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  1. Food

Tampa-style ramen gets a celebrity preview in New York City

NEW YORK — Gwyneth Paltrow likes Tampa-style ramen.

Thursday evening, with paparazzi set up across the street, Paltrow and friends slurped their way through the three offerings at New York City's red-hot Ramen Lab. It was an unusual opportunity for an incoming Tampa restaurant to get some major exposure on a big-city stage.

Run by Sun Noodle as a test-kitchen restaurant, Ramen Lab this month embarked on a guest chef program. Its inaugural visitor was restaurateur Noel Cruz, who will open Tampa's first ramen house, called Ichicoro, in Seminole Heights at the end of June. It will have an open concept, and about 50 seats.

On Friday night, I got Paltrow's exact spot at the 10-seat noodle bar. There were no seats in this setup, so guests wrangled noodles Blade Runner-style while standing. Cuban music jangled out of the speakers as the line of would-be diners snaked down the block. Cruz, Masa Takaku and Chakira Hiratsu — the team coming to 5229 N Florida Ave. next month — showed New Yorkers what Tampa-style is all about.

First, it's about ingredients: gulf shrimp, citrus, corn and tomato all make unusual showings. But it's also about style: Tampa's sultry climate means Cruz offers an array of refreshing brothless noodle dishes, plus some extra spiciness (kosho, a pepper paste, is made of Florida citrus and habaneros) to beat the heat.

Christina Wang, who stood two spots over at Ramen Lab, is a consultant for Sun Noodle and a ramen aficionado.

"This is not a traditional ramen experience," she said. "The Cuban music, the sharp, spicy flavors. To be able to show New York this is really amazing."

But is Tampa ready for ramen?

"It takes a while to spread that desire," Wang cautioned, her bowl of spicy abura soba reduced to a couple of scallion flecks.

Cruz, who grew up in the Tampa Bay area and went to the University of Florida, is adamant.

"I've contemplated doing something down there for years but it never felt right, timing-wise," he said. "The ramen thing came the last couple years and I got connected with some friends up here, but I don't see any of it down in Tampa. It seems like the right time for something truly authentic."

This is not your college kid's ramen, that cube of instant sustenance with the creepy powder pack.

There's an art to making the broth: the most common types are shoyu (soy sauce), miso, shio (salt) and tonkotsu (pork-bone soup). Some are light and simple, others rich with a slick of flavorful oil at the top.

Noodles are often fresh and toppings include plush chashu (thick, fatty pork slices), kamaboko (fish cake slices), bean sprouts, onions, green onions, nori, seasoned bamboo shoots, mushrooms, beni shoga (pickled red ginger strips) and boiled eggs. And they are eaten swiftly via chopsticks and a spoon assist, with much slurping and sucking (seriously, have at it), the bowl picked up at the end to get the remaining broth.

The best part? It's a flavorful one-dish meal with a cultish following that will set you back maybe $12. Paltrow and friends may not sweat the price tag, but for me and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, resident Brian Bates, Takaku's apartment-mate and the diner to the right of me, trying out Tampa-style ramen was affordable entertainment.

And while Paltrow left the Ramen Lab cloaked in a sweater, Cruz said, the paparazzi confusedly yelling, "Jennifer Lawrence, Jennifer, show us your face," I walked out into the warm New York evening full of Tampa-style ramen, and no one confused me with anyone.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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