For several months, we've heard that Houston finally has a source for an outstanding bowl of ramen. Foodie friends have been raving about Tiger Den, located in Chinatown on Bellaire near the Beltway. According to those we trust, no longer is a trip to Austin's Ramen Tatsu-Ya necessary for a great bowl of ramen.

So, on a recent Saturday afternoon, a break in the dreary March weather prompted us to venture down to investigate. Robert Frasier, a good friend who's a serious cook and a very knowledgable foodie was in the mood to take his lime green Jeep out for a spin, so a plan was hatched. The outing combined three of our favorite things: Driving on a gorgeous day, interesting food, and good friends.

The drive down to Chinatown was swift; when you're in a brightly colored, tricked out Jeep, people stay out of your way. By the time we pulled into Dun Huang Plaza, night had just fallen. The magic of Houston's Chinatown was in full force - the colorful neon would not be out of place in Japan. High performance cars were circulating in the parking lot, seeking out the elusive empty spaces, but our driver's neon green Jeep wasn't to be trifled with, and we secured a spot near the restaurant.

Walking up, we were greeted by a packed sidewalk, and the sign-up sheet for tables taped to a window. Adding our party, we surveyed the crowd. Mixed in age, we saw couples and groups, and several large families waiting patiently for their names to be called. After about 30 minutes, it was our turn, and we were led into the bustling dining room. Seating was tight - booths lined the walls, a bar faced the open kitchen, and a large communal table was situated under the retro-tastic 70's light fixtures.

Looking into the kitchen, the well coordinated staff was in high gear amid the steam and smoke from the food being prepared. The energy level in the kitchen was tremendous; Tiger Den is a well oiled machine.

After packing into our snug booth, it was time to order. We had come prepared. We'd gotten expert guidance from Lex Nguyen, owner of the superlative Nguyen Ngo 2 banh mi shop, and one of the most knowledgable people I know about Asian cuisine. Lex had given us a slate of recommendations, and we followed his list religiously.

First up was the Beef Tongue Yakitori. Thinly sliced tongue, perfectly grilled, served with shredded green onions and spicy mustard. The texture was slightly chewy and the combined flavors of the beef, onions and mustard were very good.

Next up was a dish that really wowed us. Roasted Brussels sprouts, cooked in a salty/sweet/spicy chili sauce. These are easily the best Brussels sprouts I've ever tasted, from the slightly crunchy texture to the complex flavors imparted by the chili sauce. As a kid, I hated the boiled Brussels sprouts my mom would serve, but had mom prepared these, I might have been be a vegan today.

Next up is the main event, the ramen. Lex suggested going straight for the spicy Miso Ramen. It's a traditional tonkatsu ramen, with the flavor turned up by the addition of a spicy miso paste. The technique is a savvy one; in some cases, miso ramen can end up far too salty as it simmers for hours; Tiger Den's approach of adding the miso just before serving is an inspired one.

(Photo Credit: Robert Frasier)

The result is a rich, satisfying broth, with powerful umami and complex layers of flavor. The spicy miso adds just a touch of heat; it's no where near the sort of weapons grade heat that can be found in some Asian dishes, but rather complements the flavors of the rich fatty pork, the firm, flavorful wood-ear mushrooms, and the fresh, zesty vegetables.  Hits of ginger and garlic added more layers and complexity.

Going beyond the broth, ramen is all about the noodles, and Tiger Den's do not disappoint. Instead of ordering from New York's Sun Noodles, as many top ramen shops do, Tiger Den goes the extra step of making their noodles in house, just as Houston's top Italian restaurants do. This unexpected touch delivered a superlative Hakata noodle - al dente, slightly chewy, with great mouthfeel and a rough surface that causes the broth to cling and bring the complex flavor along for the ride.

The lively conversation at the table stopped as we each devoured our ramen, alternating between relatively delicate bites of the pork and vegetables, sips of the addictive broth, and slurps of the superlative noodles.

After devouring the ramen, one of Lex's recommendations remained. Fresh donuts with Pandan cream. The donuts were quarter-sized chunks of fluffy, flaky fried dough, deceptively light, and the bright green pandan cream was sweet, smooth, and rich, the perfect finish to a delicious meal.

We're very happy to report that Tiger Den lives up to it's lofty reputation. The lines at the door are the direct result of the well-choreographed kitchen's outstanding work.

If you're looking for ramen in Houston, look no further.

Tiger Den | 9889 Bellaire Blvd | Houston TX 77036 | 832-804-7755

Tiger Den on Urbanspoon

The Woodlands is surrounded by small towns and somewhat rural areas, and the influx of people to the area is causing the entire region to develop. A case in point is Umami, a newish Korean restaurant located in Magnolia, which is the town to the immediate northwest of the Woodlands.

Located in a nondescript strip center on Highway 1488, from the street Umami looks like a generically disappointing Chinese buffet. But a tip from a trusted friend (Thanks, Michael) sent us to check out the Korean cuisine offered by this family-run place.
Pulling into the center, we were greeted by a behemoth of a sign, which we later found out was left over from a previous incarnation of the restaurant. It's big, it's brash, and it doesn't bode well for what's inside.
One thing the sign accurately coveys is the size of the restaurant. It's big, taking up the entire building. Heading inside, we walked through a small foyer into the restaurant proper, and were surprised by what we found.

The decidedly upscale interior is warm and inviting, and a total surprise based on the exterior of the restaurant. We were looking forward to see if the food followed this trend. We asked the server what he recommended, and he immediately suggested the bulgogi bento box, a cross-cultural combination of the Korean beef dish juxtaposed into a typical Japanese lunch combination.
What quickly appeared was a nice portion of flavorful, thinly sliced beef, marinated and seasoned gently in the traditional style. The beef was very tender and fresh; this is one of the better versions of bulgogi we've found away from Long Point road. The fried rice had a nice savory bite to it, and the de rigueur California roll was a bit better than expected.
All in all, we were pleasantly surprised by Umami. The ambiance far exceeds the low expectations set by the outside of the establishment, and the very good Korean food will earn it a regular spot on our Asian food rotation.
Umami | 6960 Fm 1488, Magnolia, TX 77354 | (832) 934-2649 |

Umami Grill and Sushi on Urbanspoon

Lately Houston has been the recipient of some notable Austin imports.  On the moderate end, the insanely popular Torchy's Tacos opened their first Houston location to rave reports from diners.  Today we were fortunate enough to take a look at an even more exciting Austin import.

Uchi, the modern Japanese restaurant building a national reputation for its innovative takes on sushi and other Japanese dishes, has opened a Houston outpost.  Located in the old Felix Mexican Restaurant location on inner Westheimer, the team from Uchi has converted a revered house of Tex-Mex into a lovely and serene Japanese dining experience.  How does the innovative cuisine of chef Tyson Cole survive the trip down Highway 290?  We wanted to find out.

We were invited to sample several of their dishes at a recent media dinner, and while this isn't a formal review, we wanted to share our impressions.

Approaching the building, we noticed how the new building doesn't eradicate the old architecture of Felix's, but rather pays homage to it.  The iconic curved windows remain, and their shape is echoed in the striking new entryway.  The result is urban and modern, but with respect for the past, a theme that was echoed throughout the evening.

Entering the restaurant, we were startled at the transformation.  Gone was the Felix experience, and in its place was a stylishly rustic Japanese setting, with clever details everywhere we looked.  One of our favorites was a large communal table, handmade in Austin and lovingly assembled.

With this much attention and respect paid to the setting, we couldn't wait to sample Tyson Cole's food.  Before being served, we browsed the traditional preparation area, and took in the mouth-watering displays of fresh fish and other ingredients, all under the watchful eye of Uchi's kitchen staff.

Watching these masters wield their tako hiki and santoku was like watching surgeons at work.  The speed and precision evident in their work was remarkable.

For this media dinner, small plates were passed by the attentive but unobtrusive staff, who were happy to answer any questions.  Chef Cole circulated from time to time, delivering food himself and anxious to hear feedback from patrons.

First up was a cooked dish - bacon sen.  Consisting of grilled pork belly, green onion, fish caramel, and bonito flakes, the result was a very restrained take on pork belly.  Instead of the often overwhelming richness from this fatty cut of pork, the dish had a solid pork flavor, still rich but balanced by the sweetness of the caramel and the subtle crunch of the bonito flakes.

Next was our first bite of Chef Cole's sushi.  Called machi cure, it begins with smoked baby yellowtail, presented on a small plank of edible yucca crisp, asian pear, marcona almond, and accented with garlic brittle.  This dish was genius.  The essence of the sea brought forth by the impeccably fresh yellowtail was firm without being chewy, and offset by the crunch of the yucca and the subtle snap of the almond.  The flavors danced on the tongue - the rich tuna, the sharp garlic, the tang of the pear, the earthiness of the almond.  The result was spectacular, and speaks to Cole's ability to balance flavor and texture while not compromising on the jewel-like presentation.

Another highlight was the playfully named Jar Jar Duck.  Presented in a lever-sealed Mason jar, opening this clever package released a waft of rosemary-infused smoky duck essence.  Digging into the jar revealed thinly sliced sweet kumquats, pickled endives, thinly sliced bits of roast duck, and crunchy duck cracklins.  Again, the attention to detail is remarkable: The duck is layered so that the milder white meat is below the richer dark meat, so the heavy, flavorful juices marinate the breast meat.  This dish evokes the cleverness of Grant Achatz at his best while leaving behind the fussiness that turns food into performance art.  Again, it's about balance, and Tyson Cole pulls it off masterfully.

We sampled several other dishes that we thoroughly enjoyed, with interesting ingredients like flash-fried kale, toasted milk, and espelette, a mild French pepper not typically associated with Japanese cooking.  This medling of ingredients brings a distinctively modern feel to Cole's Japanese cuisine.  The respect for the past is evident, but the vision is through a distinctively modern lens.  We're excited about Uchi, and we look forward to seeing what other delights Tyson Cole and his talented staff have in store.

(Other views on the event, from Almost Veggie HoustonCultureMapDr. Ricky and Hank on Food.)

 Uchi | 904 Westheimer | Houston 77006 | 713-522-4808 |

Uchi on Urbanspoon

Flat Out Crazy Restaurant Group has leased 5,821 square feet at 25 Waterway Avenue, located on the southwest corner of Lake Robbins Drive and Waterway Avenue, for Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill, according to Dan Leverett, vice president of commercial for The Woodlands Development Company. This will be the first Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill in Texas. It is expected to open in May.

Stir Crazy is a full-service Asian restaurant that offers a diverse menu of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese food. The Asian fare is served in a fun, vibrant atmosphere with a focus on fresh, quality ingredients and bold flavors to deliver a truly unique casual dining experience for its guests. Prepared from scratch with no added MSG and minimal oil, Stir Crazy’s menu features more than 65 “mouth-watering” appetizers, entrees, desserts and its popular Market Bar, where diners can create their own Stir Crazy wok-tossed dish from more than 20 fresh ingredients and eight sauces.

A Stir Crazy highlight is the full-service bar featuring an extensive drink menu with a list of 35 quality and award-winning wines available by the glass or bottle. Beer, sake and several signature drinks are also available.

The restaurant will also include a large, outdoor patio.

"We are truly delighted that Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill will have its first new location in 2011 built at Waterway Square in The Woodlands, Texas," said Greg Carey, president and COO of Flat Out Crazy Restaurant Group. "The entire community of The Woodlands has such a beautiful, upbeat, yet relaxed feel to it that we couldn't think of a more perfect place to open our first Texas restaurant. Stir Crazy is about fresh, quality, upscale casual dining and we think the residents of The Woodlands will agree that Stir Crazy is a great fit."

Flat Out Crazy operates 30 restaurants in eight states – Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, New York, Missouri and Wisconsin - consisting of 14 Stir Crazy locations and 16 FlatTop Grill locations. For more information, visit

(Via Talk of the Woodlands)
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