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Ramen 101: Local chefs use Japanese style comfort food to attract foodies

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Ramen 101: Local chefs use Japanese style comfort food to attract foodies

Growing up a poor kid in East Winston-Salem, eating ramen didn’t require a night out on the town, but instead, we simply grabbed a pack of “Oodles of Noodles” out of the pantry. If we desired to get fancy with it, we’d crunch up a bag of chips, pour in cooked ramen, shake the bag, and then eat the mixed contents from the bag. My uncle learned the recipe in jail.

 So last year, I started hearing about numerous ramen pop-up events featuring the popular noodles, but my limited understanding caused me not to give it a shot. Honestly, the Japanese terminology and wide-ranging ingredients intimidated me. But it also inspired me to search for more light to the shadowy world of ramen cuisine and seek to better educate other would-be foodies interested in exploring Japanese comfort food.

White Tiger Noodle Shop

One of the many pop-ups that caught my attention is the White Tiger Noodle Shop – a seasonal event featuring ramen hosted by Chef Tim Grandinetti at Spring House Restaurant, Kitchen & Bar. Grandinetti, a former Executive Chef at Marriott International, is well-known locally for his authentic Italian dishes and BBQ, making a brief appearance on Food Network’s Chopped: Grill Masters Challenge.

The White Tiger menu features six appetizers and four actual ramen bowls. Grandinetti started me off with Okonomiyaki ($11) – a sweet potato, shrimp, pork belly, and scallion pancake with sweet chili aioli. He then moved to the chicken fried chicken buns ($9) – the breading on the chicken was light and sweet combined with a bit of spice from the gochujang chili miso.

The ramen bowls include chicken or pork, but vegetarians have an option with the Vegetarian Miso Ramen ($16), which features dashi vegetable broth, greens, shiitake mushrooms, broccoli, cabbage, and sweet peppers. I decided to sample the WHITE TIGER Ramen ($17) – it’s a double broth with pork and chicken that includes shredded pork shoulder, pork meatball, shiitake mushrooms, and cabbage.

Mission Pizza

Mission Pizza, located in the Arts District of Downtown Winston-Salem, is a nationally recognized Napoletana pizzeria. Undoubtedly foodies travel far and wide to partake of their old-world approach to pizza. But I was shocked to learn they were selling out a local pop-up event focused on dishing out noodles – Shokunin Ramen.

Josh Trusler and his wife Nina are the energy behind Shokunin – which in Japan, signifies “craftsmanship” or “artisan.” The husband and wife look at the name as a mission statement. Trusler’s interest in food is rooted in his childhood, growing up with his grandmother in the hills of Kentucky.

“I’m all about the passion – can’t teach you how to love the food,” Trusler shared.

Trusler started his first culinary job at the age of 15 at Milners, completed a degree at Johnson & Wales University, and worked various jobs in Charlotte before returning to Winston-Salem.  

Trusler believes the secret to any bowl of Ramen is the broth. Most often, the broth is tied to a certain region of Japan. Trusler prefers Kumamoto ramen, invented in Kurume Fukuoka Prefecture, the origin of tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen.

Peyton Smith, owner and operator of Mission Pizza, is intense about food quality, and his restaurant has a history of focusing on creativity. After sampling Trusler’s noodles, Smith agreed to provide a home for the pop-up events. 

Trusler hopes to move his fledgling ramen concept into a brick-and-mortar restaurant someday. Right now, he is between culinary gigs while promoting his pop-ups. He rightfully acknowledges his vision will require lots of capital to bring it to fruition.

“Cook jobs at most restaurants don’t always match passion and compensation,” Trusler said. “It can be hard to work multiple jobs and still focus on your dream.”

Burger Batch 

One local restaurateur decided to go all-in with ramen.

Tim Walker, owner and operator of Small Batch, a microbrewery in Downtown Winston-Salem, also started Burger Batch – a niche gourmet burger and milkshake restaurant.

I initially met Walker when he launched Small Batch and was blown away by his dedication to quality and details. He constructed all the tables and completed much of the interior in the establishment.   

He later took the space next to the brewery and developed Burger Batch. Customers and revenues followed soon after. 

Increased traffic caused some operational growing pains as Walker, and his team struggled to keep up with demand. 

“I literally couldn’t sleep at night and just didn’t even want to come in the next day,” said Walker. “I wanted to go after what’s cool again.”

Walker, who was introduced to Japanese comfort food while living in San Francisco, wanted to create a fun and engaging restaurant environment centered on ramen but more so around the dining experience. His menu is easy to read, with no complex Japanese terms. In fact, the restaurant has no name and no real branding. It does have an expansive sake menu to match its ramen-only servings. One Walker believes is the “best in the region.” 

“It’s all about drinking, eating, and having fun,” Walker gleefully shared. “The sake truly drives the menu.”

The restaurant, located at 237 W. Fifth St., has no signage. Just a small OPEN light ushering you inside a noticeably dark venue with music playing. The ambiance is by design, according to Walker, who wanted to discourage guests from taking pictures.

“I don’t want guests on their phones and posting to social media,” Walker said. “They should be focused on their food, friends, and just enjoying the moment.” 

Walker offers five bowls with different base options – duck, pork, beef, chicken, and veggie. I tried the duck ($18) and beef ($16) - both coming with green onion, noodles, and a marinated egg. He uses a Maple Leaf Farms seared duck breast with delicious pickled radish and marinated flank steak with tempura veggies.

“Ramen allows for immense creativity, and so I just freestyle with it,” said Walker. “I’m doing it my way."

Algenon Cash is a nationally recognized speaker and the managing director of Wharton Gladden & Company, an investment banking firm. Reach him at acash@algenoncash.com

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