Tony Lin, owner of Hana Sushi on Biltmore Avenue, is standing on the deck of what will eventually be Itto Ramen Bar & Tapas, his second Asheville restaurant, this one on Haywood Road in West Asheville, next door to Sunny Point Café.
Driving rain is thunderously pounding on the tin roof overhead, and there are stacks of equipment but no finished walls or furnishings visible through the window of the building (which he can’t access because he forgot his key). Construction delays have pushed the opening of Itto from March to optimistically mid-April. But nothing dampens Lin’s enthusiasm for the foundation of his new project: noodles.
Grinning from ear to ear, he proclaims, “I love noodles! I could eat noodles every single day.” In 2015, he says, he was inspired by a visit to a family member’s ramen restaurant during a trip to Japan. “It was so good. I decided I needed to open a ramen restaurant in Asheville, but the time wasn’t right,” he explains. “Then I found this building, and I think the time is right.”
Lin’s ramencentric restaurant is one of two scheduled to open in Asheville in 2019. Chef and restaurateur Michael Shortino will re-create his proven concept — Charlotte’s wildly popular Futo Buta — in the Biltmore Avenue building vacated late last year by Bartaco.
“I love Asheville. Any free time I’ve had in the past few years I drive up there from Charlotte. I’ve been looking for a space for years,” says Shortino, noting that he’s explored deals on three other potential locations that each took a year to fall apart. “Then I saw this spot, and we literally closed on the deal in two months. I had no idea it would happen so fast, so now I’m kind of behind the eight ball and scrambling.” He projects a late-summer opening date.
Ramen isn’t totally new to Asheville. Ben’s Tune-Up, the sake brewery and beer garden that opened in 2013 in a former auto shop on the South Slope, snags the credit for being the local house-made ramen pioneer.
Chef Dai Sugimoto, owner of Heiwa Shokudo for the last 10 years of its nearly 30 years in business, gives Ben’s props for his dive into the dish. “I heard that Ben’s Tune-Up was serving ramen, and people liked it so I decided to try it,” he says.
Four years ago, he added three ramens to his extensive menu. The Heiwa, spicy miso and tonkatsu ramens did so well, he recently added two more — Ramen Black and Flaming Hot ramen. All start with his eight-hour pork/chicken/seafood-based broth, with the exception of the vegan ramen he offers as a special. Pork belly is the most requested add-in.
Gan Shan Station also started small, testing the ramen waters with two varieties at its flagship Charlotte Street location, also about four years ago. “When we first opened Gan Shan Station, we had a vegetable and a pork ramen,” says chef/owner Patrick O’Cain, sitting in a booth at Gan Shan West.
“I’ve always been of the mind, though, that in order to do ramen really well, you have to have a restaurant focused on that. My direction in the food for Gan Shan Station was not that,” he says. So when he opened Gan Shan West, he pared down the ramen offerings at Gan Shan Station and focused on ramen at the new location.
Gan Shan Station now has only one ramen on the lunch and dinner menus, while Gan Shan West just added a fifth. The recently debuted tantanmen ramen brings together multiple flavors and textures in one bountiful bowl: 24-hour tsukemen-style pork broth with sesame paste, Chinese broad bean paste, fermented soybeans with chilis, pickled bamboo shoot, julienned mustard greens, scallions, mapo pork (Szechuan-style ground pork), a soft egg and wavy wheat noodles, garnished with black sesame seeds. “It’s rich and nutty and very textural,” says O’Cain, pulling a tangle of noodles from the broth.
Lin intends to have eight ramens on the Itto menu, as well as Japanese tapas, all from an open kitchen. Not surprisingly for the noodle devotee, Itto’s noodles will be made in-house. “I like the local feel in West Asheville,” he says. “We have our own parking, and it’s a neighborhood where people walk. To be next to Sunny Point Café is great. Downtown is good for Hana, but with rents, traffic and parking, it’s too scary to take a chance on opening a business downtown now.”
Shortino isn’t concerned about Futo Buta’s downtown address, a few doors down from The Orange Peel and a bit removed from peak congestion areas. “When I do my restaurants, I look for a great location in a unique building in a cool area,” he says. “This fit all of that. The menu here will be almost identical to the Charlotte menu.”
That includes a selection of izakaya (appetizers), buns, small rice bowls and seven daily ramens, as well as a seasonal iteration. The ramen will be served in bowls made especially for the restaurant by North Carolina potter William Baker.
Futo Buta diners will want to check the small print bracketed in the menu’s ramen section that warns “no substitutions.” “Everybody wants to add this, take out that, put this on the side,” Shortino says with a laugh. “I’m just trying to keep it fundamental. People are OK with it. The one thing some people get a little upset about is when they want a gluten-free noodle. That’s a rice noodle, and that’s pho. We don’t do pho. Futo Buta is a ramen restaurant. It’s ramen for a reason.” (Clearly, a motto meant for a T-shirt.)
On the other hand, chef Camp Boswell says what he and his wife, Teah, are doing with The Broth Shop is “ramen-ish.”
“We are not a traditional ramen shop,” he explains. “I’ve taken some of the fundamentals of ramen, traditional techniques of making ramen, but leaving it wide open for innovation and creativity to make it our own.”
Currently, The Broth Shop is doing monthly pop-ups as the owners secure financing for a brick-and-mortar space. “When we have a permanent location, our vision is counter service, fast casual, with very high-end execution and quality ingredients,” says Boswell.
The pair initially used the name The Brothel but changed it when it was suggested it could be hurtful or offensive. “We want everything to be positive,” he says.
The pop-ups sell out quickly (follow The Broth Shop on Instagram for information and tickets), bolstering the case that Asheville is ripe for ramen.
Lin is sure of it. “Ramen is the soul food of Japan,” he says. “No one says no to noodles.”