Omnivore - 2015 Ramen Fest recap

The event returned for a second year and brought with it some majorly good ramen


  • Angela Hansberger/Rachel Hortman
  • THE CONTENDERS: No. 246 (clockwise from top left), the Pig and the Pearl, Victory/Paper Plane, Kimball House, Pine Street Market/Twain's, Wrecking Bar Brewpub, Illegal Food, and Makan

In Japan, ramen is treated with reverence similar to barbecue-worship in the South. Flavors and styles vary by region. There is an art and passion involved beyond just making broth and noodles. You’ve seen the movies, the noodle westerns, where the Mr. Miyagi of broth coaches the budding chef into the essence of the perfect bowl. The ramen scene continues to simmer here in Atlanta, albeit under the radar and a little less vigorously these days. Noodle fiends subsist on a few staples on Buford Highway and scattered in Duluth and flock to the occasional pop-up. Chefs continue to express the innumerable varieties that can be created from a simple formula of broth as a foundation, noodles, tare (that salty bit in the bottom of the bowl), and toppings.

This is why it was no shock Monday's Ramen Fest sold out well before the event and chefs registered quickly to have the privilege to participate in the fun. A handful of local restaurants and chefs competed for the title of Best Ramen at Decatur’s Makan. Here's what you missed:

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Lucky ticket holders could taste unlimited bowls from either 5-7 p.m. or 8-10 p.m. while sipping beers donated by local brewery Wild Heaven. Proceeds were donated to the Decatur Education Fund. Each diner had three tickets to use for voting — scatter three for those that were good or sink all three in the jar of the one that made the best. Tables and chairs were removed from the dining room except for those on the periphery. There was plenty of room to mingle, devour, and slurp.

Entrants worked with the same noodles, donated by Sun Noodles. Chefs put their own spin on traditional ingredients and served bowls with enthusiasm, answering questions from the rather inquisitive attendees: “How did you make that egg?” “Is there cilantro in this? I don’t do cilantro.” “Are the mushrooms mushy?”

Illegal Food and the Victory/Paper Plane team both had a traditional base of tonkotsu broth. Illegal’s was smoky and included neato toppings like salt and pepper puffs, black tree fungus, and smoked bacon oil. The Victory/Paper Plane crew had these incredible rehydrated shiitake mushrooms that tasted like meat candy and were reminiscent of Vegetarian virtuoso David Sweeney’s shiitake bacon.

While the aforementioned listed a slew of ingredients, Kimball House’s sign read simply “buffalo wing” and that is what it was, a sultry, spicy broth topped off with a smoked chicken wing and a drizzle of bright orange buffalo sauce. The broth created a beautiful, building type of heat that lingered on the palate.

Makan and the Pig and the Pearl both had a Chinese five spice kicks to their broth. Makan topped its bowl with shredded smoked beef brisket, fresh spring peas, and a tea egg. The Pig and the Pearl’s broth was slightly smoky thanks to the soft heat of few Serrano chiled. The soup was dotted with perky little pickled quail eggs.

Both No. 246 and the team of Pine Street Market and Twain’s used a shoyu (miso) broth. No. 246’s had bright cilantro notes, a chiffonade of the purple herb perilla, Vietnamese mint, and charred sugar cane. The Pine Street/Twain’s team replaced the traditional chashu pork with slivers of smoked trotter terrine and swaped the usual nori with collard greens. Shaved cured egg yolks added a bonus boost of umami.

A personal favorite came from Terry Koval and the team at Wrecking Bar Brewpub — a rich, layered broth topped with White Oak Pastures sake braised beef cheek, tender beef heart tartare, and a large Darby Farms golden egg yolk. Bits of beef clung to the noodles swirling in the luscious broth. Perhaps this could be a menu item at the restaurant? Nudge. Poke.

Last year’s winner, Craig Richards from St. Cecilia, was in attendance and even scored a seat of honor. And the crowd winner? Melissa Allen and her team from Victory and Paper Plane took home the crown and will have her seat of honor at this fall’s Noodlepalooza, an event Makan general manager Michael Lo already has in the works.