I walked into Ise Japanese restaurant with a plan, and it was going pretty well until our entrees arrived.
I’d done some research, and as far as I could tell, Ise is the only Japanese restaurant serving ramen in Winston-Salem. There are more than enough spots to choose from, and even though I ticked through the menus at 10 other venues in town — finding “Spaghetti Pad Thai” at Tokyo Shapiro and Norwegian salmon at Arigato — I couldn’t find ramen anywhere else.
Ramen is plentiful in major US cities; it’s been popular in this country for years, with restaurants offering a variety of the different styles of the Japanese soup, particularly shoyu-based versions and the occasional pork-based tonkatsu. On a trip to New York last week, I made a point of dipping into Ippudo, contentedly savoring the ramen for my first meal of the trip.
Ramen is popular enough that you can find it at a small handful of restaurants in Greensboro. A ramen pop-up at the highly regarded Spring House in Winston-Salem sold out rapidly. I gave it the thumbs up, and I’ll keep ordering it at Don Japanese and Sushi Republic in the Gate City, but none of it compared to bowls I’ve had in Austin or New York.
Plus, Spring House’s stint was temporary, and there are questions to unpack about white chefs glomming onto a fashionable food trend from Japan. So, having located ramen on the menu at Ise, I showed up to try it.
My friend Cade came along, and despite toying with the idea of ordering one of the half-million other menu items, he settled on the salmon ramen, stating that a bowl of hot soup would be a welcome reprieve from the dreary downpour outside. Not seeing pork, I picked steak over chicken, shrimp, scallop or vegetarian.
We started our meals out modestly, me with the wasabi shumai — tiny meat and veggie-filled dumplings with a gradual yet slight wasabi heat — and Cade with a roll of sushi with six pieces. He later told me he’d give it high marks, but I was so filled with anticipation that I didn’t even note what kind of roll he’d picked.
But when our ramen dish arrived, I questioned our waiter.
“This is the ramen?” I asked.
“Yep!” she answered, oblivious to my confusion.
The ramen looked more like lo mein noodles topped with hibachi. Served on a plate, both of our entrees came without any sort of broth. I didn’t understand.
There are many kinds of ramen in Japan, with different regions or cities known for particular styles. I knew about tsukemen, where “undressed tsukemen noodles are dipped into an accompanying bowl of fishy, barely diluted broth before slurping,” as a pretty authoritative ramen guide in the venerable Lucky Peach puts it. You don’t have to watch documentaries dedicated to ramen or go to Japan to be peripherally aware of this dipping — and decidedly less soupy — approach; it’s on display in the latest season of Aziz Ansari’s hit “Master of None.”
But this was different. Ise’s ramen didn’t have broth of any kind to speak of, instead appearing more pedestrian, like the kind of plate you’d be served at any run-of-the-mill, mostly forgettable Japanese hole in the wall around here.
That’s the problem with walking into a restaurant with a plan, or assuming you know what you’re talking about when it comes to someone else’s food traditions or culture.
Ise’s menu makes no reference to soup or broth with its ramens. Instead, the selections appear under the heading “Hibachi ramen,” with a note reading “(stir fried egg noodle)” beneath it. If you want soup, look further down on the page at the udon and soba options. Hell, there’s even pho on the menu.
Once home, I did some more research. Searches for “hibachi ramen” didn’t turn up much, but the more I read, the more I realized how complex and diverse ramen really is. In the same Lucky Peach piece, I read about Tokyo abura soba, a brothless ramen with boiled noodles.
“This seemingly postmodern snack actually dates back to the mid-’50s, when a series of shops located in the suburbs west of Tokyo began serving soupless bowls,” it reads, adding that some places have started adding more toppings including raw egg, fried noodles, lard and mayo.
That’s not what I ate at Ise, and neither is something else similar I found — hiyashi-chūka, a chilled ramen dish served on a plate with a vinegary soy dressing and toppings like ham, tomato and cucumber.
My deeper dive even yielded another Japanese restaurant in Winston-Salem serving ramen. Sakura, over on South Stratford Drive, sells three varieties. Like Ise’s options, these too are listed as stir-fried egg noodles and provide no reference to a sauce or broth. And here, too, hibachi is explicitly mentioned.
My dinner proved to be a humbling experience, reminding me just how intricate, complicated, diverse and unpredictable food culture can be. Just because Ise is doing it differently than I expected doesn’t make their approach wrong, just different — I was in the wrong for my assumption.
But I’m still looking for a favorite local bowl of ramen, and I’ll likely order sushi or udon next time I’m at Ise.
Visit Ise Japanese at 2213 Cloverdale Ave. or 121 Stark St. (W-S) or at sushi.myesalon.com