In Japan, ramen shops are like hair salons,” says Teiichi Sakurai, the proprietor of Dallas’s newest and quite possibly smallest ramen shop, Ten. “Everybody has a favorite—they always go there. Ramen shops are often next to each other. If you ask someone, ‘Why don’t you eat next door?’ they say, ‘I don’t like that one! I like this one!’ They keep going back to the same one again and again.” His point? In his home country, and increasingly in his adopted one, ramen is both a personal choice and a national obsession.
If anybody knows noodles, it’s 49-year-old Sakurai—universally called Teiich (pronounced “Teach”)—who is also the owner of an elegant soba noodle house named Tei-An in the Arts District. And if any local ramen shop has Japanese bona fides, it’s Ten, which is located in the new Sylvan Thirty retail and residential development in Oak Cliff. Situated across from Cox Farms Market (look for the red stairwell and the weathered-wood door), tiny Ten measures 750 square feet, and most of that is kitchen. There’s enough room for about fifteen people to stand at the three counters, and if you’re adept enough to hold your bowl in one hand and your spoon or chopsticks in the other, there’s more room outside.
Inside, there are usually several customers hovering around the common area. When one diner exits, the one who’s been waiting the longest—seldom more than twenty minutes—zips into the vacant space. It doesn’t take much time to read the menu, which is written on a wall-mounted blackboard and illustrated with charming drawings. There are only four ramen choices (plus a rice dish and a dry noodle dish) and nine garnishes. Many guests are ramen adepts and know exactly what they want, but if you don’t, the guys taking and making your order are good-humored about explaining everything. For instance, if you ask if the brown eggs in a basket on the counter are cooked, they say yes, the onsen, or hot-spring, eggs are cooked at exactly 162 degrees so they come out done but still runny, perfect for swirling into a steaming bowl of ramen. And if you order one, they gently crack it into your broth.
The space is industrial—corrugated metal outer walls—but also rustic, with counter fronts of, you guessed it, weathered wood. And may I interrupt myself here to observe that if you or I had been smart enough to buy futures in storm-blasted, mouse-gnawed lumber ten years ago, we would be gazillionaires now. But I digress. Oh, one more digression: Don’t do anything embarrassing. There’s a security system at Ten connected to a monitor at Tei-An, and Teiich might be watching. When I met him after lunch, a funny look came over his face. “You were in today with a man in an orange shirt!” he said. “That guy sure took a lot of pictures!”
But once your order comes out, your focus suddenly narrows to the square foot of counter in front of you. On our visit, Orange Shirt and I tried three types (at a reasonable $10 to $12 a bowl). The shōyu broth was a clear russet-brown, with a soy sauce base that was delicate but emphatic. It went well with the incredibly tender sous-vide-cooked, pan-seared pork belly known as chashu. For good measure, we added several condiments from a lineup that included sweet corn, spinach, and sansai (literally “mountain vegetables”). The tonkotsu broth, our second choice, surprised me at first because it was not the super-rich style that I’ve had in Austin, which comes from the lengthy boiling of marrow-filled pork bones. “I am not a big fan of thick broth,” Teiich told me, “so I thin it with chicken stock—that’s my style.” Even so, it’s milky white and hearty, which means that punchy pickled ginger and seaweed are both good additions to order. Kikurage (wood ear mushrooms) and menma (dried slices of pickled bamboo shoots) add a nice texture twist. And if you want a head-clearing garnish, help yourself to a clove of garlic from the bowl on the counter, grab the communal garlic press, and squeeze away.
After sampling an excellent rice bowl and a brothless noodle bowl topped with supposedly life-altering (but in fact quite ordinary) cubes of pan-fried pork jowl, we were beyond full. I was relieved there was no popular miso-based ramen offered, but I was curious to know why it wasn’t on the menu. When I asked Teiich, he laughed and said he was plenty busy already. “I’ll add it later,” he said. Made with the familiar fermented soybean paste that flavors so many Japanese dishes, this type doesn’t have the long history of other styles, but it has great flavor flexibility.
Later that day, I had plenty of time to talk ramen with Teiich, who was, conveniently, participating in a photo shoot for “The Great Summer Smokeout.” The first thing I wanted to find out about was the noodles. “We don’t make them,” he said. “Almost nobody does. Too hard.” Instead he gets them from Sun Noodle, which has outlets in California and New York. But he doesn’t buy just any noodle. The giant producer makes ramen to Teiich’s specifications for size (thinnish), waviness (medium), and bite (substantial, but not overly chewy). As I had observed at lunch, those specs were spot-on, which had resulted in my consuming far more noodles than I’d intended.
The next question I had was, Why a ramen shop? It was surprising for him, given that he’s so well-known for soba. He confessed that he is a serial restaurant opener, having previously launched Tei Tei and Teppo, each specializing in a form of grilling (he has since sold both). But what appealed to him most about ramen came from his memories of Tokyo in the seventies. “Japan was booming back then,” he said. “All the businessmen were so busy that they rarely had time for lunch.” When they did eat, it was often on the fly. “The idea of standing up and eating came from that period,” he concluded. To him, that unadorned, proto-fast-food style was synonymous with ramen. He thought the style would fit right in here too.
As we wrapped up, I had one final question. What is the meaning of “Ten”? Is it a lucky number in Japan? “No,” he said, “it means ‘heaven.’ ” Given what I had experienced earlier in the day, that made a lot of sense.
1818 Sylvan Ave, Dallas. L Tue–Fri & Sun. D Tue–Sun. $