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When the Stars Go Blue

Recently, I’ve been in the habit of watching Dave Portnoy’s pizza reviews. I don’t have any particularly strong feelings about the man, or about pizza for that matter, but one small detail I’ve picked up on is Portnoy’s begrudging realization that even something as seemingly ubiquitous and uniform as a slice of pizza is difficult to standardize in his rating system. In the course of his reviews, he’ll often look away from the camera and grapple with the acknowledgement that styles of pizza occupy parallel tracks. Not merely in the sense that there are now many varieties, having grown far past the old New York-Chicago style divide. In his sojourns, Portnoy has come to terms with the idea that the very context of pizza consumption impacts one’s expectations and the product’s desired traits.

The Ramen Snob has, to date, sought only one class of ramen: the best. The most elite, finely crafted holy water of America’s most talented rameneers. At times, the Snob has been lured and cajoled to sample the output of lesser venues. Ramen restaurants abound in the American suburbs and college towns. Frankly, this ramen is inferior, with no yet-identified exception. Lofty claims have been heard, only to be met with disappointment at each turn.

Still, a ramen worldview that regards only the most esteemed bowls as worthy of consumption must be conceded as overly myopic. The Snob will yield the high ground on this point. At times, at the right moment, when the stars go blue, an admittedly lesser product may strum the chords of the culinary soul as well or better than a trendy New York City izakaya.

The Snob was confronted by such conditions in Happy Valley, home of Penn State University. A cold, gray, drizzly day of lackluster football in State College has but one conceivable cure: a warm bowl of salty Japanese stew.

A college town presents a natural deviation from the norm for the Snob. I grew up in a college town. I went to a large state University and am keenly attuned to the features of college-town life, the moments of drudgery that demand that very precise meal to revitalize the will to go on. These are not foreign concepts to the Snob. Ramen never filled that role during my college days, but perhaps it’s time to revisit that omission and open the door to college town ramen as a distinct flavor, worthy of separate consideration.

With the primal need for a warm bowl of ramen identified, and expectations of what can be found in the heart of Pennsylvania sufficiently low, I conduct a quick Google search. One feature of my snobbery is a fierce competitiveness, and a Google review for Tadashi ramen produces a grinch-like smirk. “Hands down the best ramen I’ve ever had, and I’ve been around.” My glee is wretchedly arrogant. Challenge accepted.

The edifice itself is pretty much what one would expect. Basic, unimpressive storefront façade. No artfully hidden entrance or any of the usual flourishes. The interior is littered with the standard blonde-wood benches and an open kitchen. One promising note stands out however: a chalkboard sign indicating 24-hour aged stock.

A notable disconnect between promise and delivery

Ramen can be inadequate for many reasons, but the most pervasive is the failure to generate a suitably rich broth. Such a broth requires aging, which requires time and space that a low-margin business is going to be disinclined to supply, especially if they believe that their typical consumer will be indifferent to quality. By the same token, however the commercial space that would make such an enterprise viable is in greater, and cheaper, abundance in central Pennsylvania than in Manhattan. Thus, there’s an argument to be had that the suburbs could potentially hold an advantage over city ramen, provided that there was a consumer base that would reward a ramen shop for investing in aged stock. To that end, I opt for the Kuro Miso ramen, a less spicy option that would ordinarily be my preference, in order to sample the featured broth without the masking of heat.

Simplicity itself

First, however, we sample the pork buns. Pork buns are typically a high-floor/high-ceiling bao; they’re difficult to mess up completely, but there’s significant room to create a more evolved product. Tadashi’s pork buns fall closer to the former. There are no interesting flourishes, but the pork itself is the perfect level of tenderness, perhaps a bit fatty, and the absence of a unique compilation can be forgiven for meeting the foundational level of satisfaction. The use of an unflavored aioli (read: mayo) doesn’t help.

On to the ramen itself and the inevitable collision with elevated expectations. As promised, the aging of the broth is readily detectable. Unfortunately, the broth itself seems to be little more than a pork base, with no discernable seasoning or additions to add complexity, rendering it a very rich, very savory, pork water. The addition of black garlic oil to add to the ramen helps to perk up the base and add a bit of dimension, and the chili oil provided as a side helps to round out the flavor, complementing rather than overpowering the hearty base.

The noodles are likewise a letdown. They are the sort of medium-thickness variety I tend to like, but of the low-quality, bleached character that doesn’t allow the absorption and transference of broth, as though varnished with an invisible layer of impermeable film. The result is something akin to eating warm, wet, flavorless spaghetti.

Mind-bogglingly, the pork in the ramen is a notable downgrade from that in the buns. While the pork buns were tender and flavorful, the ramen pork is bland and overcooked. How this variation could have come about is behind the Snob’s substantial faculties, and it can only be assumed that Tadashi deliberately uses its inferior cuts of pork for the ramen in the hope that it will be disguised.

My companion offers her take on the vegetarian bowl. Vegetarian ramen is prone to somewhat comical efforts and is rarely executed gracefully. Tadashi has made the classic folly of stuffing theirs with spring mix, a uniquely unappetizing misunderstanding of the vegetarian ramen palate, but the sesame broth is rich and well-executed, and the other additions, bean sprouts and bamboo shoots, are more graceful supplements. Unfortunately, broccoli is also included in the hit-and-miss concoction, revealing an utter ambivalence to texture.

Someone put a salad in this bowl of ramen

Ultimately, the Snob’s first encounter with college ramen is ultimately satisfying for what it is. After a cold, fall gameday, who but a snob would take umbrage with the perfectly serviceable bowl of ramen in front of them. The final product is bland and a bit bewildering. Kind’ve like a Nittany Lion.

For snacks, Tadashi gets a 6.5/10: Solid fundamentals, but mostly unmemorable.

For broth, 5.5/10 as a gesture at higher order broth is ultimately undermined by its simplicity

For heat, N/A, not assessed.

For accoutrements 3.5/10, for an eclectic mix of agony and acceptability.

For overall experience 4/10: Generic college town ramen joint. Doesn’t serve alcohol, no indication whether BYO is permitted.

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