Ramen bars, while popular in many parts of the country, are a relative newcomer to the Central Arkansas dining scene.
A few years ago, Oki Sutanto turned his Two Brothers Hibachi food truck into Aji Ramen Bar, in the mall where West Markham Street meets Shackleford Road.
Now he’s opened a sibling, or maybe a cousin: Goku Ramen Bar in Maumelle, in the former Pizza House space in a two-sided strip mall off Maumelle Boulevard. (It’s actually on Savannah Street as you negotiate the off-street maze of Maumelle strip malls.)
Sutanto told us that the two establishments would have similar menus, but because they have different chefs, customers should expect the flavors of many of the same dishes to be different. It’s been a while since we last visited Aji so can’t speak to that directly, but we enjoyed ourselves and can recommend what we had here.
Unlike Aji, which is in a storefront in the middle of a strip of storefronts, Goku is on a corner with windows on two sides that make the relatively small space light and inviting. The exterior has small see-through posterettes above the windows touting the charms of ramen (for example, “Eat Ramen N’ Stay Cool”). The interior, with seating for perhaps 50 patrons at cafeteria-style tables, composite-topped tables and modest chairs with some bar seats along one wall, also features a large Japanese-themed mural with a rather dissonant element (an image of a Jack Daniels bottle, no less unusual as the restaurant is only licensed to sell sake and beer).
A helpful Goku employee hands customers a laminated menu as they enter; a menu board on the left side of the counter makes it easier to see what’s available, although no prices are listed. (A note at the bottom of the printed menu states that “Prices are subject to change without notice and do not include tax.”) Order at the counter, receive a number and a liquor or beverage glass (beer and bottled Japanese drinks there, the soda machine and iced tea on the side) and sit down; food comes out of the kitchen hot and remarkably fast.
Goku’s main attraction is its three types of broth-based ramen – Tonkatsu (pork soup base), Shoyu (chicken soup base), and vegetables – plus a no-broth option. They all contain al dente ramen noodles, chopped green onions, half a medium-boiled egg, cabbage, and corn. You choose a protein topping – shrimp ($13.02); stewed pork, chicken fillet. Karaage (big nuggets of fried chicken) or veggies and tofu ($12.56 each). Can’t quite choose? Get a two-top combo ($15.07) or “tripple combo” ($19.64).
We thought the yellowish broth in our Tonkatsu Ramen, which we got with three generous slices of braised pork, was a bit on the sweet side, but it was fairly rich. It was certainly plentiful and we left noodles.
Also plentiful and rich, though perhaps not quite as sweet, was our Shoyu Ramen, which we got with half a dozen medium, plump, firm cooked prawns. Perhaps because we ordered appetizers, we had enough left over this time to take home about a third of the broth, noodles, and accoutrements in a foam cup, where it made a pretty good late afternoon snack.
Most side dishes are ramen-bowl components, so we imagine you could build your own bowl, including or omitting the ingredients you like or just don’t want — soup bases are $4.12 each; protein pork costs $4.11, five pieces of shrimp $5.71, chicken breast $4.11. Fried chicken karaage is $5.71, egg $2.77; green onions, cabbage, and corn are all listed for $1.83; you can also add sliced black mushrooms ($2.52) and steamed broccoli ($2.29).
The broccoli is one of the components in the five rice bowls ($10.74 with chicken breast, pork, karaage, vegetable tofu; $11.65 with shrimp), along with green onion, “rice bowl sauce” (apparently a teriyaki), and sesame seeds .
Eight of Goku’s 11 bites are fried; we tried a few. Presumably you’ll get a larger portion of Chicken Karaage if you order it as an appetizer ($8.25) than as a side dish; it comes with a cup of orange Yummy Mayo (their name, not ours, $1.36 a la carte), which complemented but didn’t necessarily enhance the chicken. And while the menu said we expected six crispy dumplings when we ordered the Gyoza appetizer ($7.54), we actually got seven. They were relatively light and came with a nice soy garlic dipping sauce.
We also enjoyed two non-fried options. We got a decent portion of Edamame ($5.71), lightly cooked soybeans in the shell; the “road salt” the menu mentioned was only applied to a few beans, but we’re not big salt fans, so it worked for us.
And the piece de resistance: the Goku Steam Bun ($6.85), two pieces of steamed dough half-wrapped, taco-style, choice of pork, chicken, shrimp, or tofu topped with Japanese mayonnaise, a teriyaki-like “bun sauce,” https://news.google.com/__i/rss/rd/articles/”green leaf” and chopped green onion. We’ve come across this item here and there before, and it compares favorably to the version we enjoyed from the late, lamented Southern Gourmasian. We got ours with pork, which was fairly tender. As with tacos, there is always a risk that something will fall out of the bun, which of course we solved with our chopsticks (forks are available).
Goku’s staff are helpful and pleasant, clearing vacant tables with amazing speed. We were surprised that the restaurant was busy in the last hour before closing on a Saturday afternoon and practically empty at peak Friday lunchtime.
Goku Ramen bar
- Address: 1900 Club Manor Drive, Maumelle
- Opening hours: Monday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
- Kitchen: Japanese (ramen, teriyaki rice bowls, starters)
- Credit Cards: V, MC, AE, D
- Alcoholic beverages: Sake and beer
- Wheelchair access: Yes
- Information: (501) 734-8064| facebook.com/profile.php?id=100086698052326