It’s sad but I never ate a bowl of ramen until about five years ago. I remember that whenever I got stoned with hippie friends in my college dorm, somebody inevitably insisted we make instant Japanese ramen on my contraband hotplate. I never felt adequately fucked up to eat the stuff. I was actually kind of relieved when the dorm manager seized my hotplate during Christmas break. (It’s remained a lifetime mystery why he took the hotplate but left the gigantic cube of hashish sitting beside it.)
In the last few years, our entire culture – actually, the entire globe’s – has become obsessed with ramen. In case you’re as ignorant as I was, authentic ramen is a typically super-rich pork broth full of noodles, atop which float ingredients like sliced juicy pork, mushrooms, seafood, bamboo shoots, corn – whatever the chef designs and whatever you want to add.
There has to be at least a dozen ramen restaurants around Atlanta. As it happens, though, that first bowl of genuine ramen I ate was at Umaido, which is 30 miles away in Suwanee and is still open after seven years. Happily, Umaido has spawned a new intown ramen shop, Hajime, located at Cheshire Square, behind Rain, around the corner from the Tara Theatre (2345 Cheshire Bridge Rd., Atlanta. 470-428-2388).
Perhaps the luscious ramen here is in part echoing the lascivious vibe of the former tenant, BJ Roosters. You won’t recognize it. The place is all dark wood with individual tables as well as a long communal one whose center is a table-length rock garden replete with sand.
Hajime’s menu is huge. There are plenty of side dishes and appetizers – everything from the usual edamame to a bowl of salted fried chicken, a salad of cucumber and octopus, and flawless gyoza dumplings. You should not limit your starters to the formal appetizers. Most of the side dishes on a separate menu page work just as well.
The star here is of course the ramen. There are 10 varieties. All but one feature classic tonkotsu, a broth made by boiling pork bones for hours and hours, even days. The result is a slightly salty, dense broth with a very thin sheet of glistening fat which of course, helps deepen the flavor. The house-made noodles, in a tangle in the middle of the bowl, are nearly as good as a spoon at getting the broth to your mouth. They’re traditionally absorbent and noisily slurpable.
The default go-to here is the classic tonkotsum, number 1 on the menu. The large bowl holds two generous slices of deliciously roasted pork, bean sprouts, garlic oil, and some mysterious chopped greens. The bowl, and all but one of the others, includes half a boiled egg with a melting yolk meant to be stirred into the broth for added creaminess. All these ingredients, sparkling fresh, are apparently dropped into the soup at the last minute, because their flavors are strong and playful. You know: Opposites attract.
I’ve also enjoyed the spicy ramen. It includes the roasted pork, along with a spicy soybean paste, pickled ginger, red pepper powder, peanut oil, scallions, and sesame. Its sting is mild, compared to the “ultra-spicy,” which friends tell me is virtually inedible unless your taste buds are dead.
There are few vegetarian options here. There’s a soy milk ramen in which the milk is normally combined with the pork broth, but you can order an all-soy version. Those who don’t eat red meat can order the tori ramen available with chicken broth only. Ditto for the unusual seafood bowl. Understand, too, that you can concoct your own bowl by adding any of the toppings available. You can get an extra ball of noodles for $1. That’s a definite plus, because it’s easy to empty the bowl’s toppings with half the broth left over. Order the extra, and someone will plop the noodles in at that point.
It will require numerous visits to try out Hajime’s full menu. There’s also a menu of rice dishes with a variety of intriguing toppings, including raw octopus and cod roe. But don’t even think of not ordering the ramen.