REDMOND — I usually judge a ramen shop on the strength of its tonkotsu broth, but this time I’m making an exception.
The most intriguing substance that touched my taste buds at Hong Noodle in Redmond last month was not its tori tonkotsu broth, but the piquant, spicy Nagasaki seafood ramen.
I like spicy food, but to a point. I go mild at Korean restaurants and usually call for a “2” at most Thai places. I don’t like food that’s so spicy it burns your taste buds and leaves you gasping, but a little kick, especially one with different spicy notes, goes a long way.
That’s what Hong Noodle’s spicy Nagasaki seafood ramen ($12.99) delivers. It’s not swimming in chili oil, but has an enticing smoky-hot flavor that warms the back of your throat and makes you want to keep slurping.
The secret to that smokiness is a good ol’ Chinese wok, says Jun Hong, chef and owner of Hong Noodle, which opened in January in Redmond Town Center.
Hong Noodle is Hong’s second restaurant — he also owns Wasabi Sushi and Izakaya in Belltown — but marks his first foray into ramen. Hong is Korean, but has specialized mostly in Japanese-style food, and incorporated some Chinese influences along the way, too. For one, as Hong notes, “ramen is from China. It was started by Chinese people who lived in Japan.” Then, there’s also the wok in his ramen-shop kitchen that helps complete the Nagasaki seafood ramen.
Cabbage, bean sprouts, zucchini and yellow onions romp together in the big wok and sizzle over a high fire before they get tossed into a made-from-scratch broth that’s spiced with a housemade chili paste. The result? A spicy ramen that’s satisfying but won’t require water gulping. (This is a good place to note that even my sister — a spice fiend who actually likes burn-your-taste-buds level heat — thoroughly enjoyed this Nagasaki ramen.)
The Nagasaki ramen bowl comes with a generous helping of shrimp and squid, and it’s one of Hong Noodle’s signature dishes.
But what sets Hong Noodle apart from the slew of ramen shops scattered throughout the Seattle area is that it’s the first I’ve seen that offers counter service and fully customizable toppings you can select by pointing at what you want through the glass window. Think of it as the MOD Pizza of ramen joints.
Choose your meat (tofu, pork or chicken chashu, or seafood) and broth (tori tonkotsu, tori shoyu, miso shoyu, miso or vegetarian miso) at the first counter, then move down the line to select your topping oil — Hong makes three in-house: garlic, negi (green onion) or chili — and pick toppings. The 16 topping options range from ramen staples (bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, fried garlic) to the downright peculiar (Parmesan cheese).
Your meat choice determines the base price of the “make-your-own” ramen bowl: it’s $8.99 for tofu, $10.99 for pork or chicken chashu, and $14.99 for seafood. You can also add a marinated egg for $1.50.
“Mr. Hong wanted to give customers the chance to build their own bowls,” Hong Noodle manager Hanna Choi said. “Every time you come in, it’s like a different flavor and different taste. There’s over a thousand different ways you can make it.”
I thought so, too, but was pleasantly surprised.
My tori tonkotsu ramen bowl with pork chashu, wood ear mushrooms and bean sprouts had a pleasantly clean flavor with strong chicken notes. It’s not a traditional tonkotsu broth because it’s made of a chicken and pork blend instead of just pork. But its lightness is intentional.
Hong’s goal has always been to make food he’d be comfortable feeding to his children, so he set out to create a healthier ramen broth with a chicken/pork base.
“In traditional ramen, they add pork fat or even ground fat parts into the soup so that they make it a richer flavor. How much you put in makes a different rich taste,” Hong said. “I didn’t want to put pork fat in my ramen.”
For those who don’t like building their own ramen bowls, the menu includes “signature” (read: already composed so you don’t have to!) ramen and donburi, and they also have some izakaya items such as agedashi tofu ($5.99) and takoyaki ($4.99) from 4 p.m. on.
I wasn’t a fan of the gyoza — mine were stale and lacked crunch, as if they’d been sitting in the food warmer for too long; though, Hong says they usually make them fresh. And the marinated egg that I ordered with my ramen was a little overcooked — its yolk wasn’t as soft and oozy as it should have been. But overall, Hong Noodle is a good option if you want fast, casual ramen that’s not overly rich. I’m betting it’ll be popular with the Microsoft lunchtime crowd.
Japanese ramen; Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Redmond Town Center, 7325 166th Ave. N.E., F126, Redmond; 425-658-3573, hongnoodle.com