Ramen City: Banzai, Hana Market, Drunk Fish

An ongoing exploration of Austin’s noodle soup of the moment
Banzai Sushi & Grill
3914 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-323-2151, www.austinbanzai.com.
Hours: 11am-9:30pm Mon-Sat. Noon-9pm Sun.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.07.13
Banzai is North Lamar’s blue-collar sushi palace, the place where you can get a spicy salmon roll and miso soup for $6.49 at lunch, in clear violation of the edict that discount sushi is no sushi at all. But pork ramen gets equal billing. Even more equal, given that it’s lettered into the marquee beneath the clashing purple-and-green sumo sign.
Pork ramen ($9.99) is an addition to Banzai’s usual — and unusual — lineup of tofu, shrimp or meatball ramen. The high-sided ceramic bowl came out as hot as a cowboy cauldron, sending up vapors of a fat-fortified stock glowing a toasted orange with modest spice and proper soy saltiness. The heat continued to cook the wavy noodles at the table, making them soft before their time, leaning toward mushy by the end of it all. Banzai dressed the bowl with crisp green beans and spring onions and soybeans for their firm pop. A boiled egg is a welcome guest in a ramen bowl, but not this one’s hard Easter-egg boil, and the yolk was a dry, chalky interloper. Roasted rolled pork took the guest-of-honor prize, with slices that were tender, salty and fatty by turns. By our evolving ramen tastes, this bowl was a modest thing, but for a Japanese short-order shop next to EZ’s, it’s an accomplishment.
Hana World Market
1700 W. Parmer Lane, Suite 100. 512-832-6606, www.facebook.com/HanaWorldMarket.
Hours: 11am-8:15pm daily.
Before this Korean lunch counter moved to the wilds of West Parmer, it was part of the New Oriental Market on Airport Boulevard, where for $5 you could get bibimbap with beef and egg and a painter’s array of vegetables the size of a stainless steel mixing bowl. Because it was, well, a big stainless mixing bowl. They moved the shop to a food court inside Hana World Market last year, where it shares space with a pan-Asian counter called 123 Noodles.
The degree to which I liked that bibimbap is the same degree to which I disliked the ramen. It was a torrid bowl of mass-market noodles in a thin broth with angry red powdered spices that brought heat and not much else, leaving a vague bouillon saltiness to account for what little broth the noodles didn’t suck up for their own turgid amusement. There was almost nothing left to sip, slurp or make other onomatopoeiatic sounds with. They dressed the bowl with swirls of cooked egg and long ribbons of green onion, but the noodles lay there as mushy as a bowl of cereal left to sit while you’re playing Splinter Cell.
What I’ll say in this bowl’s defense is that for $6, you get a lot of ramen, a bowl of rice, hot tea, free seaweed soup and a trio of banchan: spicy pickled radish, sprouts and kimchi. Meanwhile, at the grocery store next door, you can marvel at the endorsement deals racked up by Korean pop sensation Psy. Including instant ramen bowls.
Drunk Fish
10000 Research Blvd., No 139 in the Arboretum next to Amy’s Ice Creams. 512-349-9454, www.drunkfishusa.net.
Hours: 11am-8pm Mon-Thu. 11am-9pm Fri. Noon-9pm Sat. Closed Sunday and daily from 3-4pm.
I started this Ramen City series as a celebration of how far ramen has come in Austin. Let Drunk Fish stand rather as a cautionary tale about how it used to be. Because at this little shop tucked incongruously into a corner of the Arboretum, ramen is just one step removed from grocery store noodles in a bag. Twenty bags, to be precise, the number of bags in a box of Nongshim Shin Ramyun Gourmet Spicy Picante ramen.
I know this because the cardboard separating leftover bowls in a carryout bag was cut from the carton that carried those instant noodle kits. I knew it anyway, from the salty grip of the broth and its aftertaste, from its hamfisted heat and from noodles hanging like the dripping blond locks of a ruined oligarch. I knew it from the broccoli, cabbage, carrots and onions added to the noodles to mask their provenance.
Only two things suggested this was more than afterschool ramen. One was the price, with bowls starting at $8.99 with chicken or potato chips (a real thing) and going up to $14.99 for, heaven help us, softshell crab. In between were bowls dressed with cheese and curry and green tea and other aberrations of the form.
I can speak well of the beef bulgogi in one ramen bowl ($9.99), grilled to order with a tender bite and a sheen of sweet spice. “Tonkotsu” is a promising word on ramen menus, one that implies pork bones simmered low and slow for milky white broth. Change one letter and it becomes Drunk Fish’s “tonkatsu,” just a fried school-lunch pork cutlet that never softened in its steamy sauna ramen bowl ($9.99).
The other and more generous distinguishing factor keeping Drunk Fish ramen from being just a boy and his microwave? The mom and pop running the show were deferential and kind and seemed dedicated to getting the food out hot, waiting times be damned. And their place is a Narnial pratfall into a world apart from the Arboretum. Photos from the menu are scattered like telephone-pole show posters around the cramped first floor. A staircase runs to a second floor hung with prints, where a pen-and-ink shrimp hangs upside down, its dipping bowl hovering like a Photoshop UFO. The clamor suggests the kind of shop where everything’s wrong except the food. Except that it is.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)