A journey from 10 cents to flavor
Noodles have always seemed like a vehicle to try new foods. That was important for me, growing up as the oldest of three raised by a single mom who had to work. My sisters and I were latchkey kids who had to make our own food after school, but not burn the house down while Mom worked.
My introduction to ramen was the 10-cent packs of shrimp, chicken, and beef flavored Top Ramen from the grocery store. It was one of the first things that I was allowed to “cook” on my own, using the actual stove to boil water.
When I got to my mid-20s and a boyfriend asked me if I wanted to go out for ramen at Robata Ramen & Yakitori Bar in Overton Square, I thought of my younger self happily munching on 10-cent noodles while watching Dragon Tales, Arthur, Wishbone, and Zoboomafoo. I was confused. Why would you pay for ramen at a restaurant?
Thankfully, this boyfriend was persistent. He must have asked four or five times before I finally went to Robata. Imagine my surprise when I saw the menu and then the bowl of ramen. I don’t remember exactly what I got—but the step-by-step instructions on building a bowl were fun, and I can recall the egg, seaweed, chicken broth and my then-boyfriend encouraging me to get the fat noodles. I loved it. Eventually he took me to The Crazy Noodle, and I loved the ramen there too. Now I can’t imagine not eating ramen or at least not considering it as part of my regular restaurant visits, and I still enjoy trying new variations of ramen all over town.
The Crazy Noodle has been around since 2012, and Robata opened in 2014. But recently more and more ramen spots are opening up, including some ramen pop-ups. In July and September, Daishu McGriff, chef and owner of Shroomlicious, hosted a couple of very popular all-you-can-eat ramen events called Sip n Slurp, where she used Top Ramen cups of noodles but added her own broth. These vegan events featured mushrooms as the “meat” and included premium toppings like scallions, carrots, bok choy, sprouts, and spicy cabbage.
“I don’t see ramen as a menu option for many Black-owned businesses in Memphis.
We—Black people—ate the cheap ramen packets growing up, and we always added our own twist to them. So I decided to make Sip n Slurp an elevated ramen experience,“ Daishu explains.
She thought it would be a risk, but says it was successful because people were intrigued and interested to see another way to enjoy this growing food trend.
So what is it about ramen in a city like Memphis that is predominately Black and known for its barbecue and soul food? Accessibility? Access? Nostalgia? I asked around to get some perspective from the restaurants contributing to the growing scene.
I started my search for some perspective with Chef Shota Tanaka, who began working in the kitchen as a part-time sushi helper when he was a college student. That evolved into a 17-year career, with 10 years in Birmingham, two years in Chattanooga, and five years in Memphis. He became head chef of Robata during the pandemic.
Robata sells about 200 to 300 bowls of ramen per week, double when it’s cold. The Tantanmen is his favorite, and the Sapporo ramen is the most popular bowl with customers.
“Robata’s is probably the most authentic to Japanese ramen you can get in Memphis. There are not many Japanese-owned restaurants in Memphis,” he says.
“Our flavor is good. We try to stick to regional Japanese flavors and soups.”
Though Shota has only been in Memphis a few years, he has noticed a growth in the ramen places opening around the city. “I guess it’s a cheap start-up. Noodles and broth,” he says. “I think it will stay for a while. People know instant noodles, and from what I understand, the younger generations watch anime and see Japanese food in them and that makes them want to try it.”
The growing interest in ramen in Memphis is not lost on chefs Sarah Cai and Arturo Leighton of Good Fortune Co. They attribute this interest to the locals’ appetite for excellent and diverse foods like in any other major city.
“It’s a basic staple of any respectable food scene. If you don’t even have a noodle joint, are you even a major city?” Arturo said.
Family is a huge part of who they are at Good Fortune. “Our families taught us the importance of food and sharing a meal,” says Sarah. “It was natural for us to want to create a space where people could talk openly and freely while having a delicious meal.”
They opened a noodle shop because of their passion for food. “No one in town is making Asian noodles from scratch. So naturally, we cook what we crave,” says Arturo.
The ramen at Good Fortune is handmade down to the tare (sauce).
“We’re one of only a handful of restaurants in the country making every part of their noodle bowls from scratch,” says Sarah.
“Though we’re not technically ramen, we use traditional ramen techniques to craft each bowl. The five fundamental parts of ramen are noodles, tare, aroma oil, broth, and toppings. We consider ourselves a noodle shop, since we draw inspiration from many Asian cultures, not just Japanese-style noodles.”
They sell more than 500 bowls of ramen per week with the Classic Mane being chef favorite and the Spicy Pork being the most popular with the customers. Sarah and Arturo are hoping that, as the Memphis ramen scene grows, there are more restaurants making handmade noodles and fewer franchises.
But the local branch of franchise Flame Ramen is putting a lot of love into their food too. Cameron Hidayat, area manager for Flame Ramen, says their ramen is unique due to their process of making the broth. “Our broth is cooked using real bones and fresh vegetables and is boiled under high temperature for hours. It provides the ramen with both natural flavor and healthy ingredients,” he says.
“I have noticed the drastically changing market for ramen in Memphis.
I think ramen is getting more popular due to the influence of Japanese culture, such as anime.
Ramen can bring diversity and a unique cultural experience to the food scene in Memphis. It introduced different flavors, ingredients, and cooking techniques, providing locals with more dining options.
They sell more than 1,000 bowls of ramen each week. Cameron’s favorite ramen bowl is the Shoyu, due to its simple but rich flavor, but the most popular bowl with customers is the Ichiraku.
“It pays homage to the anime Naruto and is well-liked by many of our customers,” says Cameron.
He thinks that the future of ramen in Memphis could involve continued growth and diversification. “As more people develop a taste for ramen and seek out authentic culinary experiences, restaurants might experiment with regional variations and innovative fusion concepts to keep the cuisine exciting and relevant,” he says.
David Fang, co-owner of local restaurant Subarashi, tries to stay relevant to the college crowd—thanks to his proximity to the University of Memphis on Highland—via his menu and prices.
Electronics brought David to Memphis, even though he was a self-taught chef who owned a boba shop in California two decades ago. When his Memphis business partner wanted to open a restaurant, he already knew what he wanted to do. He says, “When I got here, I didn’t see a lot of ramen places. I noticed in Memphis more udon and over the past couple of years more people selling ramen. Everyone likes more Asian things right now, and ramen is becoming more popular.”
Subarashi’s menu features a variety of food and only four ramen bowls, but he still sells about 350 to 500 of them per week, particularly to college students who get a 10 percent discount with their student ID. The pork tonkatsu with spicy crisps, the vegetarian bowl, and the chicken ramen are all popular.
David says they have a special way they cook it. “It’s chewy, and we put a good amount with lots of veggies and color.
When you eat something, you have to look at it and want to eat it,” he says.
With ramen restaurants opening around the city and more chefs experimenting with pop-ups, I expect that the ramen scene in Memphis will continue to grow. And ramen’s customization and creativity possibilities make it a great fit for home chefs too. Who knows what the next good bowl will contain and how people will continue to customize this accessible noodle!
2015 Madison Avenue
Robata Ramen and Yakitori Bar
2116 Madison Avenue
Kami Ramen Bar
5865 Poplar Avenue, Suite 110
2765 Wolf Creek Parkway, Suite 105
875 West Poplar Avenue, Suite 22, Collierville
Good Fortune Co.
361 South Main Street
1838 Union Avenue
61 South Second Street
575 Erin Drive
1605 North Germantown Parkway, Suite 11
2105 Union Avenue
521 South Highland Street Suite 101