I trust my own judgment when it comes to ramen, but I'm not above soliciting the opinions of diners around me, especially when one of those guests happen to be Michelin-starred chef Dante Boccuzzi, whose noodle-slurping history reaches back to his time spent living and working in Japan. Like me, he was checking out the newest ramen spot in town, Xinji Noodle Bar, which opened on Ohio City's western edge in late July.
"It's really good," reported the chef, who also happens to be the young owner's former boss.
My own ramen-eating resume might not equal Boccuzzi's (although I can boast of dining at the original Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York just months after it opened), but I happen to agree with him on the merits of the case: Xinji is really good. It also happens to be markedly more comfortable than that initial David Chang eatery.
Shuxin Liu is a reserved, passionate cook who has trained beneath some very demanding chefs. At Ginko, he labored alongside sushi master Taishi Noma, a person nobody ever mistook as happy-go-lucky. In an effort to broaden his reach, he followed those raw-fish years with a lengthy stint at Momocho, where he left a favorable impression on boss Eric Williams. Liu's plan at Xinji was to merge the very Japanese tradition of ramen with the very American — and Cleveland —ethic of farm to table. He knew that he could craft clean, flavorful broths from well-raised chickens and pigs; what he didn't realize was that ramen wasn't as widely understood as he believed.
"When I opened I assumed that people took their Ramen 101 already," Liu said on a followup call. "A lot of them don't know anything about ramen other than the package of instant noodle with broth. That's why we started really slow and even taking a couple steps back."
Liu's plans initially included branching out from straightforward pork, chicken and vegetarian broths and into more intensely flavored brews like heady pork tonkotsu and even broths made with beef and lamb. Japanese ramen would be supplemented by Southeast Asian and Northern Chinese-style noodles. For now, those plans are just that: plans.
I don't recall all that much about my first meal at Xinji — not because I was drunk, but because I was too busy eating ramen to scribble down my usual notes. As kids, we're instructed to eat our food slowly, but ramen is best consumed with haste. The noodles, sourced from the same Sun Noodle that supplies most great ramen shops in the States, arrive not in a sad clump but swimming loose in the broth. In the mouth, they are sprightly and springy. If you want to give Liu a conniption — or merely diminish your own experience — take a few moments before diving in to Instagram your bowl, Yelp about the hostess, chat with your tablemates, or drink sake.
"You have to know that ramen is meant to eat fast; you have about five minutes," he explains.
After that the noodles go soft, the broth cools and separates, and the experience sours quicker than a three-year-old's birthday party.
Bowls of spicy miso ($12) are heaped with noodles, a fat slab of buttery pork belly, corn, scallions, mushrooms and, for an extra buck, a soft-cooked egg. If you think $12 is too much to pay for a bowl of good ramen, you're obviously not seeking it out when you travel.
I'm addicted to spicy food, but I actually prefer the lighter miso ($12) version, where a lack of overpowering heat and spice lets the rich, clean flavors of the chicken/pork broth come through. Other noodle bowls are prepared with chicken broth, contain sliced chicken, and are seasoned either with sea salt (shio) or soy sauce (shoyu). Rice bowls swap the ramen noodles for gluten-free grains that are topped with grilled eel ($15) or crispy fried pork tonkatsu ($12) and appropriate sauces and garnishes.
A meal can be made of the Korean fried chicken ($9) — the other KFC — which reworks Granny's humble, well-intentioned staple into a sticky, spicy, shatteringly crunchy two-piece combo, sans biscuit. The dark meat pieces (bone-in leg and thigh) stay ridiculously juicy despite the high-fry temps.
Xinji's fried chicken bao ($7) is textbook in its delivery. A thin, crispy, boneless fried chicken filet is tucked into a pillow-soft steamed bun, along with pickles and slaw, to create the ideal textural contrast. Unlike the delicious but unwieldy KFC, these tidy little bundles are a breeze to pick up and enjoy. Twice now I've hampered my typically boundless appetite by tacking on orders of slippery little pork dumplings ($8) that languish in an assertively spiced broth.
The double-storefront space is attractive but spare, neither excessively cutesy nor unpleasantly drab. A long bar fronts an open kitchen, and on busy nights the rooms buzz with sound. Just as diners still are acquainting themselves with the idiosyncrasies of ramen, so too are the servers, who with each passing week seem to become better guides.