It’s Business Time – Ramen Expo USA

Having seen my share of Ramen adventures videos where our adventurous hero Brian tackles bowl after bowl of tsukemen at a ramen festival I had high hopes for this Ramen Expo. The event description, however would prove to be rather accurate –  the Ramen Expo is first and foremost a trade show and convention for ramen insiders. It was set up to be a business to business event for existing and aspiring ramen shops to source products, make connections, and sample a bit of the magic. In that sense the Ramen Expo was the place to be for startup shops and food trucks, as well as that Asian fusion bar looking to expand its menu.  In fact, if you owned a restaurant I have a feeling it would be hard to leave the Expo without making a plan to add at least 3 different styles of ramen to your menu, even if those bowls would appear next to chicken and waffles on a laminated menu on a highway spoon. The Japanese ramen industry makes it that easy.

Nonetheless, I was in my element. All around me was the chatter of Japanese businessmen and artisans, the aroma of dashi and stock, and the buzz of excited industry professionals and attendees. I found myself so excited to be there that any footage shot in the first 45 minutes was absolute garbage. I could have given a 12 year old a case of Red Bull and told them to hold a camera with better results.  I had forgotten what small talk was like between Japanese and non-Japanese speakers. A lot of nodding and gesturing towards beautifully crafted bowls of katsuobushi.

Here are the ups and downs that I saw at the ramen Expo –  First the downers

1.  Lines – As an Austin resident and veteran of several music festivals and foodie events  – the lines were no surprise. Combine a healthy attendance with free samples and you end up with queues that spanned the entirety of the convention floor. Some were longer than others –  there were two booths that had sit-down tastings for each sampler –  a really nice touch for the ramen experience.

2. Common Ramen –  the literal antithesis of this blog, most of the ramen presented prepared in factories in Japan, neatly sealed and packaged to preserve flavor, and given their final preparation on the convention floor. The resulting food is still rather good. The ramen has body, firm noodles, and aromatics to satisfy and please the majority of ramen customers.  I sampled well over 10 pre-fab ramen types and they were all tasty save for a few. One tonkotsu look-alike tasted and smelled of coconut oil which was not acceptable.

These pre-fab solutions have their place, of course. A shop that plans to dish out between 15-30 bowls of ramen per week would be well suited by any of these companies and product lines. Imagine if the local sushi shop offered authentic ramen, and when ordered it looked and tasted the part. They can’t support a ramen kitchen serving 9 bowls a week, but who cares? This is by no means ‘fake’ ramen, just ramen created and served with Japanese clinical precision from a factory far, far away.

3. Heat – So I attended a soup convention in Central Texas, eh? The poor HVAC unit of the Travis County Expo center couldn’t keep up with well over 60 portable burners warming cauldrons of broth, nevermind the equal number of large pots churning out chewy ribbons of yellow alkaline noodles. It was a little warm. There I said it. Drinking broth didn’t help. I’ll get over it.

4. Cost of admission – $40 pre-sale/$50 door for general admission seemed a bit excessive for a convention like the Expo. There were no major celebrities nor any guarantee of food without queuing up. I would have coughed up that kind of money happily if there was a book signing by Ivan Orkin or a chance to meet the local all-stars from Tatsu-Ya or Michi, or if there was a decent cafeteria done like an Izakaya just for fun. Oh well. Pay to play, I guess.

IMG_0383
ME TOO

Enough whinging. Now for the highlights:

1. The Samples –  try as I might I can’t really find a way to complain about vendors spooning out delicious little cups of broth and noodles. The quality and flavors varied widely and the manufacturers were showing off their versatility. Past the lines, getting your samples, and dressing them up to your liking made for a great day of ramen. Miso, tonkotsu, shoyu were mostly represented at the Expo as these are the most popular varieties.  This was the prize for coming out to the Travis County Expo Center. In addition to the soup samples were strategically placed samples of toppings and other Japanese comfort and bar foods. One queue for one vendors ramen samples curled its way around trays of gyoza, chicken kara-age with various sauces to dip into while you passed the time. 

2. The Wallflowers – Every convention has a set of completely unpopular vendors. The Texas Restaurant Association. Association of Japanese Texas trade. Texas It’s not really their fault, their function is just not that sexy. They have no samples or anything to offer the attendees, just the entrepreneurs, and bothersome bloggers like me.

I find it fun to talk with these vendors as their days have likely been dull.

3. The Vendors – I realize that as a complete weeb and utter nerd I am biased here but how can you not love Japanese service? The greeting when you enter their space, the attention to detail, and the The vendors are working in a warm non- ideal environment slinging bowls of soup for a critical set of customers. No pressure. Even with this they all delivered with grace and poise. My mind drifted back to the depressing difference between the Japan-Air flight TO Tokyo versus the rather shitty flight back.

On the way there, the flight attendants nimbly attended to every need including shrieking babies and fighting couples.  Our first meal in LAX drove the point home even further – no greeting, no wet napkin, no prompt service, just a lot of attitude and film of crease on our table. C’mon guys its a pizza joint.

4. Hidden Gems – Samurai Noodle was what you came across when you ventured away from the center of the convention floor, all the way to the back,  stage right. The three person operation were looking for new entrepreneurs for their franchise and handed out the best tasting ramen at the Expo. I had spent the last hours eating okay ramen, here was a winner.  Homemade broth and real-deal noodles. Perfectly seasoned and presented. I have to confess I re-visited all my daydreams about opening up a ramen truck and basically explained my mythical menu to Thomas, the friendly owner of this operation (not sure which locations, Seattle or Houston). He explained that “no ramen shops in Tokyo would survive by using pre-fab ramen broth. The customers know. They want the real broth.”

Their broth was extraordinary and when paired with noodles gave off that slight alkaline taste you get when you have fresh noodles. This was no copycat but a little cup of the real deal. They gladly gave me more samples as Thomas explained that homemade broths are limited by the power output of our home burners. I’ll have to up my game I suppose. He did say something about BTU’s…

BTU

Ramen Expo USA came and went in a flash through Austin, Texas. For a brief couple of days there were a LOT of Japanese people making LOTS of thick fishy pork soup in a convention hall northeast of downtown that was often used for grappling tournaments and the occasional livestock show. The lines, heat, cost, and juice-box ramen didn’t matter in the end. What mattered is what is most exciting (for me at least): the increased interest in ramen as a staple food in the United States.  The Expo was a sign that ramen’s time to shift into the fast lane had come. At the end of this great video that explores some of Sun Noodle’s types of ramen, Mike says at the end how great it could be in a few years when you are craving ‘Brooklyn Ramen’ versus some ‘Chicago Ramen’.

Hopefully business cards changed hands and people found the vendors with which to move forward. Let’s hope the crazy guys with a food truck decide to offer up some ramen to late night inebriates. Maybe someday that kid with a notebook full of menu ideas will pull the trigger on a shop and dish up the best ramen a small midwestern town will ever know.

It could very well be that in a few years the kind of pre-fab ramen presented here will not satisfy the palates of the American consumer, although somehow I doubt that as 3 Maruchan ramen commercials have aired in the last hour.  The more ramen shops take hold in America, the sooner we will enjoy ramen more like it is enjoyed in Japan – for less money, with better quality, and with greater variety.

Time will tell.

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