Editor's Note: The following is The Big Spoon, an opinion column on San Antonio's food and drink scene.
Nine years after lauded chef David Chang opened Momofuku in New York City’s Bowery neighborhood, San Antonio was blessed with its first honest-to-goodness noodle shop. There had been chances to try ramen previously, of course. Fujiya had ramen on their menu long before then, as did Niki’s Tokyo Inn, and home cooks could visit Tokyo Mart for their ramen-making needs.
But the ramen craze truly hit San Antonio in 2013 with the opening of Kimura, chef Michael Sohocki’s second restaurant on Pecan Street. The James Beard semifinalist had billed the restaurant as a noodle shop with handmade noodles, but the slurpin’ fervor was fierce and long wait times led to a temporary shut down so the staff could keep their heads above (boiling) water.
The Granary’s bowl o’ noodles followed, as did Hot Joy’s ramen offering in 2014. In 2018, ramen can be found in just about every quarter of the city. There’s Wild Goji on Blanco and 410; Suck It The Restaurant off Louis Pasteur in the Medical Center; Nama Ramen holds court off Babcock and DeZavala; Ito Ramen packs in noodle lovers on Blanco and West; and the noodles stretch all the way to Selma, where Ginza Ramen and Poke recently opened. And there’s Tenko Ramen inside the Pearl’s Bottling Department Food Hall, which celebrates its first year of business this week.
Tenko, named after a mythical multi-tailed fox and owned by business partners Jennifer Dobbertin and chef Quealy Watson started out as a pop-up in September 2016. Watson’s reputation as opening chef at Hot Joy preceded him and the turn-out for the weekly pop-ups was jaw-dropping. Imagine several hundred noodle lovers patiently waiting to score a bowl.
But the general San Antonio public didn’t have to imagine for long because when Tenko opened inside the Bottling Department, the lines were almost as long. And so in the dead heat of summer in South Texas, Tenko opened to tons of fans that ranged from noodle newbs to ramen professors ready to espouse on Tenko’s authenticity or lack thereof.
Still, the biggest criticism that ramen shops draw is based on their price. Now, James Beard-award winner Chang can charge whatever he wants for his NYC noodles. The going rate is the high teens ($18) for lunchtime pork ramen with pork belly, pork shoulder and a poached egg.
So it’s awkward when a $10 bowl of Tokyo shoyu at Tenko (or really any local ramen shop) gets hit with comments like “The food is expensive and over hyped,” “The reason for 4 stars is that it’s really expensive, and finding a seat is a nightmare,” “I also think it was a little expensive at $10 for the portion size that you receive,” “Expensive too, especially if you’re throwing it away,” “Tenko Ramen was fairly priced; however, the quality of the ramen wasn’t worth the price,” “It was way over priced for its quality,” “Prices weren’t up to the quality unfortunately, but I guess that’s the cost of convenience?,” “But the ramen is only average for an above average price,” “I thought for the price it didn’t come with a whole lot.” And that’s just a small selection from Yelp.
Yes, add-ons range from 50 cents for menma (fermented bamboo shoots) and sesame garlic paste to $3.50 for chashu pork, but the prices are on par with what’s available in San Antonio. Kimura’s prices start at $8 for miso, and go up to $14 for pork belly-topped tonkotsu; Nama keeps everyone happy with $9.75 shoyu and $10.50 spicy miso; Wild Goji hovers at $12 and $13; Ito’s bowls are priced between $10.99 and $12.99.
“One of the questions we get most often is, ‘What ramen should I order that will taste like my Cup of Noodles?’” Dobbertin said.
This isn’t your dorm room. This isn’t Cup of Noodles. So it stands to reason that prices will reflect that.
Earlier this year, when I spoke to Dobbertin about the promotions restaurants set up to draw in customers (like the Bottling Department’s day-long happy hour on Mondays), she shared labor costs are what takes up a sizable portion of Tenko’s budget.
“We pay our staff a living wage that’s above market, and ramen is priced based on San Antonio and Austin and where we can stay open,” Dobbertin said.
For Watson, the labor costs (which sit just under 40 percent) mean Tenko doesn’t have to streamline production all the way down to the broth. This means the unctuousness comes from the broken down femurs that are sledgehammered to produce that rich marrow. This means production is a 24-hour process.
An overnight crew (one on weekdays, two on weekends) clocks in at 9 p.m. and works through 5 a.m. cutting green onions, pickling mushrooms, prepping tares, peeling hardboiled eggs, making sauces and cleaning before the morning crew checks in at 8 a.m.
I shadowed the morning crew this past Thursday as they worked their way throughout the small Tenko kitchen (roughly 96 square feet). Laura Limon and Loy Smoak finished off the broths with ginger, onions and apples; drained the massive pots into 22-quart plastic bins; scrubbed the pots and started on the broths for the following day by noon. Eggs are cut, chicken is fried, chasu is pulled off the sous vide machine and sliced — all while working the line as orders come in. By 4 p.m. the night crew rolls in to finish the chasu, clean and start the process all over again.
Because of Tenko’s processes, they’re the only restaurant in the food hall to have a staff member on-site throughout the day.
If it’s a good week, labor evens out to the usual 25 to 30 percent. A slow week (see: rain or extreme heat) could mean a hike of up to 10 percent in labor costs and, as Dobbertin puts it, “We just can’t fire three employees.”
Comparing San Antonio shops to ramen shops in Japan is silly. This isn’t to argue authenticity, but labor and food costs can be lowered when most Japanese shops only make one or two broths.
Americans love their options: vegan, chicken-only, and Tenko’s also considering adding gluten-free zucchini noodles to the mix.
When trying to price out a ramen, it’s worth noting that flash frozen noodles cost 62 cents a pop (collectively, Tenko has spent $40,000 on noodles alone this year), and a staff member is tasked with unfurling the noodles, heating and shaping them into a picture-perfect swirl. That’s when the pasta boiler isn’t broken. “We just spent $500 servicing it,” Dobbertin said. “It costs money to run a restaurant.”
But in Yelp/Facebook/Google pages across the city, price will continue to come up in regards to ramen. At last year’s Ramen Expo in Austin (the event is heading to Dallas this October), several Japanese producers lined a small convention center on the outskirts of town with all manner of bowls, chop sticks, clayware, and pre-made foods that would essentially streamline any ramen shop with broth concentrates and manufactured tare.
The results are similar, but the 18-hour process at Tenko, at Kimura, at Ito and at the ramen shops across town serve to create comforting bowls of rich broth, and we shouldn’t want these owners to trim costs for the benefit of our bank accounts.
“We’re not rolling in ramen money and laughing all the way to the bank because we’re giving you instant noodles,” Dobbertin said.
And they shouldn’t have to cheapen their process for San Antonio diners to stop bemoaning the price.
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