For years, New Jersey’s capital region looked on as American dining changed dramatically and deliciously. Mexican, Asian, Middle Eastern and South American cuisine took root everywhere from Seattle to Boston to Miami to L.A., but Mercer County seemed content to be known for its abundance of good to great pizza — and little else. Even regional American specialties like BBQ were nowhere to be found.
Slowly, slowly, the national engagement with international cuisine reached our area. Chambersburg’s red sauce Italian joints moved out of Trenton or closed, replaced almost universally by new Mexican, Central and South American restaurants. A smattering of sushi bars and Thai places have gradually joined our handful of longstanding Chinese and Indian establishments in establishing an Asian scene. (And we do have some BBQ spots now, although not as many as we should.)
You can say that the pace of cultural diversification in area dining is no longer so slow. In fact, I’d say things are changing at a dizzying rate. Take the sudden abundance of ramen as an example. No fewer than five new restaurants have opened in the past two months with ramen in their names: Terakawa Ramen in West Windsor; Daniel’s Ramen in Quaker Bridge Mall; Soya Ramen and Sushi Burrito in Mercer Mall; and Lan Ramen and Purinsu Ramen in Princeton.
For more than a century, ramen has been a phenomenon of Japanese cuisine. While many in this country know ramen as a budget supermarket item — a variation on Lipton Cup a Soup — it is much more than that. A bowl of ramen is a steaming umami bomb, a nest of chewy wheat noodles in complex and robust broths that can take two days to make.
There’s tonkatsu ramen, made with a broth of pork bones; shoyu ramen, with soy sauce and chicken broth; miso ramen, a Hokkaido specialty; and curry ramen. Those aren’t the only styles, but they are among the most common.
Nor is ramen only noodles and broth. Among the most common ingredients are braised marinated pork belly (charshu), shredded wood ear mushrooms (kikurage), bamboo, baby bok choy, scallions and marinated soft-boiled eggs.
It’s said that there are more than 10,000 ramen restaurants in Tokyo alone. Closer to home, New York City experienced a ramen craze early in the 21st century and hasn’t looked back. Finally those of us who don’t regularly make it to big cities have the opportunity to see all what the fuss is about.
It’s not that we couldn’t enjoy a bowl of ramen locally before now. Several area Japanese and Asian fusion restaurants have had it on their menus. Purinsu (a Japanese transliteration of “Prince”) opened last month in the same Witherspoon Street location that had housed Edo Ramen for two years. But we’ve never had this many options to choose from.
Clearly it was time to see what I’ve been missing.
I started with a restaurant that’s been serving ramen for a while: Roots, in Windsor Green Shopping Center across the parking lot from Whole Foods in West Windsor. I’d been to Roots many times, but never had a bowl of the Roots Ramen ($12.25), which featured pork belly, soft-boiled egg, bok choy, scallion and noodles in a pork broth.
In a hurry that day, I took my lunch back to the office. As is customary for takeout ramen, it was packed in two containers, one for the broth and another for the rest. Just combine and eat.
When it comes to ramen, you start with the broth. The Roots broth was clear and refreshing. It had good body to it, picking up in saltiness over the course of my meal, probably as the other ingredients mingled within. The noodles, gloriously tangled, were just on the soft side of al dente. As was usually the case, I struggled at first to liberate the noodles from the nest with my chopsticks. Gradually it became easier until I was able to slurp up large mouthfuls at a time. This was true everywhere that I ate.
Four thin, salty slices of pork belly were plenty. They were the least tender of those I had, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. The soft-boiled egg, served whole, was perfectly done inside, liquid but not runny. It was my favorite part of the dish.
I followed that up with a stop at Daniel’s Ramen, in the old AMC wing of Quaker Bridge Mall. The tiny, modern restaurant bills itself as “bringing American sensibility to a time-honored Japanese comfort food.” Daniel’s is unusual for offering buffalo chicken and Italian sausage ramen, but I opted to go with the more traditional Daniel’s Ramen ($11), which had honey roasted pork, wood ear mushroom, habanero garlic oil and scallions.
The broth was clear but dark, and slightly greasy because of the oil. The pork flavor was distinctive and pleasant, but not overly strong. This was the only spicy ramen I had, and I have to say I liked the heat. The pork was fatty but melt-in-your-mouth tender, a trade-off I will always accept. The noodles were pleasantly soft and plentiful.
My lunch companion opted for the chicken soy ramen ($11), also dark, which featured perfectly roasted dark meat chicken and half a soft marinated egg. The chicken was absolutely delicious, and my companion was very satisfied, but the broth was extremely salty.
For my next stop, I got take out from the very busy Terakawa Ramen, newly opened in Princeton Junction’s Windsor Plaza. This is the third Terakawa location; the others are in New York and Philadelphia.
The Terakawa ramen ($12) is listed on the menu as their signature dish, so I ordered that: pork broth with pork belly, bamboo, kikurage, scallion and red ginger. They have eight other ramens on their menu, including miso, spicy and veggie ramen.
At Terakawa they like to serve the noodles firm, but they do ask you if that is OK when you order. Although they did not mention that they also have a “less salty” broth, I had heard that they did, and asked for it. They accommodated readily.
Even so, Terakawa’s cloudy, tasty, robust broth was still pretty salty. Terakawa’s firm noodles were narrower and paler in color than the others I tried. I liked the inclusion of the edgy red ginger, a nice complement to the other flavors. Terakawa’s pork belly was my favorite: rich, tender, a little smoky, and plentiful. There was supposed to be a boiled egg, but alas, there was none.
Soya Ramen and Sushi Burrito
Finally I dropped in to Soya Ramen and Sushi Burrito, in Lawrence’s Mercer Mall. I opted for the curry ramen ($9.95), which came with sliced pork belly, naruto (a kind of fermented fish cake), bamboo, scallion, egg and, somewhat unusually, corn.
The pork was meaty, the half boiled egg was nicely done. The noodles were almost like spaghetti and perhaps a bit too soft. I enjoyed the mildly spicy flavor of the curry broth, but found it to be almost unpleasantly oily. Although the dish did not seem salty at all, I experienced a familiar pounding-heart feeling after my meal, as if I had had a high-sodium meal. (And if you are wondering what a sushi burrito is, picture an enormous, nori-wrapped sushi roll.)
The conclusion I draw from my experiences is that ramen as featured item is a welcome addition to our area. I’ve been eager to go back to Terakawa, Daniel’s and Roots to try more of the bowls on their menus. And I look forward to trying both of Princeton’s ramen spots, Purinsu and Lan.
I can tell you that Lan Ramen features Chinese-style dishes, not Japanese, and that Yelp reviews for Purinsu in the first few weeks after it opened are all over the map. Then again if you have ever read a Yelp review of any Princeton restaurant, you know that they are always all over the map.