Where do you go when you are half an hour outside the city at Ikea, and you’re hungry and tired from all that furniture shopping? This past weekend, my roommate and I decided the correct answer to that question meant driving across the city to the Inner Harbor/Federal Hill area and leaving all of our new furniture in the back of the Zipcar pickup truck.
Ramen Utsuke, with its bright bold letters outside of a brand spanking new building, caught my eye as I drove along Key Highway with my new furniture and an empty stomach.
The first business to open at the newly built 414 Light St., it stands in an awkward spot between the Inner Harbor and Federal Hill. But once we walked in, we were greeted by large red lanterns hanging from the ceiling, a large projection of food television programs and a beautiful dining space.
According to our waiter, it is the sister restaurant of the beloved Fells Point restaurant Kippo Ramen, with much of the same menu but with a few modern twists from the chef. He also informed us that they serve Hakata style ramen, which differs from other styles in that it involves a tonkotsu pork broth that is smooth and creamy.
Shigehiko Okiebisu, the owner of Kippo, opened the restaurant last May.
Ramen has become a bit of a meme these days, a food trend that has propagated across the world. It has helped popularize Japanese cuisine, but it has also narrowed the general public’s view of the cuisine. Everyone thinks Japanese food is ramen and sushi.
Restaurants these days love being on the latest and greatest food trends, admittedly for good reason, though. It increases sales: people will see an ingredient or a dish they recognize from a YouTube video or foodie Instagram post and they will have it or die trying. Popeye’s chicken sandwich. The McRib. Shaved raclette.
Our dishes came to the table carefully assembled with an egg and the typical accoutrement atop. The stunning visuals will entice neighboring customers to ask about it, but the broth underneath is what makes you go again.
I ordered the Tonkotsu White, the basic bowl of pork broth ramen (according to the menu, “simplistic and delicious”). My roommate went with the Tonkotsu Black and Red: the same pork broth with spicy chili paste added and topped with a healthy spoonful each of chili oil and black garlic oil.
The first sip of the homogenous, cloudy white broth is filled with a dense pork flavor.
It contains lots of broken-down collagen boiled for hours and emulsified into the soup, so it coats the tongue immediately.
The Tonkotsu Black and Red featured the hype black garlic oil drizzled on top, giving it a slight complexity and altering the flavor with a heavy aroma of garlic in the small amount there.
Ramen Utsuke translates to “crazy ramen” from Japanese, but the only thing crazy about this ramen is that it’s crazy good.
My roommate and I slurped in silence for the few minutes it took to finish our meals.
I always have a hard time with ramen bowls that are too rich or just have too much food.
I tend to leave ramen joints, even the ones with good food, beyond full and bloated.
Don’t get me wrong, I like being overstuffed and gluttonous like the true American I am, but I also like feeling comfortably satisfied.
The portion sizes here were smart; the optimal amount of richness in the soup and the smaller portion size of the bowl satiated me, but didn’t leave me feeling disgustingly overfed.
I enjoyed the food right down to the last drop of broth, leaving a clean bowl.
They also serve rice dishes and buns if you aren’t in it for the noodles.
Beverages include a selection of Japanese sake, beer and wine as well as non-alcoholic options like Ito En milk tea, Calpico and ramune soda.
TL;DR: Forgive the memes and venture out for one of the greatest bowls $12 can buy you in this city.