Hicks' Weekly Dish: Try the Prairie Noodle Shop for great ramen BY GRAHAM HICKS, EDMONTON SUN FIRST POSTED: TUESDAY, JANUARY 05, 2016
Tues-Sat. 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Sun. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Food: 4.5 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 4.5 of 5 Suns
Service: 4 of 5 Suns
Dinner for two excluding drinks and tip: Basic, $30; loaded, $50
If you build it, and build it right, they will come.
Since the Prairie Noodle Shop opened four weeks ago, it has seen line-ups.
Line-ups at 11 a.m. on a cold mid-week morning, line-ups at 5 p.m. before it re-opens for dinner, half-hour to 45 minute waits until a table opens up in the modern but cozy and bustling 32-seat ramen house.
It’s about smart social-media marketing/messaging and an informal, welcoming décor. Until the next trendy, well-executed casual restaurant opens, The Prairie Noodle Shop is the current must-go eatery in town.
But none of the above would amount to a hill of noodles, unless the food is bang-on. You can have all the social media in the world, but, in the end, a restaurant’s reputation is about word-of-mouth, of customers telling their friends, who tell their friends.
What they talk about at the Prairie Noodle Shop is its food quality.
This column, late in 2015, made the point that poor imitations were jumping on the Japanese ramen (noodle soup) band wagon. I have ordered (and thrown out) so-called “ramen” in this town that obviously came out of a noodle package with a Campbell’s chicken soup-based broth.
The Prairie Noodle Shop is the very opposite.
The menu is simplicity itself, just four kinds of ramen bowls — Prairie Pork, Roasted Barley Chicken, Smoked Gouda Miso, and Meat & Potatoes — four appetizers, one salad and two desserts.
But how exquisite and elegantly crafted those four ramen bowls are! They are a study in patience, in purity, in painstakingly thorough culinary research to get the product infinitely right from the get-go.
Kudos as well to the Prairie Noodle Shop for maintaining its quality despite unanticipated demand. Chef Eric Hanson’s kitchen was set up to produce 150 to 175 bowls of ramen a day. It’s running flat out at 250 to 300 bowls a day — that’s almost 10 customers per seat, every day!
The Prairie Noodle Shop broth starts with a vat of pork and chicken bones bought to a boil, lightly salted with specific salts, and then simmered for 24 hours.
Its noodles are custom-made in town on a daily basis to specifications that insist on locally grown wheat. The chicken, pork and Gouda cheese come from local, proudly-named farms. The noodle shop’s slogan is “Asian noodles, prairie flavours.”
The presentation is art unto itself. For the chicken ramen, the gentle brown and beige of the noodles and broth act as a bed on which sits a roasted chicken wing sprinkled with sesame seeds, emerald-green kale and a flash of red onion. The mix is topped with a boiled-egg half, in which is stuck, like a tiny flag, a wafer of crispy chicken skin.
The portions, incidentally, are generous. Maria and I took home enough left-overs from just two ramen bowls to serve as our lunch the next day.
With the pork, each main ingredient — the sliced pork belly, pulled shoulder meat, corn kernels, and chopped green onions was arranged around the same egg, flagged this time by a fresh-fried pork rind.
Within the merriment of how the novice eats/drinks/slurps ramen — spoon, chopsticks, fork but no knife — is the delicacy of taste. The specific flavourings are generally Japanese, rarely found in North American cooking, but compatible with North American palates. To the relief of those who find Thai/South Asian foods too spicy, the Japanese are most sparing in their use of chili peppers and hot sauces.
What makes Prairie Noodle Shop oriental is the house-made Japanese dashi sauce added to the broth, the hard-boiled “umeboshi“ egg marinated with salty plums, a touch of soy in the ramen and a light mysterious balance of tastes, perhaps this Japan-originated “umami” or fifth basic taste now accepted in culinary circles after sweet, sour, bitter and salty.
Creating the prairie in the ramen shop’s name are the hardy noodles, the robust Canadian-style meats and the usually familiar veggies.
The appetizers are equally creative. The shop’s prairie pork buns are already a signature – three medallions of billowy soft, steamed dough (think BBQ’d pork buns) each topped with pork variations, pickled veggies and other hard-to-discern but delicious sweet flavours.
On the “prairie” side, do try the molasses corn bread served hot-pot style with a wonderful light, Japanese-flavoured butter melting into the cornbread as it arrives.
The Prairie Noodle Shop flavours are both familiar and refreshingly new. The presentation, the fun, the ambience — customers sit cheek by jowl at the counter and at tables squished together — even the anticipation all makes for a memorable hour of dining.
The wait may be long, but it’s time well spent. At the Prairie Noodle Shop, you will not be disappointed.