Ninja Ramen opened quietly a week or so ago with a full menu of cocktails, but no ramen. Owner Christopher Huang delayed serving noodles for a few days to fine tune his processes and ensure that the restaurant is ready for customers. Given the hordes that greeted the opening of each of Houston's two other dedicated ramen restaurants, Tiger Den and Ramen Jin, the caution seems appropriate.
With a soft opening this weekend, the ramen bar is serving its signature soup, a pork-based tonkotsu with pickled bamboo, shallots, cured egg and garlic oil. Miso and spicy flavor bombs will follow in the next week or so. Eventually, Huang plans to introduce snacks in the form of Hawaiian style spam musubi and fried rice.
"I hate the fact that people say 'It's good for Houston or it's good for Texas.' We just want to come out with something really good, period."
A strong selection of Japanese beer and whiskey is also available. Huang has benchmarked his prices against across the street neighbor Little J's (and others) to ensure that he's a couple dollars cheaper on the highly regarded Japanese beers from Hitachino Nest. The cocktail menu contains drinks named after famous ninjas, including all of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They're designed to pair with the food and aren't as boozy as they would be at a dedicated cocktail bar.
Ninja Ramen uses an off-site catering kitchen to prepare the dishes, which are then heated and served at a small set up in the back of the bar. While probably not ideal, it does allow the restaurant to maximize its 40 seats and turn out food quickly.
Inside, Ninja Ramen has transformed the space that housed both The Dubliner and Lava Rock. Custom posters depict famous figures like the Mona Lisa and Homer Simpson in ninja garb. The overhead lights hide packages of supermarket ramen noodles. Ninja Ramen's whimsical decor avoids some of the design tropes of other ramen spots; i.e., no bamboo or ropes can be seen anywhere. The vibe is definitely more bar than restaurant, but that's probably a good fit for Washington Ave.
Huang invited a small group to get a first taste of the ramen Wednesday night. We were all impressed by its strong umami flavor and the way the toppings complimented the broth. Although the ramen isn't as salty as some traditional preparations, that decision might be more palatable for Washington Ave revelers still discovering the soup. The packaged noodles, a well-known brand used widely through the country, were slightly overcooked, but that's easily fixed.
Back in December, Huang told CultureMap he wouldn't accept any compromises for his product. "I hate the fact that people say 'It's good for Houston or it's good for Texas.' We just want to come out with something really good, period." The ramen isn't there yet, but he's starting from a good place. Being able to satisfy a late night soup craving without leaving the Loop is going to be nice.