Agu Ramen Offers A “Hot Mess,” But The Flavor Approach Is Quite In Order
It initially sounds bizarre: garlicky, tonkotsu ramen (amped up with black garlic oil, garlic butter and garlic chips, no less) topped with a heap of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. It’s called the “Innovative Hot Mess” and is one of the specialties of Agu Ramen, a Hawaiian-based chain under Okinawa-born chef Hisahi Uehara. Since November, they’ve already opened two locations in Houston—one at 1809 Eldridge and another at 9310 Westheimer. A third is expected to open within two weeks in the former Christian’s Tailgate at 7340 Washington.
Along the lines of more traditional ramens, the Innovative Hot Mess is also topped with pork char siu (barbecued pork), aji tamago (a marinated egg), bamboo shoots, green onion and sesame seeds. It is incredibly rich and satisfying, even if it does sound odd.
It makes sense when considered in terms of flavor, though. Parmesan cheese, as well as miso and kombu (dried kelp), are all big sources of the “fifth flavor” named umami. (The four tastes picked up by receptors on the tongue that were acknowledged long ago are sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Comparatively, umami is a more nebulous sensation described as a “meaty,” mouth-filling sensation.) Incorporating ingredients rich in umami is integral to washoku, or the dietary culture of Japan.
Asian food is not often identified with dairy products, but those have been common in Japanese cuisine since the late 1800s when the Meiji government took over. Rulers implemented a strategy that embraced Western nutritional theories—including the value of milk in a diet—partially as a way to economically develop certain parts of the country. This led to yōshoku, or Western-style dishes in Japan. (As a local example, this is why it’s not odd that Japanese restaurant Kata Robata has long featured a luxurious macaroni and cheese with lobster.) With that cultural context in mind, Parmesan in ramen isn’t really all that off-the-wall.
The Innovative Hot Mess is just one of Agu Ramen’s offerings that we were invited to try. Diners who prefer lighter broths might aim for the Yuzu Jidori. The stock is made with free range chicken from California. It cooks for at least nine hours and gets a little kick from green chili and yuzu paste. Unlike the Hot Mess, which includes thin, Hakata-style noodles, the jidori ramens come with thicker, smoother Tokyo-style noodles.
Those who enjoy rich ramen with a pluck of heat but aren’t ready to try the Hot Mess might instead order the spicy tonkotsu. The pork-based broth cooks for 22 hours and includes char siu pork, a marinated egg, bamboo shoots, green onions and sesame seeds. Adjust the spice level as desired. The heat levels at Agu Ramen go from one to five, with an “Epic” level for real daredevils.
The small plates didn’t impress us nearly as much as the ramen itself. Stuffed with ground pork, cabbage and garlic chives, fried gyoza (dumplings) were fine but not revelatory. (We did appreciate that the dumpling skins were tender and thin, not chewy and thick, though.) The karaage (fried chicken cutlet) was better—crispy on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside and accompanied by a spicy dipping sauce.
Agu Ramen has made some serious investments in their ramen production. The kitchens are outfitted with 80-gallon stainless steel cooking tanks that run day and night and are manned by “a special kettle guy” who relocated to Houston from Hawaii.
None of the locations are yet serving alcohol, as their licenses are still pending. When they do, the Westheimer and Washington locations will sport full bars while the Eldridge location will be wine- and beer-only (which will still allow for a selection of sake). Note that, despite the current lack of liquor license, none are allowing for BYOB.
Is Agu Ramen serious competition for other noteworthy ramen shops like Tiger Den, Ninja Ramen, JINYA Ramen and Samurai Noodle? Perhaps, but Houston diners have had such passion for the unctuous soups for the past few years that it’s more likely there’s still plenty of business to go around.