Mike Tran's work is almost done. When his new restaurant, Ishin Udon, opens to the public December 4, it will be the fifth concept the chef and restaurateur has brought to the shopping center at 9630 Clarewood Dr.
Like his first Chinatown restaurant, Tiger Den — the ramen shop that still regularly operates on a wait — Ishin Udon is devoted to a Japanese noodle dish, but the similarities end there. Udon noodles are thicker and chewier than ramen; in Italian terms, they're more like bucatini compared to ramen's thinner, spaghetti-like texture.
The broths are different, too. Whereas ramen broth uses a pork stock that's boiled for 24 hours or more, udon broth is milder. Made with kombu, seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, dashi, and dried scallop (sorry, vegetarians), it appears as clear as consommé.
Tran tells CultureMap that during his travels to Japan he observed that udon's lighter broth and hearty noodles make it a popular choice at all times of day. Whereas ramen is something of a special treat, people might eat udon two or three times a week. In that sense, Ishin operates more like Mein, Tran's noodle-focusd Chinese food restaurant in the same center. Both restaurants serve approachable, well-priced comfort food dishes from their respective cuisines.
At Ishin, diners can opt for a bowl of noodles and broth, or they can add extras like pork belly, soft-boiled eggs, or tempura fried vegetables, shrimp, or chicken. Tan tan udon, a riff on Sichuan-style dan dan noodles, brings the heat thanks to a combination of spicy minced pork, crushed peanuts, and Japanese mustard greens.
Of course, Tran also uses the noodles as a platform for some creative Japanese-Italian hybrids. Think udon carbonara with bacon, bonito, miso cream sauce, and a poached egg. Classic puttanesca sauce keeps its olive brininess and shellfish topping, but the addition of anchovy gives it some added umami punch. Thick-cut garlic bread on Texas toast comes as an optional add-on that should prove popular with just about every table.
Both the classic and Italian-inspired udon dishes would probably be enough to lure diners to the restaurant, but Tran added a couple of takes on Japanese curry, too. Served over rice and topped with slow-braised brisket, consider it a Chinatown take on smoked brisket with barbecue sauce.
With Mein, Night Market Thai, Ohn Korean, Laki Fish (a poke concept next to Tiger Den that recently closed and will become a Vietnamese pub), and Blkdog Coffee, Tran has opened seven restaurants in five years, four of those working with chef Rikesh Patel. They're not done yet. Toukei, an izakaya that will be located next to Ishin, may be his most ambitious concept. It will feature a wood-burning grill, raw seafood dishes made at a chef's counter, and a full selection of Japanese spirits.
But that won't arrive until early 2019. For now, diners can look forward to slurping down udon at Ishin.