You survived the Great St. Louis Cupcake Onslaught. You’re still reckoning with the Great St. Louis Barbecue Boom. Are you ready for the Great St. Louis Ramen Craze? The coming year promises a surge of shops slinging the Japanese noodle soup. I’ve already resigned myself to a closet full of shirts and sweaters stained by careless slurping.
We are late to the party. Renowned chef David Chang, who jump-started America’s ramen obsession when he opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City in 2004, wrote this year that ramen is “dead.” His argument is more nuanced than that declaration. He worries that ramen everywhere has become too similar.
Those of us longing for a bowl of tonkotsu ramen as deeply and essentially porky as what is available in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles — let alone, you know, Japan — would welcome this problem.
For St. Louis’ aspiring ramen chefs, the issue isn’t that the bandwagon has already traveled several miles down the highway. It’s the lack of context. The cupcake trend didn’t require our bakers to do anything that they hadn’t done before. Pitmasters could look for inspiration to our own barbecue heritage as well as the competition circuit and the more acclaimed traditions of Kansas City, Memphis and Texas. Japanese cuisine in St. Louis, however, has followed a narrow path, confined mainly to sushi, teppanyaki and some staple dishes (udon here, pork katsu there, chicken teriyaki both here and there).
One of our Japanese restaurants is Nippon Tei, which Ann Bognar opened not quite 15 years ago in a Manchester Road shopping plaza. In August, in what was more or less the kickoff of the Great St. Louis Ramen Craze, Bognar and her son and executive chef, Nick, turned Nippon Tei’s bar and lounge into Ramen Tei.
The menu is very small: two ramens, two other noodle dishes and a few appetizers. On your first visit, you’ll probably order the tonkotsu ramen ($15), the style that has been the most venerated during the United States’ ramen boom. This is a bit unfortunate, and speaks to David Chang’s point — there are numerous regional ramen variations, to say nothing of what individual chefs might add to it — but it’s understandable. A great tonkotsu ramen is glorious, broth as rich and velvety as melted ice cream, pork’s essence distilled and transformed as thoroughly as corn becomes bourbon.
Ramen Tei’s tonkotsu isn’t quite glorious yet. As a bourbon, it’s a mixer, not a sipper. Nick Bognar simmers pork bones for 24 hours, and the broth’s cloudy shimmer is promising, but the body doesn’t reach that sticky, fatty thickness you really want. Still, the elements for a fine tonkotsu ramen are all present. The long simmering has deepened pork’s natural essence, while slices of chashu pork belly round out the broth with a mild sweetness. A sous-vide egg adds a bit more heft to the broth’s texture, while twin slugs of roasted-garlic chile oil and mayu (garlic and sesame oil) slice through all that richness.
The shoyu ramen ($14) is closer to its ideal state, a mellow (though not boring) chicken broth seasoned with soy sauce. The body is medium-light, coating the mouth but not hanging around. You can order this with chashu pork or smoked chicken. I suggest the latter: It gives the broth an extraordinary depth. In both this and the tonkotsu ramen, the traditional alkaline noodles (made fresh, but not in house) are springy and well slicked by broth.
Ann Bognar is a native of Thailand, and Ramen Tei’s menu also features a version of the classic northern Thai noodle soup khao soi ($14). The broth is assertive in its spiciness at the expense of complexity. Still, with the addition of raw red onion and pickled mustard greens and a squeeze of lime juice, it makes for a brightly flavored meal.
The appetizers bide time while you wait for your soup. The fried chicken wings ($9) don’t deliver enough of the heat or fermented complexity that dried Thai chile and gochujang paste should provide. The gyoza ($7) are the same potstickers you’ve had a hundred times before. If you must, go with the sticky steamed buns ($4) with crisp pork belly and a fiesty red-curry sauce. As Ramen Tei’s menu is already so small — and as it boasts an adjoining, larger restaurant to cater to those not in the mood for noodles — Nick Bognar might consider cutting these extraneous dishes entirely to focus on perfecting those bowls of tonkotsu and shoyu ramen.
Really, the question isn’t whether St. Louis diners are prepared for our year of ramen. It’s whether the chefs are ready.
Where Ramen Tei, 14027 Manchester Road, west St. Louis County • 1½ stars out of four • More info 636-386-8019; nippontei-stl.com • Menu Ramen, with a few other Japanese, Thai and Korean dishes • Hours Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, lunch Friday
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Excellent ★★★★ Extraordinary