On Sunday, April 13th, two of Fort Worth’s highly talented chefs – Jesus Garcia of Little Lilly Sushi and Kevin Martinez of Tokyo Cafe – hosted a Wramen Pop-Up at the Culinary School of Fort Worth. Pronounced double-u ramen, Wramen implies westernized ramen, or a version you wouldn’t expect to see in Japan. The term originated in Seattle when food writer Jay Friedman called for “a change in nomenclature”. He proposed that authentic Japanese ramen continue to be called what it is (ramen) and anything else that is not authentic should be termed “Wramen”.
If you think he’s being a food snob, I’d urge you to think about what passes for Mexican or Chinese food in your neighborhood. I was lucky to grow up in the big melting pot of Houston, where friends taught me the distinction between authentic and Americanized versions of their cuisines. Since ramen in restaurants is still relatively new to many Americans, I’m happy that someone hopes to maintain its integrity, much like we Texans differentiate between Mexican and Tex-Mex. So I guess to me it makes sense that two Mexican sushi chefs from Texas would understand and want to promote the Wramen naming concept.
Double-u ramen, ramen, whatever you want to call it, these guys do it well! Some of the Wramen we sampled was relatively authentic and some was definitely unconventional, but it was all outstanding. I completely respect what these guys are doing … for themselves, the restaurants they work for and our city.
Lucas and I arrived at the Culinary School around 5:30, grabbed some wine glasses (byob!) and sat at a table for two. Many of the tables were large enough to accommodate bigger groups, but as we watched people make their way inside it appeared most came in pairs. We weren’t certain what would go best with each course so we showed up with some belgian beer, a bordeaux and a bottle of champagne. I sipped on the champagne while waiting for our meal to begin, since I knew from some pre-dinner snooping that our first course would be light. Also, this was my birthday dinner so I felt like celebrating.
The first course was Branzino (European sea bass) seasoned lightly with salt and pepper, a perfect small yellow tomato sliced in half and placed between it and some rocket salad with a hint of lemon and remarkably good parmesan.
Next was the Bao Bun Duo. One was filled with savory duck and figs, reminiscent of five spice, topped with pickled cucumbers. The other was full of moist, tender Miyazaki Beef, sprouts and spicy chile oil. L.O.V.E.D. both of them.
The 3rd course was our first bowl of Wramen! Incredibly tender Neiman Ranch beef cheek, egg white foam, two types of mint, dehydrated corn, white onion, bean sprouts, lime and a “dash of love”. I will never look at cow faces the same again. This was absolutely divine. Rich, but not overbearing, something I could eat every day of my life.
After that we were provided with the perfect palette cleanser: pickled watermelon with a thai chile and sesame jelly, topped with a thin sliver of radish and a mint leaf. Clean, refreshing and spicy.
As delicious as everything had been, at this point I began to die a little inside. I realized those bricks of Maruchan Ramen with the little spice packets would never cut it again. Ever.
A fact that was driven home the moment the Pork Bone Wramen was placed in front of me. It smelled like it was made by tiny little fairies or some other magical being. Sitting atop the noodles was a piece of sous vide pork belly (from Catalan), woodear mushrooms, a piece of kamaboko and shredded green onion. The broth it all swam in was very rich, almost buttery, with tiny little bubbles of fat. Hooray flavor! I’ve never before wanted to use the word umami to describe food. Guess I’ve been saving it for this. Savory indeed! The pork belly was the perfect consistency, but what really shined in both this and the other Wramen was the noodles.
When the next course, Dipping Wramen with Two Broths, was brought to our table I did a happy dance in my chair because I finally got the opportunity to taste a noodle before it went into the broth. They were amazing and sublime and I’m out of words because stupid words pale in comparison. Let’s just say I’ve never had fresh noodles that good.
I could have gladly eaten the noodles on their own, but the two broths are maybe, just maybe, worth mentioning. The more unconventional of the two was the Roasted Duck Tortilla Soup Broth. The piquant chile flavor was offset by tiny chunks of chicken and avocado, tortilla strips, cheese, jalapeño and cilantro. I love tortilla soup, but this was on another level. I found myself wishing this soup was available to me on a regular basis.
The other was a Kimchi Broth which, I’ll admit as a spice fiend, made me very pleased (understatement to hide how nuts I was upon hearing the words “Kimchi Broth”). Kevin told us it was made with pineapple, anchovy, granny smith apples and his tonkotsu broth. Yeah, uh-huh. That and at least a few other secret ingredients! My notes from that night read something like this:
What the mother effing eff! Spicy – very – mouth is ablaze and I’m in love with this stuff. Holy spice high! Giggling. Happy.
When the Dipping Wramen should have been cleared away I wasn’t ready to part with it. I may have tried stabbing someone with a chopstick, but couldn’t be bothered to look up and find out who or what or anything (sorry!).
So when the final course came out, the Dessert Trio, I felt a little embarrassed to see I was the only person with broth left in front of her. But my shame was short lived as the desserts were explained to us.
A rambutan, rhubarb and apple jelly with chile threads. A chocolate rice crunch bar with mint, freeze dried blueberries and what I believe was raspberry powder (I kept dipping my finger in it, trying to figure it out). And finally, a miso cake with tofu, atop a puree of rhubarb and strawberry, topped with dehydrated edamame and mint. Completely stuffed from eating as many noodles as humanly possible, I was only able to finish half of my dessert, but I really enjoyed the way each one offset the next.
After that Jesus, Kevin and all of the people from the Culinary Institute that helped make the night a success came out. We gave them a big round of applause and I’m pretty sure I beamed like an idiot, wishing I could jump up and give everyone a hug. It’s baffling how proud of these guys I felt!
Lucas and I lingered a bit longer, trying in vain to finish the bottle of Bordeaux . On our way out I saw Jesus washing dishes and told him thank you. I’ve eaten a lot of good meals in my life, but as far as birthday dinners go this was beyond compare. Lucas, my love, you may have just set the bar too high.