Remember the episode of Portlandia in which the characters ignore their server's warning at the ramen restaurant not to combine the noodles and broth in the refrigerator, and the noodles come to life and wreak havoc on the city? The dénouement of the episode includes a scene where one character has to save her husband, who has been eaten by the formidable-yet-tasty noodle monster, by slurping down the entire monster in one sitting.
Likely you'd have no qualms participating in a gut-busting conclusion like this if the ramen in question came from Jinya Ramen Bar, now serving up ultra-slurpable strands in Thornton Park.
Jinya Ramen Bar is a Los Angeles-based chain, and the Thornton Park location (the only one in Florida) is just one of 28 locations nationwide. Because of this, the place works like a well-oiled machine. Food comes out fast and furious, and piping hot, as soup should. Decor is minimalist and slick and the restaurant layout makes sense, with a long bar up front, as well as individual tables and a long, communal, family-style table in the center. The only downside to this table: no purse hooks on the underside – if all seats are taken, the floor is your only option for a handbag. [Ed. note: Lack of purse hooks constitutes a terrorist act, IMO.]
Upon entering, you'll be greeted with the Jinya version of "Welcome to Moe's!" The host announces your arrival with a hearty "Irrashai!" (short for irrashaimase, or "welcome" in Japanese) and the rest of the employees respond with the same word in unison. When I asked about the ritual, one server explained that they have to sometimes temper the call-and-response: Once, the servers were so boisterous a guest dropped her drink in surprise.
When I visited, we were seated at the long communal table – luckily there was a vacant seat next to me where I could put my bag – to peruse the menu, which is long on items and short on description. A pro tip: Check out the menu online first. There are pictures.
We started with the pork chashu and kimchi mini tacos ($5.95), which came two to an order. They were perfect two-bite morsels, with sticky, glazed pork and just the right amount of bright, spicy kimchi. The wonton wrapper was perfectly flash-fried without a hint of greasiness. Next, we couldn't resist the takoyaki appetizer ($7.95), which I'll be coming back for again and again. The six golf-ball-sized octopus fritters were steaming hot and crisp on the outside, with pleasantly pillow-like centers. I didn't even mind that the octopus was a little chewy – it was a nice foil for the creamy filling. These came in pools of Kewpie mayo, okonomiyaki sauce (oyster sauce dressed up with ketchup and Worcestershire) and topped with quivering smoked bonito flakes.
I couldn't resist ordering one of my favorite comfort foods, Tokyo curry rice ($5.75), which my college roommate used to make on particularly cold Utah days. The curry half of the dish was saucy, stewy perfection, and brought back a flood of memories. It was a shame, though, that the short-grain rice was so undercooked as to be just short of inedible.
For the noodles, I chose the signature Jinya Tonkotsu Black ramen ($12.95) and my dining partner chose a chef specialty: the Goku Midnight ($17.95). We both agreed that my choice was more delicious, with a flavorful pork broth accented by a slick of unctuous fat that left a perfect gloss on my lips.
Inside the bowl, thin ramen noodles swam with nori sheets, tender seared pork belly, a whole seasoned egg, kikurage seaweed and fried garlic. There was a little blob of "spicy sauce" which, I have a hunch, was gochujang, and when mixed in, provided the perfect amount of heat.
The Goku Midnight ramen was just as filling, but less complex and exciting. What was fabulous about it was the gigantic slab of smoked, sliced beef brisket lying in the pool of broth. It was flanked – see what I did there? – with half a seasoned egg, a pile of fresh scallions, bean sprouts and kikurage seaweed. It was a bold effort, and the amount of meat certainly accounted for the price difference, but the broth of the tonkotsu ramen was superior.
By the time we'd ceremoniously feasted on the toppings and slurped down the noodles – we forewent the $2.50 kaedama noodle refill on offer – we were rubbing our distended Buddha bellies, but we ordered dessert anyway. The mochi ice cream ($3.95 per flavor; choose from chocolate, matcha or strawberry) is bought in, but the vanilla panna cotta ($3.95) is made in-house. The flavor of the caramel-topped dessert was lovely and delicate, which was appreciated after the onslaught of flavors we'd taken on for dinner. The only downfall was that there was far too much gelatin in the custard, so there was none of the signature wobble of a well-made panna cotta.
For those of you thumbing your nose at a chain, hold up. There's plenty to like at Jinya Ramen Bar, and there's much to be said for tried-and-true. When I first heard a ramen resto was on its way back to Summerlin Avenue after the demise of Greg Richie's Baoery, which was located just a few doors down, I was skeptical. But if a noodle shop is going to make it in the spot where others failed, there's no reason Jinya shouldn't succeed.