Raising the standards of the typical ramen experience at Prairie Noodle Shop
I’ve probably had more people tell me how great ramen is than I’ve had actual bowls of ramen, the Japanese noodle soup that breeds fundamentalism in its adherents who extol it as one of the finest foodstuffs on God’s grey earth. And from what I’ve heard from certain ‘ramen heads’—most of whom seem to have become radicalized while teaching in Japan—Edmonton is largely uncontaminated by convincing, much less compelling, noodle shops.
As for me, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be looking for in a bowl of ramen. While my exacting specifications for a tureen of pho have been steadily shaped over hundreds of instances ingested here and abroad, everything I know about Japanese noodles I learned from the movie Tampopo.
But I think I can safely say, after my trip to Prairie Noodle Shop—yet another vital station in 124 Street’s unreasonably diverse and unique food and drink scene—that I now have a standard for what ramen should taste like. Up until now, ramen has been a bland dalliance. Now I understand the line-ups that have previously discouraged me from waiting for a seat in Prairie Noodle’s small-ish, chalkboard-intensive sub-street confines.
Truncated operating hours on a rainy holiday meant our window of opportunity was tight. Co-diner and I strode in around noon and were not only easily accommodated, but actually seated beside people we knew who were cramming back a couple of quick baowiches—steam-bun “sandwiches”—before a kid’s birthday party.
The steamed rafts of local pork belly and shoulder, pickled shallots and Sylvan Star cheese looked tasty but the whole point of this excursion was to further our ramen education. Co-diner ordered the Prairie pork shio and I the spicy garlic miso ramen ($15.50 each). I stupidly ignored the prescient voice within me that urged, “Get an extra umeboshi egg for $3!”
Umeboshi refers to Japanese pickled plums, which one would assume contribute meaningfully to the creation of umeboshi eggs. All I know is when I picked it up off my steaming bowl of spicy garlic miso ramen, I entered a heretofore unknown realm of sensory experience. Dark and salty on the outside, it retained a molten saffron-coloured centre that altogether was the most umami I’ve ever tasted at once.
And so it went with everything in the bowl, from the velvety pork-based miso broth with its slick of chili oil, to the chewy noodles that are a perfect example of whatever the Japanese word for al dente is, to the savoury chunks of pork shoulder, to the opulent slab of pork belly to the sweet corn, sesame and roasted garlic that rounded out the flavour profile. That the overall effect was not as spicy as the name portended was all to the good, the better to taste every ingredient. An additional smear of pureed roasted garlic was suspended above the soupline to add to my discretion. I used all of it.
Co-diner’s pork shio contained a lot of the same excellent ingredients, with a different pork broth variant and green onions in pursuit of a subtler, earthier flavour than my bowl. She took exception to the big rind of fat on her pork belly, which I happily relieved her of.
If Edmonton is truly without a worthwhile ramen shop, I’m thrilled to hear it. I liked Prairie Noodle Shop’s ramen plenty, so if it only gets better from here then I’m all over it. In the meantime, I will most certainly be back, at which time I will gladly take a dozen umeboshi eggs to go