First Taste of Nao Ramen

First Taste: Rice Village's new ramen shop shakes up tradition with diverse menu

Rice Village's new ramen shop shakes up tradition with diverse menu

Nao Ramen beef shortrib
Beef shortrib broth. Photo by Eric Sandler
Nao Ramen french fries poutine
Kyoto fries topped with beef shortrib. Photo by Eric Sandler
Nao Ramen tonkotsu
Tonkotsu ramen. Photo by Eric Sandler
Nao Ramen cucumber salad
Cucumber salad with Asian pear. Photo by Eric Sandler
Nao Ramen yakitori skewers
Beef and chicken yakitori skewers. Photo by Eric Sandler
Nao Ramen beef shortrib
Nao Ramen french fries poutine
Nao Ramen tonkotsu
Nao Ramen cucumber salad
Nao Ramen yakitori skewers

With the opening of Nao Ramen in Rice Village, Houston’s mini, end-of-2016 ramen took another step forward Thursday. Located in the former home of 55 Bar & Restaurant, Nao reunites former Tarakaan owner Piran Esfahani with Rob Frias, who worked with Esfahani during the brief revival of food service at Tarakaan.

Unlike new arrivals like AGU Ramen and Ramen Bar Ichi that tout Japanese ownership and a careful adherence to tradition, Nao wants to shake things up a bit. The restaurant still boils its broths for up to 22 hours, but Frias also brings his French training to the endeavor, too.

“We cook the broths down and concentrate them, so they’re really rich,” Frias says. “During service, they get liquified again.  Essentially, we are making a liquid bouillon from each of the stocks.”

While the process is likely to horrify traditionalists, the technique allows Nao to offer four broths instead of the one or two that other restaurants do. In addition to traditional pork and chicken, Nao also serves soups made with beef short rib and a soy-based vegetarian option.

“There’s not a lot of shops that do a beef-based ramen,” Frias says. “Ours starts with beef marrow bones that we roast, and they go in the stock. There’s kombu in there, whole chicken carcasses, and smoked bacon, a little bit of dark miso. We basically simmer it for 22 hours, and it gets that nice, caramel-ly color.”

In addition to ramen, Nao serves yakitori skewers, Korean-style hot stone rice bowls, bao buns, small plates, and salads. According to Esfahani, having a diverse menu will allow Nao to attract diners even when the weather heats up and a bowl of soup doesn’t sound as appealing. The restaurant has a full liquor license and a spacious patio that should add to its appeal.

It all sounds very promising, and I happily accepted Frias’s offer to get a first taste of his work. While these kind of tastings usually allow a restaurant to puts its best foot forward — feeding the only non-employee in a restaurant should be pretty easy — Nao has some kinks to work out.

The noodles in two of the three bowls Frias served clumped together, which made them hard to pick up with chopsticks. While the beef broth tasted like a rich stew, the pork broth lacked the signature creaminess that I find to be one of the best aspects of eating ramen. Red curry packs a spicy wallop, but those who like delicately balanced ramen will want to look elsewhere.

While the ramen needs tweaking, the small plates are already in good form. In particular, a cucumber salad gets a little sweetness and crunch from its Asian pear, and beef rib-topped French fries — cut fresh in house and fried twice to get the right balance of a crispy exterior and a soft interior — demonstrate that Nao’s menu should be diverse enough to appeal to a range of folks coming from nearby Rice University and the Texas Medical Center.

Pricing is friendly, too. Ramen runs from $10 to $13 per bowl, and most of the small plates cost about $5. Staying open until midnight on Thursday and 2 am on Friday and Saturday will attract patrons from the nearby bars.

Rice Village is changing. Once popular destinations like Baker St. and Kubo’s have shuttered as management company Trademark Property Co. looks to bring in higher profile operations like Shake Shack and Hopdoddy. A ramen shop should be properly on trend to survive the transition; at least, once its chef works out the kinks.