Thursday, May 3, 2012 | 6 p.m.
Ramen is a crazy obsession in other parts of the world. It’s a food with a rich history: Porridge gets made from fermented soybeans in China, 300-400 B.C.; Chinese-style noodle soup becomes popular in Japan, early 1900s; post-war food shortages prompt the U.S. to give wheat to Japan, increasing noodle production, 1940s; Cup o’ Noodles introduced, unfortunately, 1970s.
That’s the world. In Las Vegas, the concept of ramen as anything other than instant noodles in MSG-laden broth basically began with the opening of Monta on Spring Mountain Road, just two years ago. It is wonderful. Monta’s Kurume-style ramen, with tonkotsu broth made thick and rich from boiling pork bones forever, is one of the best and cheapest meals in Vegas.
Edgier food cities than ours have a greater appetite for ramen and therefore a greater variety of ramen shops. You can find ramen on the menu at several Japanese eateries in the Chinatown area, but the only other spot I’ve found that’s truly dedicated is the new Ramen Sora, which had its grand opening in February. It, too, is wonderful.
- Ramen Sora
The soup here is lighter than at Monta. Sora serves its own signature version of tonkotsu ($10), decorated with tender slices of roasted pork, green onions and a soft-cooked egg. Though the broth isn’t as thick and milky as Monta’s, there are greater notes of ginger and garlic amid the pork. The overall lightness is due to Sora’s focus on Sapporo-style, the northern Japanese birthplace of miso (fermented bean paste) ramen. Also, Sora serves shio, and Monta doesn’t. Literally meaning “salt,” shio ($7.50) looks and tastes lighter, without soy in the soup base but with tons of umami built on a reduction of dried seafood and seaweed. It tastes clean and pure.
The noodles at Sora are more firm and chewy, and tender menma (bamboo shoots) are a more prominent complement, which you can order spiced up with a variety of peppers for about a dollar more. I wouldn’t say the food at Sora is better than Monta, it’s just different. But Sora takes the prize when it comes to gyoza ($3.75), savory, pillowy pork-and-onion dumplings. They are shiny and a little oily, lightly fried for a perfect crisp-chew. You should get a couple orders.
The only bad thing about Monta is that it has been discovered; its tiny dining room is always packed. The last time I tried to sneak in for a bowl, I watched sadly as several taxicabs dropped savvy tourists to eat at our little local ramen shop. Ramen Sora is not yet bogged down by the masses, but it could happen. It’s very comfortable, though still small, with black-finished tables and benches and ’80s power ballads playing overhead. And the service is exceedingly friendly, which is great, though I would tolerate quite a bit of rudeness in exchange for their gyoza.
This story first appeared in Sun sister publication Las Vegas Weekly.