Ani Ramen House
401 Bloomfield Avenue
Montclair, New Jersey 07042
The spirit of Tampopo* lives on! And it does so in Montclair, New Jersey at Ani Ramen House.
Before I continue with my review, I must disclose that I’m from Hong Kong and an aficionado of noodles and noodle soup dishes. While I do enjoy all kinds of food, particularly Asian food, I am partial to the grit of Chinese style noodle dishes over ramen (Japanese noodle soup dish). Having said that, however, I haven’t found any kind of noodle soup dish, since moving to America thirty years ago, that has satisfied my palate the way a bowl of Ngau Lam Lo Mein (Beef brisket noodle) at a side-street noodle shop in Causeway Bay or a dai pai dong (Hong Kong food street vendor) in Wanchai does until now at Ani Ramen House. Granted, there have been some exceptional bowls – the Char Siu Mein (Roast Pork noodle) I had at an unnamed noodle spot in San Francisco, the Curry Beef Noodle and Duck Noodle bowls at Penang in East Hanover, New Jersey and a good old fashioned Wonton Mein (Minced Pork Dumpling Noodle) at a favored spot in New York’s Chinatown – but the Short Rib Ramen at Ani Ramen, with the perfect blend of steam from the soup, balance of salt and heat from the seasonings and chili oil, and the tenderness of the meat tickled my taste buds and pleased my palate in ways they haven’t been treated to in a long time. Moreover, the Short Rib Ramen also made me sweat, just enough on my brow, the way a bowl of noodle soup is supposed to.
When Ani Ramen opened in Montclair about a year or so ago, I knew it was going to be the next ‘in thing.’ Foodies were looking for a different taste and, coming to New Jersey, Ani Ramen made getting a quality bowl of noodles easier than having to go into New York City. I also knew that it was going to be a popular spot so I did want to wait a bit before going there. Little did I know, my bit turned into almost a year (simply, time flies whether you’re having fun or not) and I regret not going there sooner. During that time, however, I’d had friends go and they all reported positive experiences. Now that I have gone, I will frequent Ani Ramen House more often. Truth be told, I intended to write this review after my first visit on August 29, three weeks ago, but I held off wanting to sample more of what Ani Ramen has to offer so I went back last night. Before I share my experiences with you, let me say that I went there with my wife, son and two friends who live in New York (both from the Philippines; one also lived in Hong Kong for a stint and the other grew up in Indonesia).
Over the two visits, we enjoyed the Ani Salad (a kale-based salad with a Miso Ginger Soy Dressing), Ani Ramen (a pork broth noodle dish with roasted pork, scallions, kakuni, kikurage, soy tare), three kinds of buns (Japanese Sausage, Short Rib (a special menu item), Shrimp), Stuffed Shiitake Mushrooms, Scallops Wrapped in Bacon (a special menu item), Short Rib Ramen (also a special menu item), Kimchi, Char Siu** Don (roasted pork over steamed white rice with a teriyaki/soy glaze), an extra dish of Char Siu, and an orange Japanese fizzy soft drink.
I’ll confess I didn’t try the salad. I’m not a fan of kale. (Yes, I’m a foodie who doesn’t eat everything.) However, based on the responses from my wife and friends, the Ani Salad is a winner. They particularly liked how the dressing wasn’t overly sweet the way other ginger salad dressings are. They were also impressed how the salad didn’t drown in the dressing which kept the kale from getting soggy. The buns were tasty too. The actual bun, a round white pancake of sorts with its contents laid on top of it then folded, was soft without being gooey. It wasn’t doughy either which made us debate whether it was a flour bun or a rice bun. I would like to try one by itself, which I might ask for the next time I’m there. Of the three buns, we came to a consensus that the Short Rib Bun, while not bad, was our least favourite. I enjoy short rib but I felt that this particular sample lacked something – perhaps something as simple as salt. The garnish alongside the meat was delicious but the meat didn’t introduce itself to me. I felt its texture but not its flavour. Eating the bun with the Kimchi gave it the kick it lacked. Of the Japanese Sausage and Shrimp buns, the reviews were split. For me, I preferred the Shrimp. My wife preferred the Japanese Sausage. Our friends preferred the Shrimp as well. Again, both buns were delicious in their own ways but there was better balance in the Shrimp. I tasted the flavours and felt the texture of everything in the Shrimp Bun from the cucumber slice to the cabbage to the shrimp. With the Japanese Sausage Bun, the sausage overtook everything else. All of them, though, were perfectly cooked. Nothing was stiff or dry and everything melted as it went down.
The Scallops Wrapped in Bacon was much like the Japanese Sausage Bun. It was tasty as a dish but I felt that the bacon overpowered the scallops. Grilled and drizzled with what tasted like a Sesame Soy Dressing, I enjoyed the taste of the dish in and of itself but I felt it was loud and didn’t fit in with the subtlety of the other dishes. It also felt heavier than the other things we tried, although nothing at Ani Ramen House makes you feeling guiltily stuffed. In fact, you leave Ani Ramen House satisfied with the feeling that you ate just the right amount of food.
The Stuffed Shiitake was a treat. Lightly breaded with panko, the mushrooms were stuffed with shrimp and came with Japanese tartar sauce and Spicy Miso Mayonnaise (the kind drizzled over Spicy Tuna Rolls and such at your favourite sushi spot) as dips and is definitely something I will order again on a future visit.
The Char Siu Don (pictured below) was my son’s choice on both occasions we visited Ani Ramen House and testament to its yumminess (to use my son’s choice of words), he finished it both times. A simple dish of roasted pork marinated in some kind of teriyaki-type sauce over a bowl of steamed rice, it tugged at my own culinary heartstrings because I dream of one day opening my own rice toppings spot. Moreover, this donburi (rice bowl) offering was enjoyable simply because of its flavour and its simplicity – rice and something tasty to go with it that fills you.
The pork was perfectly cooked assuming the flavour of the marinade and remaining tender to the bite. The extra dish of Char Siu looked like thin slices of pork belly with the right balance of meat and fat.
Each piece was seasoned perfectly and each bite melted like butter. I would love to try this pork inside a bun with nothing else so I can enjoy the simplicity of the two ingredients come together in culinary delight. Instead of being a donburi it could be called a ‘bunburi.’ This combo would indeed be something special.
Now, to the noodles. Again, I have to say, “Tampopo!” The noodles were cooked just right, the flavours of the broth delicately balanced with the right amount of salt and other spices and the meat (pork in the Ani Ramen and Short Rib in the special menu ramen dish) tenderly cooked so that it blended nicely with the noodles in each bite. The Short Rib was mildly spicy with a touch of chili oil but fear not those of you who are sensitive to spicy food. I love spicy food but I’m one of you and this dish did not cause any problems during or after eating it. Each bowl came with the right amount of vegetable as well cutting the sharpness of the broth so the broth – the key to any noodle soup dish – can remain the star of the dish. Japanese noodle dishes are more subtle than their spicier Korean and grittier Chinese neighbours, which makes the joy of eating Asian noodle dishes so much fun. Across the continent, you can get it all. At Ani Ramen House, the broth eases itself into your taste buds but without being absent at first taste.
Without any desserts on its menu, the closest thing is to try is one of the unique Japanese sodas they carry. I tried the orange one on my first visit (below, and sorry for my son’s funny face; such was this seven year old’s mood at the time).
I tried it on a whim and I loved it. It tastes like there might be some tea in it, which alone makes it worth a second try and, true to form, its sweetness is subtle and doesn’t attack one’s palate the way Coke or Pepsi might.
My second visit was on a Saturday night and, understandably, things took a little longer to come out from the kitchen. My first was also on a Saturday but for lunch and things went a little quicker. Additionally, Ani Ramen House is a smallish place so you’re going to have to wait but, on both visits, the wait wasn’t for very long and even then good things are worth waiting for. In Ani Ramen House’s case, the food is better than good. Ani Ramen House is a BYOB – there are three nearby liquor stores in the same block – and Ani Ramen House doesn’t do takeout. If you want to take what you don’t finish, you’re going to have to bring your own containers but, trust me, the servings are the right size and absolutely delicious that I doubt you’ll be leaving anything on your plates and in your bowls other than leftover garnish.
Off the food, the ambience of Ani Ramen House is modern without being gaudy and humble without being meek honoring of its Japanese inspirations. The place is small and yet everyone maintains a collective quiet and respect towards each others’ dining experience. The wait staff is very pleasant, greeting everyone with a smile. In fact, the hostess, who recognised us, greeted us with “Welcome back” when it came time to seat us. Our waiter last night was also on point. Upon sitting, I pulled out a bottle of wine for my wife and our friends and a bottle of Tiger Beer for myself. In what appeared to be one fell swoop, he’d picked up my beer, opened it, set it down, picked up the wine, opened, set it down and, in true Ninja fashion, disappeared and returned with three glasses. He also asked if I had more beer so he could put it in the fridge to keep it cold. I did but declined his offer because I only had one more and it was still cold.
The people at Ani Ramen House know how to make your experience there memorable. In the bathroom is a framed map of the Tokyo subway system, which made me think of the few days I spent in Tokyo as a teenager in 1985. When you get your bill, it’s given in a small black notebook with a pen so you can contribute to abundant messages and drawings of previous diners. The China is all white accompanied with proper black chopsticks and either a black or white Asian style soup spoon, each with a curved tail so the diner can hook his or her spoon onto the lip of the bowl without worry that the spoon is going to slide into the broth. It’s this kind of detail and welcoming touches that, in addition to the food, satisfies the complete dining experience of each person who walks through Ani Ramen House’s door and makes them come back for more.
Ani Ramen House gets a 2 Bites Rating from Panlasa.
Panlasa’s Rating System Explained:
0 bites = Don’t bother. I suffered for you.
1/2 bite = I enjoyed it enough – I had to eat something, after all – but I wouldn’t recommend it.
1 bite = Good. I’d have it again but I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to get it.
1 1/2 bites = Very good/super tasty. I’m definitely going back and I’m bringing friends. If I weren’t married, it’s somewhere I’d take a first date to. That’s how good it is.
2 bites = Unique, I’ve never had (and probably won’t ever have) better than this, this is what I want if I were going to be executed and I could have whatever I wanted for my last meal, Epicurean Orgasm!
*Tampopo is a Japanese movie, ca 1985, about a woman and her quest, under the guidance of an interesting array of mentors, to produce the ultimate bowl of ramen
** Although this is written as Chashu in the Ani Ramen House menu, I have chosen to write it as Char Siu, which is the way I’ve grown up writing it from Romanised Cantonese.