As those living on shoe-string budgets during college can attest, instant ramen is a common staple in every dorm room mini-refrigerator. Easy to cook with boiling water or a microwave, mass production makes ramen even cheaper to buy.
With his restaurant Ramen Jin, restaurateur and chef Brian Chen is changing how we think about ramen noodles. Ramen Jin isn’t serving your coed’s noodles. Chen’s ramen is notched up, Japanese style made with hand-pulled wheat noodles in chicken or pork stock.
“We keep the menu very simple, as simple as possible for everyone to choose,” said Chen. “We take three of the most popular, traditional Japanese ramen flavors and we perfect each flavor and strive for consistency in the food.” Chen wants customers who come into the restaurant to understand the menu right away.
Tourists who visit Japan rank the country’s ramen as their favorite Japanese food, topping sushi, and tempura. That’s because Japanese ramen is more complex, says Chen. It should not be mistaken for instant noodles which rely on powder and water for flavor. He makes a spicy and non-spicy miso soup base to flavor his noodles. Chen spends time with the broth and each ingredient to put together an authentic Japanese ramen bowl.
Chen brought his restaurant to Westchase District in November 2013 after considering locations closer to downtown Houston. “I was the very first ramen restaurant in Houston, so I just happened to find a location in Westchase that worked well,” said Chen. “As the first of our kind, we knew we would get the volume of customers craving our style of ramen no matter where we set up. We don’t even advertise.”
Back to campus
While most students were saving money and eating ramen in college, Chen was balancing his undergrad studies by working as a sushi chef, his first restaurant experience. He worked his way up to become a head chef, working in restaurants his whole life where he gained experience to manage kitchens. He credits every restaurant owner he’s worked for in getting him this far. He watched and learned how they built their success. Chen wanted ramen to be his niche.
“Ramen was popular in big cities in California and New York City but not in Houston when I opened. Our timing was right to introduce the concept to Houston,” said Chen.
Dynamic duo makes Ramen Jin shine in dining room and kitchen
Chen credits having a strong partner, his wife Molly Yao, for Ramen Jin’s following. Yao has a degree in design. Taking charge of the restaurant interior’s feel, ambiance, menu and logos, she also manages marketing and all of the restaurant’s social media channels. Yao likes engaging customers online daily. “I want our customers to feel like they are all friends,” said Yao.
Houston has a wide variety of Asian cuisine and perhaps one of the largest offerings in the U.S. not far behind Los Angeles. Ramen Jin has grown through word-of-mouth which is the best testament to their food. “When serving food, especially what we do, you always want the product to speak for itself,” said Chen. “No discounts, no lunch specials, for $10 we’ll serve you a great bowl of food.”
New concept coming
Ramen Jin’s success has inspired Chen and Yao to open another concept. “We want to bring something new to Westchase. It won’t be ramen but we know we will open it in Westchase.” The couple will accelerate plans for the new restaurant once the pandemic is under control.