Ramen City: Soto

An ongoing exploration of Austin’s noodle soup of the moment
11066 Pecan Park Blvd, Suite 402, Cedar Park. 512-257-0788, www.sotoaustin.com.
Hours: 11am-3pm and 5-10pm Mon-Thu, 11am-11pm Fri-Sat, 11am-9pm Sun.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.27.13
From the outside, golden bundles hang in the window like a leviathan’s lanterns at Soto, calling in suburban sailors to the more exotic parts of the map, the parts that say “Thar Be Monsters.” But inside, Soto is elegant urban coolness, set in swirled grays and slate with gold swashes like taffeta riding over an upholstered banquette that spans one wall, like gallery seating for the sushi bar, which even at lunch sent out a sashimi display like seafaring sculpture, a passenger on a wooden board floating over a sea of ice.

But for this report, the warmer climes are represented by pork tonkotsu ramen, one of a half-dozen noodle choices at lunch and dinner. At lunch, ramen is $9 with a salad tossed in sesame dressing, at dinner it goes to $13 by itself.  The bowl carries the opaque shimmer of silky white pork tonkotsu broth. But if this style of ramen is characteristically milky, call this one 2 percent, rolling light and thin over fat ramen noodles with squared edges, cooked a shade past their springy prime.
How you dress the bowl is up to you: with pork, chicken, veggie tempura, grilled beef, shrimp. But pork broth argues for more pork, and Soto treated it like country ham, sliced thin and cooked hard, crisped like a skillet breakfast. It was a welcome texture, and its char played well against a soft-boiled egg soaked in soy. The bowl lost its way beyond that, starting well with bamboo shoots but drifting into those miniature ears of pickled corn and thick-stemmed slices of bitter bok choy. Without a muscular, oily broth — something more like the buttermilk of the moment — the incidentals become more than incidental.
On a side note, I’ve landed on a strategy for appetizers. Get one instead of that obligatory $2.75 glass of tea. Put the money toward something like agedashi tofu ($4 lunch/$5 dinner), four cubes gently fried to a translucent gold, cloaked with a batter like a suede jacket, soaking in warm fish broth with scallions. This might be a ramen report, but that subtle, satisfying appetizer and the spectacle of the sashimi were good omens for a wider experience at Soto.
(TOP: Soto is a cool urban retreat in the Lakeline Mall area of Cedar Park. Ramen comes with a variety of broths — pork tonkotsu, soy, miso — and several protein choices. This bowl features tonkotsu and roasted pork, served with salad at lunch. INSET: An appetizer of agedashi tofu. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)