Cade Mercer is a ramen novice, and he knows it. He made his first batch of ramen broth four weeks ago and then promptly threw it out, as well as the next one. They were both tonkotsu broth made with roasted pork bones as seen in a flurry of YouTube videos he studied to try and find his ramen footing. Then he watched a video where a whole pig head simmered away in the broth. What if he smoked the head first? As the former pitmaster at EastSide Tavern in Austin, he was now in more familiar territory. It was good, and he hoped he’d eaten enough ramen in his three-week crash course to know how good. Ready or not, the Koko Ramen truck opened in Waco a few weeks ago.
Really, it was a re-opening, hence the urgency. Reid Guess, owner and pitmaster of Waco’s Guess Family Barbecue, branched out with a ramen truck last year. The chef he hired to run it left, taking his recipes with him, in November. Guess needed to get the truck back on the road, so he turned to his old buddy Mercer, a former kitchen mate at Lambert’s in Austin. Mercer will help with the upcoming Guess Family Barbecue brick-and-mortar opening mid-year just a few blocks away from the trailer’s current spot, but the first order of business was Koko Ramen.
Mercer had to start somewhere, so he watched “hours and hours of Youtube videos, reading everything I could find online, and going to restaurants and eating it over the last few weeks.” It’s an education that doesn’t sound much different than that of many new barbecue cooks, and Mercer knows there’s still plenty of on-the-job training ahead. But after the smoked pig head breakthrough, he was confident enough to open things up behind the Dancing Bear Pub. The menu is compact with two ramen options, tonkotsu and miso, steamed bao buns, and beef lemongrass skewers.
Much like Mercer, I too am a ramen novice. I’ve sampled from only about a dozen spots in Dallas, Austin, and New York, but by no means am I an expert. It was an enjoyable bowl of ramen with a dense, salty broth and good noodles (from Sun Noodle). I loved the soft boiled egg and the grilled pork belly, but what drew me here (on just their eighth day of business) was that they’re using all the smoked brisket and pork rib leftovers from Guess Family Barbecue on the menu. The brisket is chilled, then sliced and grilled to order before topping the ramen or filling a bao bun. The pork rib meat is pulled from the bones and chopped for the bao as well. The mix of hoisin, cilantro, and thinly sliced raw jalapeño is a flavorful riff on pickles, onions, and barbecue sauce.
The brisket is mostly from the lean side. After chilling and grilling, it gets a little dry, and that’s OK because it’s going into a bowl of broth. It reminded me of a bowl of ramen I tasted at a pop-up featuring Franklin Barbecue brisket. Aaron Franklin sliced off thick cuts of fresh, fatty brisket for the ramen. The moist brisket, already soggy with fat, just got soggier in the broth. I ate every bite, but it kinda felt like a waste of great brisket. I was more comfortable with Koko Ramen’s creative upcycling of leftover brisket.
Because the brisket and ribs are leftovers, there’s a limit on them. “I’ve had enough leftovers to offer it for lunch and dinner this week,” Mercer said, but as popularity grows, they may have to switch to dinner only for the smoked meat toppings. With the Guess Family smoker at his disposal Mercer said to watch for more specials like smoked chicken curry and smoked pork belly ribs. He’s also working on a vegetarian mushroom broth as a third option for the ramen. Here’s hoping he smokes those mushrooms so I’ll have a good excuse to come back for another try.
1117 Speight Ave. (Behind Dancing Bear Pub)
Waco, TX 76706
Open Tues-Sat 11-2:30 & 5-10