If there's one cold-weather dish I couldn't live without, it's ramen. As the temperature drops and daylight grows shorter, I inevitably find myself hankering for a bowl of piping-hot noodles, and I'm pretty sure I'm not alone.
Once considered little more than a college-kid hangover remedy, the popular noodle dish has inspired countless restaurant operations across the U.S., replicating the allure of the ramen houses and noodle carts that dot late-night streetscapes of Japan.
Though behind New York and L.A., New Orleans is no stranger to the ramen craze, and in July, the city became a little more noodle-friendly when Little Tokyo proprietor Yusuke Kawahara opened Ichi Japanese Ramen House in the Marigny. A second location opened on Maple Street a month later.
Steaming noodle bowls dominate the menu and feature the signature ramen accoutrements: ceramic bowls filled with dried seaweed leaves, thick slices of pork bobbing just above the broth's surface, spinach, bean sprouts, bamboo and the ubiquitous soft-cooked egg. Imported from New York's Sun Noodle, a ramen company with branches in Hawaii and California, noodles swim freely in the broth, tasting salty and chewy but never sticky.
The focus here is tonkotsu ramen, featuring thick, cloudy pork broth. Slow cooking the pork bones imbues robust body and deeply porky flavor, and fat bubbles float on the surface. It serves as the base for all of the ramen dishes at Ichi, although there also is an off-menu vegetarian ramen featuring buckwheat noodles, seaweed, mushroom and tofu broth.
Elevating the viscosity level another notch, the dark saffron broth in the curry bowl is thick and creamy and packs soft heat that will tickle the back of your throat, but it is more rich than spicy.
The bowls here are far from skimpy. A pork rib version brims with sweet, slow-cooked ribs with tender meat that slides off the bone, but I barely made a dent in the large soup.
At some ramen restaurants, a barely-set poached egg is submerged so the prick of a chopstick releases the runny yolk into the broth. That's not the case here, and the eggs are cooked unevenly: some bowls boasted a creamy-centered soft-boiled version while others were close to hard boiled.
Optional ingredients can add texture and flavor, and they run the gamut from fried garlic and onion shavings that carry a delightful crunch to awkward heaps of shredded cheese that feel at odds with the other ingredients in the bowl.
A small menu of izakaya items, or Japanese snacks, offer a nice start to a meal. The best bets are takoyaki and ebiyaki, battered dumplings filled with minced octopus and shrimp, respectively. The creamy orbs consist of a flour-based batter stuffed with seafood and fried to deep golden brown. Sitting on a plate with dollops of mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce — a sticky, sweet condiment made with Worcestershire and ketchup — the tiny globes are showered with dried bonito flakes, which add rich umami notes.
Ichi is considerably more pared down than Kawahara's other restaurants, and the Marigny location has a BYOB policy while a liquor permit is pending. But the restaurant's bare-bones approach delivers the basics: giant, steaming bowls of slippery noodles diners can inhale, whether one drink in or 10. There's friendly, efficient service and prices won't make a college kid blink.