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 V.23 No.27 | July 3 - 9, 2014 

Restaurant Review

Beyond the Hot Pot

Ramen comes of age at O Ramen and Curry House

Takoyaki balls
Eric Williams
Takoyaki balls
Albuquerque has hardly been spared from the worldwide ramen craze. The newest venue, O Ramen and Curry House, is located across Central from UNM—the space formerly inhabited by Fei’s Café. The location takes advantage of whatever natural law it is that makes college students and ramen noodles a perfect culinary pairing.

Back when I was in college, I thought I knew everything about ramen. I’d doctor up the dried noodle bricks with veggies, augment the spice packet with fresh green onions, sesame oil and soy sauce, add an egg at the end and have a great meal for about 50 cents.

Today, it seems like everyone is a ramen expert, ready to turn their noses if the broth isn’t tonkatsu (boiled pork bone) or if the noodles aren’t freshly made. Having never visited the ramen houses of Tokyo, I’m not really up on what makes ramen real or authentic. The only thing I know for sure about ramen is that everybody is a fucking expert on ramen.

Back when I was in college, I thought I knew everything about ramen. I’d doctor up the dried noodle bricks with veggies, augment the spice packet with fresh green onions, sesame oil and soy sauce, add an egg at the end and have a great meal for about 50 cents.

O Ramen’s interior manages to be assertive and understated at the same time. It’s striking how different it feels inside, though most of the features seem designed to not catch your eye. Dark stained plywood siding sets a no-frills tone to the place. Varnished laminate tabletops add a bright contrast. It feels like a crammed, tiny Tokyo storefront. Low hanging lamps create a measure of intimacy at each table. International pop beats round out the somewhere-else feel of the place.

The vibe gives the impression that this might be the most authentic bowl of ramen you’ve ever tried, whatever that is. But the restaurant is clearly modified to appeal to the nearby college crowd. Nothing costs more than 10 bucks, and there is the occasional goofy joke on the short, focused menu.

Other than a handful of appetizers, the only menu entry that isn’t ramen noodle soup is a curry dish that comes with rice and the panko-crusted, deep-fried protein of your choice (chicken, pork or tofu, plus a potato croquette option). The curry is rich and complex, much closer to an Indian curry than Thai, thick with pureed veggies and subtle heat lurking pleasantly in the brown, gravy-like sauce.

Deluxe O Ramen
Eric Williams
Deluxe O Ramen
Many of the appetizers are standard offerings, the same squid and neon seaweed salads that you can find at any sushi bar. There are pot stickers, not homemade, that are decent.

Make no question, the one appetizer that is not to be missed is takoyaki balls, which are truly next level shit. Tako, as most sushi scholars know, means octopus. And yaki, I can extrapolate, means deep fried balls of seafood-flavored, molten, glutinous gooiness, sprinkled with flakes of nori and smoky bonito fish and drizzled with two sauces, one mayo-based and one soy-based. The seaweed and fish flakes undulate in the heat atop the crispy-shelled spheres. Watching it might be enough distraction for you to wait for them to cool to the point where they won’t burn your tongue. Once cooled, all takoyaki balls on scene will quickly vanish.

The ramen bowls come in three basic broths: chicken, veggie and the iconic, milky tonkatsu, made from boiled pork bones. All but two of the ramen bowls have the tonkatsu broth. Slices of fried panko-flake-crusted chicken float in the chicken ramen, while the vegetarian ramen comes in a dark, fungal broth.

Beyond the broth, diners must also choose between three seasonings: miso, shio (salt) and shoyu (soy). The miso broth is excellent, thicker than the others and slightly sour. My favorite was the soy and its simple umami lift.

Ramen is one of the few foods that, for whatever reason, I don’t take spicy, so I stayed clear of the spicy miso tonkatsu. In any case, a jar of Japanese seasoned chile powder graces each table for easy self-medication if anything needs it.

As the bowls are set down, you’re instructed to stir the bowl’s contents. I don’t know why, but I have such a hard time doing that. I still enjoyed my soup tremendously, slurped with a wide soup spoon that has a hook on the end, which hangs onto the rim of the bowl and keeps the spoon from disappearing into the soup.

The deluxe O Ramen soup, which at $10 is the most expensive item on the menu, includes multiple slices of soft pork belly, sheets of nori seaweed, wood ear mushrooms, scallions, corn kernels, ginger and other goodies. It’s an impressively complex array of flavors, with many levels of umami circulating.

The deluxe, and most other ramen bowls, also comes with a magnificent seasoned egg, hard-boiled to a point. The solid egg white is tinted brown and tastes of miso. The bright yellow yolk is masterfully cooked to almost solid.

Be warned, the deluxe also contains menma, aka fermented bamboo shoots. These have a very strong flavor, to the point of being distracting to me. The bamboo shoots nearly overpowered the other ingredients, and the next time I go, I’ll have them hold the menma. My wife is less sensitive to that distinct flavor and barely noticed.

Eric Williams
And if you can’t get enough of that stinky menma, order more from the additional toppings menu, which also includes nori, pork, seasoned egg, extra noodles and even butter, which I couldn’t resist adding to my tonkatsu. The butter was hard to detect among the swirling richness already present in the bowl, especially given the inherent creaminess of the tonkatsu.

The noodles, while not made onsite, are supple, sturdy and toothsome. They’re fun to eat, and there’s enough of them to all but ensure that $8-$10 bowl will fill you up. If it doesn’t, ask for more noodles.

More than just fill you up, the Japanese comfort food on offer at O Ramen and Curry House will leave you satisfied. It’s good food at a good value. And it’s takoyaki balls.

O Ramen and Curry House

2114 Central SE
Hours: 11am to 3pm and 5pm to 8pm Monday through Friday
11am to 8pm Saturday
Closed Sunday
Vibe: Consuming yet chill
Vegetarian: Yes
Gluten free: Most dishes available GF on request
Range: Everything below 10 bucks
Booze: No
Plastic: Yes

The Weekly Alibi recommends: Takoyaki balls, deluxe O Ramen, curry

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