Horace Greeley probably never burped Japanese broth in his lifetime, but the pundit’s famous insistence that America’s prototypical young man forge west has been micro-heeded by a noodle obsessive in our midst.
Twenty-seven-year-old chef Dean Leevongcharoen has pegged University City for that side of Schuylkill’s first dedicated ramen-ya. Ramen Bar (4040 Locust St.), which soft-opened on Sept. 11, is the laborious result of Leevongcharoen’s long-term goal to open a restaurant peddling proper Hakata-style soup, the pork-based tonkotsu discipline perfected by chefs in Japan’s deep south.
“I wondered why there were no ramen shops in Philly,” says Leevongcharoen, who’s bounced from New York to Canada to California to his clan’s native Thailand in search of the ideal bowl.
The sesame seed of an idea, of course, predated the debuts of local shops like Green Wasabi, Ramen Boy (now Terakawa) and Nom Nom, to say nothing of pending contenders like Cheu, Hiro, Royal Izakaya and Patrick Feury. But Ramen Bar’s revving right now, for now without a liquor license that will ideally go live by the end of this month.
Leevongcharoen, initiated into the kitchen at his family’s Heng’s Thai in Springfield, holds a degree in hospitality management from Penn State and has logged study at France’s famed Institut Paul Bocuse. His industry scope is panoramic, but Ramen Bar’s focus is a pinhole in comparison: eight main-event soups, complemented by a tight list of starters (steamed “R.B. Burger” buns; takoyaki; agedashi tofu) and non-brothy specialties (broiled eel rice bowls; miso-marinated black cod; teriyaki).
To get his Hakata chops up, Leevongcharoen trained with the highly regarded Nakamura Shigetoshi of the Ramen Lab, an R&D center owned by Sun, which provides the chef with two types of noodles for his parlor. Built upon straight white noodles, the classic tonkotsu boasts broth simmered for more than 20 hours in one of Leevongcharoen’s four 100-quart boilers.
This fat-clouded canvas is veiled by various alterations — a dry chili/Thai chili/jalapeno/hot oil amalgam for the heat-lover’s kara kara; fermented bean paste and wavy yellow noodles for the miso — as you move down the list. A fully seaweed-based broth, available miso or shoyu (soy sauce) style, caters to West Philly’s sizable vegan and vegetarian contingent. (Well-traveled local ramenites might recognize a familiar bandanna’d face behind the line — Ben Watanabe, formerly of Ramen Boy, who’s in here to help execute Leevongcharoen’s vision.)
Featuring 70 seats in a long, narrow space that formerly housed a bowling alley and a hobby shop, the pine-paneled Ramen Bar is easily the biggest restaurant of its style in Philly, and the coming-soon booze addition should set Leevongcharoen further apart from his competition. But there are subtler distinguishing touches, too: See the large, vertically oriented wooden ladles offered in lieu of dainty plastic spoons with each bowl. When asked why he’s chosen to arm his customers with such an old-school slurping apparatus, Leevongcharoen shrugged. “I just like to be different,” he says.
Photos: Drew Lazor