Ramen, in a number of important ways, resembles Brussels sprouts. Not physically, of course, but from a reputational standpoint. Let me explain.
For most of us, childhood dinners would occasionally be marred by foul-smelling dishes of boiled sprouts, their cabbage-y funk wafting over everything else at the table and lending it all a vaguely Dickensian, another-brick-in-the-wall sort of menace. Only in adulthood do many of us realize how delicious these much-maligned orbs can be—seared off with some rendered bacon fat, they’re magnificent.
Ramen has suffered a similar fate. I grew up on the blood-pressure-spiking packets of dried starch as a go-to after-school snack. Then, in college, the little pouches became synonymous with the inevitable hangover they’d just barely stave off when consumed at 3 a.m. alongside a gallon of Gatorade.
But ramen, as Philadelphians are being reminded ever more frequently these days, has the potential to be one of the more deeply comforting and affordable meals around. And Nom Nom Ramen, on 18th Street just off of Market, is doing a nice job of promoting it.
The space is humble, but bright and cheerful with parasols gently twisting over the tables, and up-beat, vaguely punk music running through the speakers. The menu is limited almost exclusively to ramen, and it’s a focus that pays off.
Shio is arguably the standard-bearer here. It’s built on the base of a tonkotsu broth, amped up with salt and white soy sauce, that benefits from having been simmered with pork bone. The resulting savoriness is remarkable for both its depth of flavor as well as its surprising lightness. Kikurage mushroom strands are joined by pickled ginger, snappy bamboo and bright scallions. Nom Nom’s excellent chashu pork belly—meltingly tender and delicious—sits off to the side with a sprinkle of sesame seeds, and all of it is anchored by perfectly cooked noodles.
Those noodles, in fact, do more than just provide heft to the various options on offer here: They act as sponges, distilling and combining the disparate flavors in each bowl, tying everything together. From a textural standpoint, these are as different from the dehydrated starch-bombs of my youth as the politics of Barack Obama are from Mitch McConnell. Beneath their slippery exterior lie noodles of real structure, a toothiness that manages to remain throughout a half-hour of slurping from the hot broth.
Shoyu is more savory still—the addition of soy sauce highlights the darker flavors of the broth, the meatiness of it. Seaweed amps up the salinity as well, without taking it over the top, and the context of that combination makes the pork belly seem almost sweeter as a result. I ordered mine with a soy-marinated soft-boiled egg, and the tendrils of semi-liquid yolk that crawled throughout the bowl raised the stakes even higher.
Karai miso sizzles with a pleasant, tingling heat. The broth itself, a creamy miso tonkotsu, glows sunset-toned, and the sweet-earthy black garlic sauce atop the pork belly provides an excellent counterpart. Hiyashi chilled ramen, perfect for this ridiculous heat wave we’ve been suffering through, is a cool plateful of noodles, chashu pork, mushrooms, tomago, thin-sliced cucumbers, bean sprouts and pickled ginger, dressed with a sesame-soy vinaigrette. It’s a light, flavorful option—perfect in the summer.
All of these are wonderfully successful meals-in-a-bowl; if you work in the area, it’s a great under-$10 lunchtime option. Or dinner. Or night-out snack. Only the pork buns left me a bit cold—all the flavors were there, the sweet and the gently spicy harmonizing well. Just a bit more brightness would have really allowed them all to pop. But that’s a minor issue, and I’d certainly order those buns again. But not too many—the key here is to save as much room as possible for steaming bowlfuls of some seriously addictive ramen. For the money, and in terms of executing the concept, the team behind Nom Nom is doing almost everything right. And certainly enough to help guests overcome whatever residual ramen issues they may still be dealing with from their youth.
20 S. 18th St. 215.988.0898. nomnomramen.com
Cuisine type: Ramen, ramen, ramen.
Hours: Daily, 11am–3pm; Sun.-Thurs, 5-9pm; Fri.-Sat, 5-10pm.
Atmosphere: Cheerful and pleasant.
Food: Very good ramen, satisfying and tasty.
Service: Counter service, but helpful and friendly.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014