Matyson chef Ben Puchowitz, who has run two pop-up events under the name Roundeye Noodle, is philosophical about his connection to soup. "When I eat [it], it's therapeutic," he says. "It's almost like meditation. I feel so good afterwards. I feel like some people don't even recognize that in themselves — they leave there feeling good, but they don't recognize why. I recognize why. It's almost like sex."
Morimoto chef de cuisine Chris Greway, trained in the subtleties of ramen by Masaharu Morimoto himself, has a slightly more pragmatic take on Philly's hunger for the stuff. "The market was so dry [and] expectations are just set so high," says Greway, whose lunch menu features both a tonkotsu bowl and a refined, consommé-like alternative combining shanton stock (chicken, pork, beef) with shredded chicken, hard noodles and tare, the ultra-concentrated liquid seasoning agent used in most ramens. "It just goes to show you there's a real need. You can have a great business here if you're doing ramen the right way."
"I opened the door at like 4 o'clock, and I was like, 'Are you serious?' I went back to the kitchen and was like, 'Ben, you're about to get your ass kicked,'" says Shawn Darragh, recalling the first time he laid eyes on the city-block-consuming line for the inaugural Roundeye Noodle pop-up he ran with Puchowitz on Jan. 29.
Puchowitz, who indeed got his ass handed to him by the demanding dining room of broth-sippers, looks back on the evening with the grizzled comportment of a gnarled-nose prizefighter. "I didn't have enough broth. I didn't have enough anything," he recalls. "We did not anticipate any of this happening." (A second pop-up, on Feb. 26, went more smoothly.)
The twosome, friends since high school, also didn't anticipate that their name — Roundeye, a seemingly self-deprecating reference to the Caucasian partners' non-Asian status — would cause a national stir with Asian-advocacy groups. They're currently in the process of rebranding (one fake moniker on the short list: "PC Noodle") while they hunt for a permanent space for their operation.
It won't be a ramen-ya. "People keep calling us a ramen shop, but it's noodles," laments Puchowitz, who's also ladled out duck pho, mushroom miso and coconut curry soups at the pop-ups. "We're going to have a ramen, but I plan on changing the menu very frequently." His nontraditional (roundeye?) broth is lighter and clearer than most fat-forward tonkotsu bases, made with smoked pork shoulder bones and brightened with apples. "Apples?! That ain't ramen!" purists will cry. Puchowitz and Darragh don't care, because that's not what they're going for.
"People have their opinions," says Darragh of some of the nastier feedback he's received from pop-up attendees. "They're being so critical, even down to the finest ingredient. They're ramen supremists."
Those so-called supremists came out in chopstick-wielding force the second Chinatown's Ramen Boy began serving. The ramen-ya hadn't yet reached a week in business before its Yelp page was overrun with intense complaints. A perusal reveals criticisms about everything from broth ("bland") and noodles ("the noodle is al dente but tasted like it was boiled in water" — uh, they were?) to stools ("the chairs/seats sacrificed comfort for style") and lack of coat hooks (they've since installed some).
Ramen Boy is still working its way through that perceived stutter-start, and, in my opinion, the soup has grown considerably tastier since they opened. "He lived and grew up [in Japan], ate ramen his whole life," says Tam of his chef, who scrapped 14 from-scratch noodle recipes before landing on the right one. "So in his mind he knows what ramen is. For younger generations, it takes time. You need more education."
What's fascinating to me about the ramen-ya's Yelp presence is the incredible variety of moans about their soup. Some claim the broth is too fatty; others say it's not rich enough. Some people claim the noodles are too soggy; for others, they're undercooked. Tam and Watanabe speculate that this is because no two noodle-eaters' standards are the same. "Different areas have different signature soups, so in their mind, they think this is ramen, it should be like that,'" says Tam. "But our chef is not like that. He's from Yokohama. He's bringing his own recipe."
Watanabe, who can often be seen using a refractometer to gauge the composition of his broth, is serious about preparing the ramen style specific to his city, cutting chicken and pork together and skimming fat for a result that is more subtle than other tonkotsu variations. "With Yokohama style, we try to balance it," says Watanabe. "It's a more elegant ramen."
Hometown pride aside, Tam recognizes that providing soup fans what they want is job one. Since it's not exactly clear what that is, he offers customers the option of strictly chicken broth, strictly pork or the Yokohama-style admixture of the two.
"I'm not complaining, but some people eat it too slow — and a-one, and a-two ..." admits Watanabe, mimicking bringing a spoon to his lips at a snail's pace. "Japanese people eat it in 10 minutes. It's lunchtime."
Ramen's Philadelphia profile, now just a few steps past nascent, is only going to swell from here. And that means even higher standards and harsher public criticisms will cast over each bowl served. "I can easily judge a soup," says Darragh. "Everybody's had soup. You know what you like."
Su, who will soon debut Nom Nom, Philly's second ramen-ya, feels he'll fill a gaping hole in the food scene. "I wasn't able to find anything remotely close to what I've tasted elsewhere in Philly," he says. He'll do hakata-style soup, with custom-commissioned noodles.
"Now is the time to do it," says Zento Contemporary chef/owner Sam Ho, who has spent several years developing soon-to-launch miso and tonkotsu bowls for his lunch menu. He and partner Darin Picorella are also in the early stages of developing a standalone concept called Ramen Room.
Ho, unlike others, prefers not to get caught up in nitpicky arguments over ramen's merits and authenticity. He's focused on good soup. (I got to sneak a taste recently, and they are indeed serious.) "Eat it. Like it. Come back," he says. "That's all I care about."
Check out our food blog Meal Ticket for notes, quotes and tidbits that didn't make it into the story.