My trip to Ramen Bar on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill this Monday has opened the culinary doors of my mind, and stomach.
Enter, May Kim: coworker turned best friend, Korean, and one of my favorite ever dining companions. Growing up in a meat & potatoes Western PA family, if you asked me what Chinese food was all about, my only experience to pull from would have been Gerneral Tso’s Chicken from the take-out place in the strip mall down the street. So, when my love of food and restaurants paired with May’s affinity and knowledge of her traditional Asian cuisine, a trip to Ramen Bar became a top priority.
I have to admit that before meeting May, I seriously thought Ramen was the BRAND of those noodle packets that I ate when I was too lazy to cook anything else, instead of a Japanese dish. I’m embarrassed by this, but it really just proves my family was NOT adventurous when it came to eating. We met at Ramen Bar around 5:45, before the typical dinner-crowd, sans-reservations. BUT, they do take them! May wasn’t concerned about getting a table, but my feeling is that if you know when you want to eat, just make one! It doesn’t hurt, and I always feel a sense of relief when I know there’s a table waiting for me. On to the decor.. This place is so wonderfully unassuming. If you’re anything like me, you’ve walked past this place in Squirrel HIll literally hundreds of times (it’s right next to Avalon Exchange) without going inside. My advice: GO INSIDE! The interior is chill, nothing over the top. The restaurant is dimly lit by low-hanging fixtures, and a mural of Taipei covers the left wall that has the most “not trying to be cool but it’s so cool” vibe. There are 4 and 2-top wooden tables, as well as the traditional bar in the back. We settled in and I asked May for her recommendations!
This leads me to my feelings about our server. Simply put: WONDERFUL! May gave us a brief overview of her menu favorites, but we all still had some questions. (There are SO many Ramen options – and SO many different Ramen flavors.) Our waitress was extremely helpful. You could tell she was well-versed in her Ramen eating, and was very knowledgable about the entire menu. After our questions were answered, we decided on our apps: the Takoyaki ($6.50): (6 pieces) Balls of fried Octopus drizzled with Eel and Japanese Mayo sauce, topped with Bonito Flakes (dried, fermented and smoked skipjack tuna) and Crushed Nori (Seaweed), and the Chicken Karage ($7): Deep Fried Chicken with Original Marinated Soy, Garlic and Ginger.Oh.my.gosh… The apps came out SO fast, and we immediately started eating.
Wow. I was blown away. The octopus balls were so much more than I could have anticipated. Like I said, asian flavors are new to me, so it is difficult to even describe these new flavor profiles. But these perfectly fried, bites of savory octopus were expertly paired with the smokey Bonito Flakes and mayo.. And the chicken dish was juicy and flavorful, and was coated in a light, crispy layer of fried perfection, and served with a delectable dipping sauce. (Note: The apps came out quickly and piping hot – so please exercise some will power before devouring. I did not, and have some burnt taste buds to show for it.) Also noteworthy, the portion sizes are very generous. So, if you’re in a group, be adventurous and order a few! If there’s only 2 in your party, still order a few and just take some home. You will love it.
On to the Ramen! =) So, I learned that here at Ramen Bar there are two basic styles of Ramen broth base: Shoyu and Spicy Shoyu (Homemade Marinated Soy Sauce soup), or Miso and Spicy Miso (Original Marinated Soy Bean Paste Soup). The Shoyu is a clear brown broth, usually based on a beef or chicken stock, with added soy sauce. The flavor is tangy, salty and savory, and fairly light. Miso is a stock blended with soy and oily chicken or fish broth, resulting in a thicker, sweeter, tangy, hearty soup. After choosing your base, you choose your bowl. These choices include a variety of vegetable combinations, chicken, pork, squid etc.. There are ALSO Specialty Noodle Bowls, which are traditional combinations of various broths/proteins/veggies.
I went with May’s favorite, and our server’s recommendation, Traditional Noodle Bowl, Tan Tan Men ($10): Ramen Noodles in Spicy Sesame Soup with Spinach and Seasoned Ground Beef, and I also added Egg ($1), Bamboo Shoots ($1.50) and Seaweed ($1). (Tip: In the right-hand corner of the menu, there is a long list of add-ins, ranging from kimchee to wontons. All are cheap. Get creative with your Ramen!) Our steaming entrees came out just as we were finishing our apps, and I was immediately stunned by the beauty of these bowls of brothy, spicy, comforting noodles.
Wow, I had no idea what I was in for. The subtle spice! The perfectly cooked noodles! The deliciously tender egg!! THE BROTH!! My taste buds were dancing, and begging for more with each sip. I learned from our waitress that this sesame soup was a little thicker than the Shoyu broth.. and just enough spice to satisfy the burn, but not leave you struggling. And her description was really perfect. I loved all of my add-ins. Whatever you prefer to accompany your noodles… please PLEASE add an egg. After soaking in this spicy, savory, salty broth.. the yolk becomes soft and tender and perfect and scrumptious. Seriously, I could not believe I had gone my 25 years without experiencing the comfort and delight that is Ramen.
In summary, I want to thank May for opening my eyes, stomach and heart to this new style of eating. While we were slurping our soup, Tim commented that no matter what your ethnicity or upbringing, Ramen is comfort. And he was so spot on. I seriously cannot wait to go back and try more of their offerings. As soon as we left we knew it would become a regular spot for us.. especially when Pittsburgh winter hits!
Overall Experience: 5
A few nuggets of advice:
- They take reservations! This place is very casual, but if you have an exact time slot you’d like to dine, might as well call ahead!
- Ask questions!! There are SO many options and menu items to explore.
- We stuck with noodle bowls – but there are also rice dishes, salads and something for everyone.
- This place is VERY vegetarian friendly. Menu items are marked accordingly, but don’t hesitate to ask what your best meat-free bets are.
- The Ramen portions are huge. I wanted to keep eating, but I couldn’t finish mine. The server happily packed me a to-go bag.
I absolutely loved it here, and can’t wait to go back. Next time you’re in the Squirrel Hill area, don’t walk past this store-front again! Go inside, and enjoy the Ramen experience.
5860 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15217