At East Side King at Hole in the Wall in Austin, chef/owner Paul Qui, head chef Yoshi Okai, and partner Moto Utsunomiya are known for turning out slightly gonzo, supremely satisfying ramens like beer bacon miso and chicken tortilla ramen. They're also all ramen aficionados in their own right, clocking serious mileage between Texas and Japan to scope out the latest in ramen trends across the country. We talked to the trio about their most memorable bowls of all time, ramen in the US versus ramen in Japan, and more.
Most memorable bowls
Paul Qui: My last great bowl was at Tokyo Station—the noodle wasn't so traditional, it was more like udon, with a chewy texture, that you dipped into a very intense tonkotsu dashi broth. That was pretty much it. There wasn't really any meat, and there was a little bowl of pickles on the side, but the focus was really on the noodle.
Yoshi Okai: When I was a kid in Kyoto, I hated ramen noodles. I thought they were so gross. But when I got a little older and went to Kyoto for the first time, I found a ramen that was totally amazing, and to this day, it's still my favorite bowl ever. The broth is made with sake kasu [or lees, the residual yeast at the bottom of a tank of sake after it ferments], bonito and kombu. The noodles are a little wide, but flat, like fettucine, and it comes with a vegetable like green onion, chicken kashu, and an egg on top. There's only one shop, Genya, that makes this kind of ramen, and it's really close to the Gekkeikan sake headquarters, where they get the lees. I could make it here, but I don't want to steal the idea.
Moto Utsunomiya: The last time I was in Japan, I had a really cool ramen I'd never seen before with sudachi, a kind of sour Japanese citrus that looks like a lime. It had a hot chicken broth, wavy noodles, and scallions and slices of the lime on top, which you have to take out after three or four minutes before everything gets too bitter. There's no meat--when I was younger, I liked tonkotsu, but now I can't handle that much fat.
On finding good ramen in Japan
Paul: The first time I was in Tokyo, we were in Tokyo Station, and there was this huge line for one ramen shop. But we didn't want to waste our first day standing in line, so we ate next door at this empty little place, and it was not the best choice. The next day, we came back, waited in the two and a half hour line, and got some amazing ramen. Lesson learned: look for the place with the line.
On ramen in the US vs. ramen in Japan
Paul: In the US, ramen is much more meat-focused--it's all about the chasu or the egg or the toppings, and less so the broth and noodles. Near Moto's hometown, we went to a Japanese Ippudo [link], and I didn't realize you could ask for noodles cooked between 1-7 (7 was the most cooked; 1 was really al dente). And the noodles aren't just curly and straight--there's more going on. People think the straight noodles are more legit because they're fresh, but curly can be fresh, too. Each noodle is based on the broth it's paired with. That stuff is serious in Japan.
Why they wanted ramen on their menu
Paul: It's fun! There are so many avenues you can explore. Ramen is just the noodle—a vehicle, really, to do a bunch of different things. Yoshi: You can do whatever you want with it. Whatever you do with a ramen noodle is ramen. So we can create new dishes, make crazy stuff, based on whatever tastes good. I have no idea how I come up with some of this stuff. Ramen is ramen.