Call it lost in translation. I mean, literally, not the melancholic film with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson that put me to sleep.
In Japan, according to our food writer Marlene Parrish, ramen is held in high esteem. It is both an everyman's food and a revered part of the cuisine. There's an app to locate ramen houses in the country, home to about 80,000 of them, and a comic strip whose protagonist is a cat that owns a ramen house. Spirited debates about whose broth is best clog the blogosphere.
But somehow in its trip across the great wide Pacific, this hearty soup meal became a cheap, instant staple of the debt-saddled college student's diet. (OK, and the debt-saddled journalism school graduate's diet.) And much like the cardboard pizza many college students are forced to subsist on, it bears little resemblance to its roots.
In Pittsburgh, you won't need an app to sort through the reams of ramen joints, because there is just one -- Ramen Bar. Sure, you can find it elsewhere --Teppanyaki Kyoto, Fukuda, Station Street Dogs and Soba, to name a handful. But as far as I know, it's the first place actually dedicated to ramen in Pittsburgh and it generated excitement among my friends who are enthusiastic consumers of Asian cuisine.
Among those eagerly awaiting its opening were the Boyfriend and his neighbors -- a severely stressed-out family lawyer and her husband, an engineer. We all slogged in after long work days in search of a decent meal and the comfort that only soup can deliver.
And deliver it did. Though the restaurant had service hiccups (a missed appetizer) that will likely be smoothed out in the coming weeks, the soup was delectable, the noodles were slurpable and the toppings were generous.
For appetizers, I didn't care much for the kim chee hiyayakko ($5), a simple block of silken tofu topped with spicy pickled cabbage. But the more indulgent chicken karage ($7), deep fried chicken chunks served with a dollop of mayonnaise, were a big hit.
The restaurant offers a variety of soup bases and toppings, allowing you to customize your soup as you might an ice cream sundae. Our lawyerly friend, a pescetarian, settled on the shio (clear broth) base in the Midori Yasai Ramen style, meaning it came chock full of green vegetables, topping it off with a soft-boiled egg and corn. She gave it an enthusiastic two thumbs up and declared it "awesome."
Our slightly more laid-back engineer friend got the ajo ramen ($9.50), a garlic infused broth with noodles topped with sliced pork, chives, green onions and other accoutrements. He described the pork as "tender," and the soup as having just the right amount of spice, "not too hot for someone like me who is a bit of a wuss, but enough to give it a good kick."
Boyfriend, who is a bit food naive and wondered if the chefs were in the kitchen with a 30-pack of Maruchan, was floored by the tan tan-men ($10). "I love tan men!" he declared. The soup was spicy and creamy, fortified with ground beef and a healthy serving of spinach. It was my personal favorite.
I got the Negi ramen with a shoyu (soy sauce) broth ($9), which I topped off with a soft-boiled egg ($1) and wonton ($1.50). The broth was wonderfully complex, the noodles perfectly cooked -- a little chewy -- and the wontons plump with meat filling.
As the days grow colder, we often turn to liquid meals for convenience and comfort. But the ones at Ramen Bar won't induce you to call up any exes or give you a raging hangover. No, they might just be good for you.
Ramen Bar, 5860 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill; 412-521-5138. Open for dinner daily.