Edmonton Restaurant Review: Menjiro Ramen

Menjiro Ramen’s mural; I did not win the contest to fill the speech bubbles.

I’ve been running my YEG Food Deals pages on this site for over four years now and, having expanded to sharing information on social media, I’m finding that more and more businesses are starting to reach out to me on their own. In the case of Menjiro Ramen, their sister restaurant Jang (also new) is the one that direct messaged me through Instagram.

On Monday, December 17, Menjiro Ramen would be having their grand opening. To celebrate, they were running a week-long special for $10 noodle bowls. Kirk and I actually attempted to visit on that first day. However, to avoid disappointment, I phoned ahead when I got home from work to see if we should bother to drive over.

Turns out, they had literally just sold their last bowl of soup. I followed their Instagram page over the next few days and it seemed that they were consistently selling out. It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that we managed to make it there and snag some noodles for ourselves.

Menjiro Ramen’s Menu

Unlike most other shops, Menjiro Ramen only serves soup made using chicken rather than the usual pork. For that initial visit, we were told that we only had the option of their Tori Paitan, a creamy broth. That was okay with me since I had my eyes on the Black Garlic, which uses that soup base, and Kirk ordered the Spicy Red ($10 each that day). They were short of the pork shoulder that typically comes in each bowl as well. To replace that, we would receive pork belly instead.

It didn’t take long for the kitchen to prepare our meals. Both bowls came out piping hot. I sampled Kirk’s Spicy Red. It literally had a deep orange-red colour to the soup. I sampled the broth by taking a couple of sips. Personally, I found it a tad too spicy for me. It had a very peppery finish that lingered at the back of my throat. I don’t really enjoy heat like that as it’s sort of irritating. It did taste pretty good though. I simply wouldn’t be able to have a whole bowl of that in a single sitting.

I thought my Black Garlic ramen was a lot more manageable. The broth may have been saltier and grainier than I’d prefer, and I was a hoping for more noodles. Yet, I thought the texture of the noodles was al dante with a nice bite. I also loved the pork belly and the chicken seemed to be well-seasoned. The marinated egg and pieces of bamboo shoot were delicious ingredients.

This art cracks me up.

Being so new, I wanted to see if a second visit a few weeks later would make a difference. We stopped in again for lunch on another Saturday, making sure to arrive shortly after opening to get the best selection. Menjiro Ramen was only half full, and I had noticed on their social media that they were no longer posting about being sold out, so the restaurant must not be as busy as when initially launched.

On this occasion, Kirk and I both opted for the creamy broth-based Spicy Miso Ramen ($14.50 per bowl). We also started with a plate of the Cheesy Takoyaki ($6.50).

Kirk tried the takoyaki, but he didn’t love them. He found the texture of the interior was too smooth and the exterior wasn’t crispy enough. I’m not entirely sure what Menjiro Ramen uses for the center. Traditionally, takoyaki is made with a wheat-flour batter and it’s filled with octopus, green onion, tempura crumbs, and green onions. When there was octopus lacking, these were quite mushy on the inside. Overall though, the mouthfeel didn’t bother me. They fit my memory of the takoyaki I’d eaten from markets in the past. I imagined it was an incredibly creamed potato. The octopus pieces were apparent and I liked the consistency of the shell. What really improved them was the melted cheese. Honestly, cheese makes everything better, and it did its job in this particular case.

The Spicy Miso Ramen hit the spot. I feel like maybe the portions were somewhat larger than with the discounted bowls offered during their grand opening week. Then again, the bowls they used to serve the ramen were different (specific dinnerware for specific menu items), so maybe it was a visual trick. One thing I noticed was that the bowls, sadly, didn’t have any bamboo shoots this time around. Pork shoulder was in-stock though, so we got to try that. Not my favourite. We both liked the pork belly better. Additionally, I thought the chicken was a little more bland than before. Kirk commented that his soup wasn’t hot enough, temperature-wise. And, I will say that the space loses heat every single time a customer enters, especially on chilly days. On the other hand, the temperature of mine was fine (I can’t deal with scalding food). Whenever I pulled noodles from the bowl, steam came wisping up. The intensity of the spice was much more pleasant than the Spicy Red, too.

I don’t regularly go out for ramen, so it’s hard for me to compare with the several other places in the city. Still, on their own merit, Menjiro Ramen’s chicken-based broths are quite satisfying and, between the two visits, the service has been great. The business is also a welcome addition to the far south side of Edmonton, an area that was previously lacking a more than decent ramen spot. Hopefully this location continues to fit that bill.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: 97 Hot Pot

Boiling our pots of soup at 97 Hot Pot.

Boiling our pots of soup at 97 Hot Pot.

As a Chinese girl who was born and raised in Edmonton by my parents, far away from the rest of our immediate family, we would eat Chinese food when I was growing up, but I much preferred things like pizza, pasta and the like over traditional Asian fare. I’d happily go to Chinatown to eat sweets like pineapple buns, and, of course, to shop for all things Sailormoon. That was pretty much the extent of it.

It has always been that way for me. If I ever had the option to have anything other than Chinese food, I’d take it. Yet, that mentality has changed over the years. By all accounts, Chinese cuisine still isn’t my favourite; however, I do love a good Peking duck, or freshly made shumai and cocktail buns at what I like to call “Asian brunch” as we usually partake in dim sum late in the morning and on the weekend.

So, now that I’m older and more willing to try everything, when my parents suggested going for a hot pot lunch on a chilly December day, I thought I had better give it a go. I really should refrain from being picky nowadays.

Raw chicken and pork slices, bean curd, dumplings and sauce.

Raw chicken and pork slices, bean curd, dumplings and sauce.

Years since I had had that type of meal – essentially you get boiling hot soup and you cook raw veggies and meat at the table yourself (it actually sounds a lot like The Melting Pot from what I’ve been told) – I figured it was time to open myself up to my heritage. After all, hot pot is the Chinese equivalent of bringing family together.

We ended up at 97 Hot Pot, a somewhat newer establishment in the heart of Chinatown. The location used to be home to a small grocery store, but has been renovated into a spacious, bright and clean restaurant. Tables have individual hot pot plates built into them, so each diner can pick a soup base of their choice. The temperature settings of the heating plates can be changed (on a scale from 1 to 3), allowing patrons to adjust them as needed.

The interior of 97 Hot Pot.

The interior of 97 Hot Pot.

They offer an all-you-can-eat option at 97 Hot Pot, but the lunch menu is more than enough for each person. At around $13 each, there’s plenty of food to ensure you don’t leave hungry. Using the paper menus, we checked off what we wanted, which includes one type of broth along with five entree items. All of us selected different things, but I went with the Szechuan Spicy Chicken soup, sliced sirloin beef, pork wontons, pork & vegetable dumplings, beef balls and vermicelli noodles. Another bowl of fresh veggies (lettuce, tomato, corn on the cob, enoki mushrooms, white button mushrooms and broccoli is provided as part of the price.

First off, let me say that the Szechuan Spicy Chicken soup is SPICY! I love food with a good amount of heat, but, for me, this was more than I expected. On the one hand, I didn’t have to use any additional sauces to flavour my soup and food. On the other, it was spicy enough to take away some of my ability to taste anything else. This soup is made with a number of ingredients, many of which I couldn’t quite pick out, but can be seen in the pot. One flavour in particular was hard for me to pinpoint, but I’m sure it came from some sort of re-hydrated veggie or bean, which is often used in Asian soup bases, and not one I’m that fond of. Nevertheless, it was still yummy, and, if you have a penchant for extremely spicy food, this might be for you.

I liked that they didn’t skimp on the extra bowl of vegetables because it could be a meal in itself. Regardless, I’m glad to have the additional entree items. The sirloin beef slices were fresh, the beef balls had a nice spring to them once cooked, the dumplings were plump and juicy, and the vermicelli, which soaked up just the right amount of flavour from the soup, helped to fill my belly. The only misstep of my meal was the tiny wontons. Although several were provided and they were tasty, they were much smaller than regular wontons that are to be had anywhere else. Also, if I had a do over of my lunch, I would maybe have gone with the rice noodles instead. Thick, clear and kind of gelatin looking, I sampled one from my mom’s plate, and they were delicious.

My mom's selection of rice noodles, sliced sirloin beef, shrimp, squid and fish.

My mom’s selection of rice noodles, sliced sirloin beef, shrimp, squid and fish.

With regards to the service, it was busy that day and they don’t have many people on staff, so I would say that they could improve in that aspect. Both my mom and I still had some food to cook, but our soup had boiled down until there was very little left in the pot and you could smell a bit of the food burning. We had to wave a staff member down to get them to add water to our pots before we could continue with our meal.

All-in-all, I enjoyed the food and the outing. It’s a fun, communal type of meal that is as traditional Chinese as one can get.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Hoang Long Casual Fare

My vermicelli bowl from lunch. This is the only photo I took. I don't know why I didn't take more pictures that day...

My vermicelli bowl from lunch. This is the only photo I took. I don’t know why I didn’t take more pictures that day…

Hoang Long has had many incarnations in Edmonton over the years. One was the massive, can’t miss, bright yellow flagship restaurant that was situated along 170 Street and 100 Avenue. I’d only been there once before they closed that location, but it certainly had a more traditional Asian feel to it with the rattan chairs and the bamboo decor. Their other establishment, Hoang Long Noodle House, opened in West Edmonton Mall right next to the interior doors to T&T Supermarket. Catering to the many customers that find themselves hungry after a long day of shopping, it’s meant for a quick meal. The newest addition to the Hoang Long family takes fast to a new level. Created with an almost cafeteria-like idea in mind, it was nothing like I imagined it was going to be.

I, in no way, am disappointed with what I saw though. I’m just surprised that this is the way they decided to go. However, their decision makes sense when you take into account where Hoang Long Casual Fare (@HoangLongcf) is situated as well as the restaurant’s full name. Located in one of the commercial spaces at the bottom of the Mayfair Village building on 109 Street south of Jasper Avenue, the establishment is a looker that caters to the business crowd. With high ceilings, modern furniture and light, airy colours, aesthetically, it’s quite pleasing to the eye. It’s comfortable, clean and convenient, too. They have an open kitchen where they’ll make your meals for you as soon as you order and they also have prepackaged foods such as salad rolls. The concept is that you order and pay at the till and then receive one of those notifiers that buzz when your food is ready, letting you know it’s time to pick up from the counter. You have the option to stay and eat there or take your food to go.

The vermicelli bowl lunch menu.

The vermicelli bowl lunch menu.

My friends and I made our way there from work over lunch hour about a couple months ago. Craving vermicelli bowls, I was excited to try out their new venue. We went later in the afternoon, so it wasn’t that busy. After deciding what each of us wanted, our food was ready within minutes. Delighting in the fact that it was a relatively warm day, we found ourselves a spot on their small patio (Yeah! They have one!). While the view isn’t of anything spectacular and it was slightly overcast that day, it’s still good to know that there’s the option to soak in some sun there. If the weather isn’t cooperating, the large windows let plenty of light into the interior, so don’t fret.

The vermicelli bowls were really tasty. The grilled beef that accompanied my noodles was delicious. Cooked in soy sauce, lemongrass, garlic and sugar, it had that unmistakable flavour. I also very much liked the texture of the beef as it had some bite, but was still pretty tender. They also give you an ample serving of fish sauce for the noodles – important so that everything is well coated and adds to the overall profile of the dish. The spring rolls, which I chose as my second topping were fried perfectly, so that the outside stayed nicely crisp even until the end of my meal. My bowl completely satisfied my craving for their Vietnamese and Thai food.

While I didn’t have one, they also had an enticing dessert case filled with individual cakes and macarons that are made in-house. My friend took a piece of chocolate mousse cake to go and she said it was alright. I’ll have to see for myself sometime as I know taste can be selective and dependent on the person, but I’m glad for the additional opinion.

Regardless, I would certainly recommend Hoang Long for their classic menu items and so do the readers of The Tomato. The establishment was voted into the No. 46 spot on the magazine’s list of 100 best eats and drinks in the city for 2014 and they rarely, if ever, steer people wrong when it comes to food! Cited on the list as a favourite is the restaurant’s lamb curry dish, so next time I’m there I’ll have to give that a go. And, being that it’s so close to the office, I can see this becoming a regular hangout either for lunch or even after work.

One quick thing to note is that, although Hoang Long Casual Fare is similar to a fast food joint during the day, they do offer full service dining during supper hours. If it’s anything like their original restaurant, I’m sure they’ll offer a great dinner experience for their patrons.

For a more in-depth look at the establishment’s involvement in the community and its efforts towards sustainability visit The Local Good to read my profile of Hoang Long Casual Fare.