Review: Bowl by bowl through Detroit’s Urban Ramen

Pork belly ramen.
Pork belly ramen. Tom Perkins

Urban Ramen

4206 Woodward Ave., Detroit
11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m. daily
Ramen $11-$13, sides $4-$8

It's rare to consistently see lines forming outside of a Detroit restaurant, and the last time it happened here, it happened at an out-of-town burger chain, which I found not to be worth the hype.

So when on a daily basis a line began snaking down Woodward outside of Urban Ramen, Midtown's new ramen shop, I was initially skeptical, as Detroit diners have been wrong before.

In short, they aren't this time.

There's a bit of a dearth of high quality ramen in metro Detroit (though it does exist), and Urban Ramen helps address that. It's Midtown's only fully Japanese restaurant, which co-owner Kohei Robert opened this summer. His first shop became a fixture in Los Angeles, and Robert previously told me he opened here because he fell in love with Detroit while visiting family and friends.

What's most notable is Urban Ramen's rich bone broth — a deep, deep, absorbing broth that's complex and slightly creamy with tiny pools of oil glistening on the surface. It holds bouncy noodles made in house that are slightly firm, cling to the soup, and taste how only fresh noodles can.

The best of Robert's three ramen bowls is the traditional tonkotsu, which is carried by the depth of its slightly silky, almond-color broth. That partly owes to the thin shreds of chewy kikurage, an umami-rich mushroom, that fill the bowl. Tabs of salty, tender chashu pork belly also bob in the broth. Chashu pork is typically braised in a mix of mirin, sake, soy sauce, garlic, and other wonderful ingredients before it's added to the soup. Your server will ask which level of fat you want — low, medium, or thick — and I felt like I made mistake in going for medium instead of thick. That fat is, in a word, glorious. The adjective "luxurious" could be applied to half of a marinated soft-boiled egg, and the broth is packed with aromatics. That's all accented by pops of crunchy, green onion and sesame seed.

A close second to the tonkotsu is the chicken paitan ramen. It offers an opaque bone broth that also holds the chashu, and possesses a similar depth. Robert serves it with a marinated soft-boiled egg, bean sprout, crunchy diced white onion, and crunchy fried burdock. The vegan bowl is the shoyu vegan ramen with assari (light) broth — thinner than the others — and a soy sauce flavor base. It's an umami-laden bowl packed with aromatics, wakame, fried burdock, grilled maitake, diced white onion, and bamboo.

Beyond the ramen bowls, the pork belly can be had sans broth in the chashu bowl. In it, the fall-apart-tender slices of pig are mixed in with red ginger, a soft-boiled egg, nori, green onion, sesame seed, and Japanese mayo over seasoned rice. The tuna poke bowl had a few pieces of tuna that weren't the freshest, which accounted for the only bummer of my trips, though Urban Ramen earned the benefit of the doubt on it. Either of the these bowls works as a meal, but a good appetizer is the fried chicken, which is moist and salty in a thick batter. Each bite should be mixed with a crunchy, tangy cabbage salad that accompanies it. The spicy tuna volcano is a good starter with tuna over fried sushi rice that eats like a fancier rice cake. There's no booze here, so wash it all down with one of the standard pops or teas.

A quick word on the ordering process, which at first might seem a little awkward: Customers check out the menu and place orders while in line outside the shop. When a table is ready, the customers enter, and the food is brought out. In theory, this keeps the line moving faster as the bowls are that much closer to arriving by the time diners sit. It eliminates waiting time, and helps things move along. And that's good, because these are lines that likely won't be shortening anytime soon.

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