You’ve probably been eating ramen the wrong way as long as you’ve been eating it. But before you panic, let me reassure you: it’s OK. I was in the same boat until I sat down with David Chao, operating manager at Zundo Ramen & Donburi in Over-the-Rhine.
“We wanted to bring that actual, ramen-fast culture — like in Tokyo, Chicago, San Francisco, New York,” Chao says. “We wanted to bring you that fast feeling where you’re not in Cincinnati. We want you to feel like you’re in a big city.”
Indeed, ramen is fast food in Japan. I’m not used to calling anything that doesn’t come in a crinkly paper wrapper “fast food,” and neither are most Americans. Embodying the concept of swift satisfaction without grease and guilt is something at which Zundo excels, and which is exactly what they hoped to achieve, Chao says.
Other ramen joints in town include OTR Japanese gastropub Kaze; Quan Hapa, from the team behind Pho Lang Thang; chef Hideki Harada’s ramen pop-up at the Northside Yacht Club (and soon to be brick-and-mortar ramen establishment, Kiki College Hill); and Mei, the Montgomery flagship restaurant of Zundo’s proprietor chef Han Lin. The local crew of ramen purveyors call themselves “the ramen boys,” Chao says, but they each have their own spectrum of specialties. Quan Hapa, for example, serves okonomiyaki, or savory pancakes, while Zundo steers clear; Kaze has two ramens on their menu, but sushi is their mainstay.
“It’s supposed to be simple: everything is either boiled or fried,” says Zundo’s executive chef Zachary Breedlove. “It’s really basic Japanese street food; the hits of Japanese street food.”
Chao concurs. “We want to get you in and out, that fast flow — that’s what the menu caters to,” he says.
Zundo, which means “big pot” in Japanese, has a small but fierce menu comprising four ramens with different broths, 10 donburis (including katsu curry, an Asian native favorite, Chao says), a thoughtful smattering of appetizers and a few desserts. Donburi is essentially a Japanese stew, with meats and veggies served over rice.
“Our broth takes 14 hours; we start it in the morning (and) it’s done at 11 p.m. for tomorrow. Every single day, we have to, because we serve anywhere between 200 to 300 bowls a day of noodles,” Chao says. “You want that authentic broth — pork bones, chicken bones, however you want to make it. We took the traditional way of the tonkatsu style, which is the pork. It’s almost a whole pig in there, bones-wise. That’s how we get that creaminess. It’s all marrow.”
Indeed, when Chao allowed me behind the counter to take a peek inside a bubbling cauldron of broth, he stirred its contents with an enormous paddle and brought the remnants of a pig’s skull to the surface. The broth was already creamy and frothy, and it still had at least seven of its boiling hours to go. In addition to tonkotsu, Zundo also offers ramen with a miso pork broth (regular or spicy) and a vegetarian version.
The pièce de résistance of the ramen menu is the insider’s version: order the vegetarian miso ramen, request it spicy and add an egg and pork belly. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster of all the other ramens, dragging in each of the best bits of the others and leaving your stomach in a state of near-bliss.
“You’re supposed to consume (the ramen) as hot as possible,” says chef Breedlove. “There’s a way you can slurp a bowl to where instead of pulling from the bottom, you actually just get the top layer, so instead of gulping, you slurp, so it just continually goes down.”
Before slurping, you want to give all the delicious ingredients floating in the deep bowl a good mix. You want the doily-like slices of lotus root to mingle with the strips of pork belly, the rim of red miso paste, the jammy-centered soft-boiled egg and sprinkling of chopped green onions to take a bath in the bottom of the broth. (Fun fact: Zundo has a machine dedicated solely to chopping green onions because they go through so many.) Slurp as instructed. Repeat until done. You have two to three minutes to complete your mission.
Alright, nobody is actually timing you. A friend and I stopped by Zundo on a recent evening to give it a go, and we both took different — and comparatively slow — approaches to consuming our respective ramens. She used chopsticks to manage the noodles; I selected a fork.
Neither of us was sure how to transfer a squiggle of wasabi to our shrimp dumplings, but we made do with the tips of our fingers and chopsticks. We also had the gyoza, or fried pork dumplings. I could make a meal of these alone.
Dessert is understated at Zundo, but there are two daily ice cream offerings and a fun sasa dango, a dumpling made of sticky rice — which tastes like green tea and is a vibrant shade of green — wrapped around red bean paste, all wrapped up in a banana leaf and tied with a length of cord. It’s fun to unwrap, and fun to see if you are, as our server said, someone who likes the taste or someone who doesn’t. (My friend and I fell into opposing camps but I won’t tell who belongs to which.)
On Fridays and Saturdays, Zundo brings in two specialty cannoli from Covington baker Steve Del Gardo: a green-tea-cream-filled, white chocolate-dipped cannoli and a spicy plum sake cannoli. They are, dear reader, very good. I prefer the less-sweet, spicy plum sake cannoli — the sake is robust but not overpowering and nicely balances the plum.
Speaking of sake, there’s a ton to choose from at Zundo. Chao ticks off 35 varieties, filtered and non. “We sell so much sake, it’s ridiculous,” he says. The menu will follow the seasons of fall/winter and spring/summer. Expect a sake float come warmer days and a sake mimosa.
Zundo Ramen & Donburi, 220 W. 12th St., Over-the-Rhine, zundootr.com.