The last time I ordered ramen in Winston-Salem, it came on a plate.
Not wanting to be culturally ignorant or insensitive, I chalked it up to a misunderstanding on my part. But these weren’t even the right kind of noodles, the restaurant offered no bowl with broth for dipping or soaking, and all subsequent research points to this being a bastardization of the Japanese noodle soup rather than a lesser-known variation.
That’s why I appreciated when a couple people pointed me towards 18 Malaysia, a pan-Asian restaurant cooking up everything from Malaysian curry puffs to Vietnamese pho. The shopping center restaurant on the west side of the city also offers spicy ramen with chicken, seafood, roasted pork, beef, shrimp or vegetables, making it the most extensive ramen list I’ve seen on a permanent menu here.
Despite the sprawling menu — which often suggests breadth and not depth or quality — 18 Malaysia’s ramen is more satisfying than most other local counterparts I’ve tried, including the options at Sushi Republic and Crafted: The Art of Street Food (both in Greensboro). I wouldn’t rank it higher than the pop-up held at Spring House in association with Caldero Bone Broth — the two are roughly equivalent — but who cares? Spring House’s weekly run is over, at least for the time being, and 18 Malaysia appears to be the only place in Winston-Salem that offers consistent, quality ramen.
(Don’t bother with Ise of Japan; that’s where it’s more like lo mein.)
But 18 Malaysia isn’t the only game in town.
Shokunin Ramen, a pop-up concept that last held an event in Winston-Salem at the end of July, makes handmade noodles and sources local ingredients for a ramen-centric experience.
“Our menu is ever evolving, incorporating the art of Japanese noodle-making with the refined nature of French broths and stocks, and then pairing both with refined, traditional cooking from the South to West Africa to Northern Asia,” the business’ Facebook bio reads.
In other words, it’s a little all over the place. But it’s nice to see an outfit locally dedicated to focusing on ramen — that’s how it’s done in bigger cities, be it Ippudo in Manhattan or Ramen Tatsu-Ya in Austin (two of the best bowls I’ve had). There’s a level of care and attention to detail this specialization provides.
Almost to drive this point home, my roasted pork ramen at 18 Malaysia initially arrived with seafood instead, with the mix-up coming despite a relatively light lunch crowd on Tuesday. Regardless of type, the spicy ramen at the restaurant all come with kimchi on the side. Sure, Korea (kimchi) is much closer to Japan (ramen) than Malaysia is (which is farther south, near Thailand), but the pairing still felt a little thrown together.
Still, I took bites of the fermented cabbage occasionally to break up the heat of the broth, the pungency of the kimchi cutting against the umami-based entrée. But mostly I scooped up some medium-sized pieces of pork, noodles, broth and veggies, blowing gently in the hopes of cooling off the first several bites. The broth is thicker and more satisfying than its counterparts locally, and the chunks of meat bigger (and thus easier to grab) than at some restaurants. Yet they remained bit-sized, unlike my aforementioned favorites in bigger cities, which made consumption easier.
Located in a shopping center anchored by a Harris Teeter, 18 Malaysia kept the blinds drawn at lunch, keeping out the parking lot, and the relaxed ambiance and well-appointed décor enhanced the experience. Attentive service helps boost the restaurant’s ranking compared to countless other Triad venues, too.
A woman sitting near me raved about the pho to her friend before ordering a bowl. A low divider splits the restaurant in half, but I could see a man across the room eating soup, too — it could’ve been ramen, or one of the udon noodle options; I couldn’t tell from my vantage point. That, plus the recommendation from a couple Winston-Salem foodies, suggests 18 Malaysia is a worthwhile destination for broth-based delight.
With any luck, Shokunin Ramen will become a more regular affair, with it or another specialized business ideally opening a brick-and-mortar in the near future. But until that day, there’s no need to order ramen on a plate or make your own cheap knockoff at home — 18 Malaysia holds it down remarkably well.
Visit 18 Malaysia at 4956 Martin View Lane (W-S). Find Shokunin Ramen on Facebook.