourmet ramen house. I say “faint” because the name “Mekong” has no affiliation with Japan. The Mekong, one of the world’s longest rivers, meanders from China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, all nations with some ramen tradition.
Although ramen is prominent on the menu (and it’s made on the premises), the Mekong Ramen House is not a traditional gourmet ramen house. Instead, the restaurant offers a diverse and delicious culinary experience which showcases cuisine from several Asian nations including China, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos as well as from Isaan, Thailand’s northeastern region which sits just across the Mekong River from Laos. The chef is from Laos, home in my opinion to one of the world’s most under-appreciated cuisines. Perhaps because of the restaurant’s “newness,” we found the cuisine relatively unspoiled by the over-the-top Americanized sauces which lean heavily toward cloying sweetness. The food is refreshingly authentic, clean and untainted.
Ensconced in a nondescript shopping center, the Mekong Ramen House is tastefully arrayed in walls of many colors festooned with attractive wall hangings. Seating is more functional than it is comfortable. Although English is a second language to the wait staff, service is unfailingly polite, prompt and attentive. The menu is priced comparably to most Asian restaurants throughout the Duke City and while offering the cuisine of several Southeast Asian nations, is not an especially ambitious menu, listing only 41 items. A limited menu does not limited flavors make.
No sooner had we been seated and our beverage order taken than our server brought us a delightful amuse-bouche, a bowl of Tom Yum soup. If you’re used to Tum Yum soups being served in tureens big enough for a small family with shards of lemongrass, galangal and mushrooms bobbing to the surface, you’ll wonder where those elements went. Mekong’s version is as “murky” as a light chicken noodle soup with only scallions floating to the top. Though the aforementioned ingredients aren’t in evidence to the eye, they are pleasantly discernible to the taste buds. This Tum Yum is simple and delicious, not lip-pursing as too many Americanized versions are made.
One of the ways in which ramen is showcased on the menu is in a crispy appetizer. The cucumber ramen salad (sliced cucumbers topped with crispy ramen noodles and served with a sweet chili sauce) highlights the diversity of ramen in ways most college students probably haven’t explored. My Kim frequently orders dehydrated noodles and delights in their squiggly qualities coming to life when introduced to sauces. She enjoyed the crispy ramen, too. This is a relatively simple salad emboldened by a sweet-tangy-piquant chili sauce.
Another simple appetizer popular in street-side stands throughout Laos is the beef stick, Lao style grilled beef skewers served with chili lime sauce. Their portability make them an ideal street food snack while their simplicity and deliciousness will make them a popular draw to the Ramen Noodle House. Three perfectly grilled skewers of tender, delicious beef are served with a gunpowder strong chili lime sauce. The piquancy of the sauce means you’ll likely perform “touch and go” maneuvers with your beef stick instead of dipping or scooping.
The menu offers a number of pad (stir-fry) dishes, two made with ramen noodles, one with Udon noodles and one with a simple rice noodle. The Pad Ramen Noodle (ramen noodles, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, onions, bean sprouts and green onions) dish is perhaps the most simple, but it’s a dish which very well demonstrates stir-fry executed by a wok master. Available with your choice of chicken, pork, beef, vegetables, tofu or shrimp, this dish emphasizes the tangle of noodles and their harmonious interplay with other ingredients.
There are a number of Lao dishes interspersed throughout the menu, but there’s also a page dedicated solely to the cuisine of Laos. Alas, there are only six items on that page, but they include some of the Lao dishes with whom acculturated Americans are familiar: Laab, beef Jerky, Lao sausage and Lao papaya. The menu also includes a Lao grilled chicken served with sticky rice and Mekong chili tomatoes sauce. The grilled chicken–a leg, a breast and a thigh–is dissimilar to the way grilled chicken is prepared in Mexico in that it’s not infused with charcoal flavor. Though there is a pleasant smokiness, the grilling influence penetrates deeply and it’s delicious. The accompanying sticky rice is served in a cute little wicker basket that retains heat.
Our preferred way of enjoying sticky rice is with mangoes, the quintessential Thai and Lao dessert. Few desserts of any nation are as wonderful as mangoes with sticky rice, especially when the mangoes are in season. In-season means their flesh is a sweet and intensely tropical with a fragrant aroma and a fibrous texture around the pit. The intensity of mangoes in-season marries oh so well with the sticky rice which swims with rich, sweet coconut milk.
If you survived on ramen noodles during your collegiate days, the Mekong Ramen House will introduce you to ramen in ways of which you may not have conceived, all of them delicious. It will also introduce you to some of the best Thai and Lao cuisine you’ll find in the Duke City.
Mekong Ramen House
3115 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 February 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Cucumber Ramen Salad, Beef Stick, Pad Ramen Noodle, Lao Grilled Chicken