Last Wednesday we arrived a little before 8 p.m., finally nabbing a table at 9:57. Using my feeble math skills that means we waited two hours for a bowl of soup we ate in 10 minutes. Was it worth it? Yep. Ichicoro Ramen's debut is clearly the most anticipated restaurant opening we've seen in ages. I suppose I've contributed to the hype (in May I went to New York to preview Noel Cruz's version of "Tampa-style" ramen at a popup), but it really seems like everyone in Seminole Heights is ready and willing to devote hours to the acquisition of lovely ceramic bowls of spicy abura soba or shoyu with perfect swaths of smoky, fatty pork belly riding high.
Ramen is a craze that has swept cities like New York and Los Angeles (well, and of course places like Sapporo, Japan, and Tokyo, too). But it's really just arriving here. And as the zeitgeist dictates, it is arriving concurrently in several places: Japanese Kitchen Dosunco is an authentic and fairly utilitarian newcomer that opened its doors at the end of July in Tampa, and in St. Petersburg, the King and I recently morphed into the Japanese fusion Mango Tree, heavy on the ramen. But first, Ichicoro.
Cruz, Masa Takaru, Chakira Hiratsu and the rest of the crew radiate a big-city rock star vibe (which seems about right, because Takaru is the bassist in the New York band Trouble Andrew). The restaurant space is hip and modern (hats off to Brand Architecture in Orlando and Live/Work Studios in Seminole Heights), with a bar on one side where people cool their jets and wait for a table, and, on the other side, an open kitchen that allows for maximum viewing of the flames, steam and drama of ramen preparation.
This is craft ramen: The noodles themselves are a proprietary recipe made for Ichicoro by Sun Noodles in New York. They are pale gold, springy and chewy, the broths (from the pork-chicken blend of the champon version to the chicken-based broth of the shoyu) rich and nuanced. You can add extras to your bowl — more soy-seasoned custardy boiled egg halves, poached eggs for extra lush yolkiness, or housemade bacon — but even with no extras these are exciting bowls of soup. (Click here for Ramen 101 - tips for slurping your bowl.)
The champon ($16) cradles juxtapositions of texture and color: corn niblets and velvety shiitakes, fatty braised pork and bouncy heads-on gulf shrimp. The shoyu ($12) features the same pork (which seems to be reheated over an open flame to impart extra smokiness), soft-boiled egg, scallion, papery-crunchy nori and thin planks of menma (fermented bamboo shoots; also an anime character) that squeak slightly against your teeth.
So what do you do when you're waiting patiently for your table? First, you grab a stool at the bar and chat with amazing head bartender and architect of the cocktail program Jessie Wohlers, who moved down from the Clover Club in Brooklyn to be a part of the #RamenArmy at Ichicoro. There are sophisticated cocktails that pair elegantly with this food, as well as a cool frozen Kirin beer machine (like a slushy you can add as a refreshing capper to a beer) and a short but edgy wine list.
Once hydrated, there are other nibbles to tide you over. I fell in love with the crushed cucumber tsukemono ($5) with its scallion, sesame and marinade of spicy, salty fermented broad beans. (Remember when the New York Times went bananas over cucumbers that you rough up so they are more sauce-permeable? This is that.) And both the marinated fried chicken bits ($7) and fried sweet potato ($7) with tangy scallion mayo are addictive salty-crunchy treats, the plush sweetness of the potatoes' centers a revelation.
Ichicoro's aim is to add lunch down the pike, to add vegan selections (for now, the vegetarian has a couple of good options) and maybe to offer reservations. But even in its infancy, it feels like the real deal, one worth the wait.
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Although ramen is a quick, fairly inexpensive one-pot meal, it doesn't lend itself to takeout. The noodles, experts say, get soggy after 10 minutes in the broth (this is why speed-slurping is of the essence). Ichicoro doesn't offer takeout, nor does Dosunco, which is tucked into an unassuming strip mall on Kennedy in a space that previously housed the short-lived Dulce Cafe Bakery.
One night at Dosunco I realized I was the only Caucasian in the place, the dominant language Japanese. Ramen chef Arihiro and crew are recent emigres, their English a work in progress. No matter: Take a seat and ask for the complimentary Japanese barley tea (a seriously acquired taste, but interesting), then order one of just a couple of beers or from the short lineup of Ozeki cloudy sake, sparkling sake or a peach jelly sake (not my taste, but kind of cool). Appetizers are perfunctory at Dosunco: There is a pretty much unadorned plate of cold tofu, small bowls of edamame and pan-fried gyoza that are nothing special. You're here for ramen.
My favorite is the spicy Dosunco ramen ($12), a cloudy, deeply savory miso paste broth topped with roast pork (not as stunning as at Ichicoro, but still good). Dig down into your bowl (which you can do with a special fork-spoon hybrid if you're lousy with chopsticks) and you'll find marinated ground beef, which adds a satisfying heft and texture. And what are those little black things floating next to the bean sprouts, bamboo shoots and seasoned egg? Fried garlic and green onion that add little pops of smoky, nearly burnt nuttiness.
A tip: If you're a slow eater, go with the brothless ramen called abura soba ($10). You won't be racing to keep the noodles from sogging — it's all the same ingredients listed above, but tossed in a soy-dominant sauce. Dosunco's service is fast-paced and a little brusque. They aren't here to educate you about ramen, so newbies are wading in on their own. Even the uninitiated will end things sweetly with a couple of green tea mochi, an ice cream-centered spongy rice cake that I can imagine being the next Tampa craze.
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The owners of Mango Tree, Kitty and Ed Onphianek, are restaurant veterans. They opened the Lemon Grass, a Thai/Japanese/pan-Asian tapas lunch and dinner house in 2013 in St. Petersburg, and they've owned Basil Leaf Thai Sushi and Noodles in St. Pete Beach since 2011. They have an eye for design, having glammed up the King and I space enormously. And their choice of cuisine is savvy: Downtown St. Pete has been awash in Thai restaurants and Asian fusion, often with a sushi component, but there is very little nonsushi Japanese.
The menu is a long romp through bento box lunches (similar to those at the Lemon Grass), sushi rolls, donburi, Japanese fried rice dishes, tempura, soba and ramen. Whew, it's a long read. In general, a menu this extensive tends to be hard to execute expertly, and I would say that neither the noodles nor the broth at Mango Tree can compete with those at Ichicoro and Dosunco.
What's nice about it, though, is that Mango Tree offers a wider range of ramen styles. There is shio butter ramen ($9.95 at lunch), which literally means "salt," a light-colored nonsoy broth that is most famous in the city of Hakodate, this version with seaweed and corn. And they make a tonkotsu ramen ($9.95) that starts with a hearty pork broth. Their char shu (roast pork) doesn't reach swoon-worthy heights, and the narutomaki fish cakes are clearly not housemade, but the Onphianeks are ensuring that the ramen ruckus gets going on both sides of the bay.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.