Food lovers who live (and eat) vicariously through Instagram can often pick up on certain trends that worm their way through the major hubs of restaurant and food culture. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about how the Cronut still has a stranglehold on the sidewalk lines of NYC, or which piece of $12 avocado toast is the best in Los Angeles, because I’m still too busy eating Cookout trays and drinking Cheerwine like a good ol’ NC boy. That doesn’t mean that I don’t pay attention: one craze that has already come and gone to the big cities is ramen, and I think the Triangle area is just about due for an obsession with this steamy bowl of Japanese comfort.
Ahead of the game is Dashi, a combination ramen shop and izakaya (Japanese pub) that opened in 2015, and one of the few places available for a Triangle foodie to crush a good bowl of noodle soup. Located in the heart of Durham near DPAC and headed by some of the best minds behind local sandwich favorite Toast, Dashi offers two spaces in which to enjoy Japanese fare cooked with North Carolina’s bounty.
The downstairs ‘Ramen Shop’ opens for lunch and dinner until 10:30 PM and offers their various ramen with add-ins like extra meat or egg, as well as beer, wine, and sake. The upstairs ‘Izakaya’ opens for dinner until 1 AM on weekends and adds small plates, grilled a la carte items called yakemono, and an extensive selection of liquors and cocktails, Japanese or otherwise. I had the pleasure of seeing both sides, and they are mostly alike in their striking simplicity. The walls are totally ‘exposed’ brick (which might actually be required by the city of Durham), the furnishings are low-key wood accented by crisp white table settings, and the tables are adorned with the most beautiful centerpiece of all for an eater: a large bottle of water to refill the glasses on your table ON DEMAND! I drink a lot of water so perhaps I am doting on this too much, but I absolutely love when a restaurant allows you to handle this yourself. Dashi is a comfortable restaurant without unneeded flair, which maximizes focus on the food and your company as I believe a restaurant is supposed to.
My first trip to Dashi, I brought my ramen-hungry date to the izakaya for dinner. After inquiring about portion sizes with our waitstaff, who was helpful and professional, we decided to each try a bowl and then split a smaller plate or two. We also each got a beer on draft (~$6); a straightforward lager from Durty Bull for me, and a dry and citrusy saison from Trophy for her. There’s a lot going on in a bowl of ramen, and these beers both excel at cutting through the bold flavors and inherent fattiness with carbonation. I was pleased with their selection, about 10 or 12 different drafts, and was also pleased that their options seem to be highly complementary to their food. To start, we chose the grilled Brussels sprouts topped with with katsuobushi ($6), which is a dried and smoked form of tuna that is compressed and then shaved over a dish much like you would use Parmesan cheese. I was a big fan of this plate’s flavors, first sweet and slightly bitter from the sprouts, enhanced by the char of the grill, and then taken over the top with the salt and smoke provided by the katsuobushi. However, my date found the aggressive katsuobushi a little texturally off-putting, and we were both bummed by the portion size – 6 whole Brussels sprouts for $6 is a price point that is a little hard to swallow. Where we may have been underwhelmed with the first course, we were quickly wooed once our ramen hit the table.
The tonkotsu ($14) is their top choice and features roasted local pork belly, escarole, pickled red onion, black garlic oil, bean sprouts, and a soft-cooked egg. The broth in a bowl of ramen is what makes or breaks it, and Dashi’s tonkotsu does not disappoint in its characteristic savory richness derived from pork fat and bones. The pork belly was cooked perfectly for me, in that there was a textural spectrum of crisp skin, tender pork, and succulent fat instead of one bite of pork fat Jello. The noodles were springy and chewy, and not too difficult to deal with for a chopstick newbie like my date. The toppings combined to provide interest with every bite, whether a tangy pop of pickled onion or a crunchy bean sprout, and the rounded, ever so slight sweetness of the milky broth made this ramen greater than the sum of its parts. My only gripe: at the time, we weren’t offered any options to add spice, which I always enjoy. However, on my return visit I was given both chili paste and chili oil, so this appears to be a one-time-only disappointment.
The mezemen ($13) was conceptually new to me: ramen noodles simply dressed with chili and sesame oil, then topped with pork meatballs, rapini (broccoli rabe), and crispy garlic pieces. I was floored by how simple and effective this bowl of noodles was, with its slow burn of chili and that pungent complexity that garlic takes on when cooked combining for an aromatic knockout that could still be described as “clean”. The meatballs were delicious and avoided the dryness that so commonly curses ground meat, while the rapini gave vegetal flavor and chew to an otherwise homogenous dish. Towards the bottom of the bowl, there was quite a lot of leftover oil soaking the remaining noodles, which indicates they may have been slightly overdressed, but in a simple dish like this I would prefer that to dryness.
I returned alone the next week for lunch, to warm up on a windy and uncharacteristically cold day. According to the menu descriptions, the perfect ramen for my frozen toes was miso. This ramen ($13) was full of umami satisfaction with ground pork (like the meatballs, but not), pickled Napa cabbage, roasted sweet potato, bean sprouts, and a soft-cooked egg. The miso broth was sharper and saltier than the tonkotsu courtesy of the titular fermented soybean paste, which combined with rich and runny egg yolk to make those bites extra tasty. The cabbage and bean sprouts added needed texture, but the picked quality of the cabbage itself was lost when the broth was introduced, and I think ramen is better with those ‘pops’ of vinegar like I referred to earlier. Same with the roasted sweet potato: I probably enjoyed the sweetness that it added to the overall dish, but it lost any texture and flavor it may have had by itself to the broth (I actually thought the sweet potato was carrot at the time!). These subdued ingredients meant the miso ramen came across more like a soup, which wasn’t a bad thing necessarily but I savor the unique piecemeal approach ramen requires when eating. Part of the fun of eating ramen is getting those exciting bites with the individual toppings; soup is just what you choke down when you’re sick, if we’re being mean-spirited to soup. I also had a beer – the rye pale ale from Durham’s own Ponysaurus, on draft – because when you’re eating alone, nobody can judge you for drinking at lunch. A bitter, hoppy beer turned out to be perfect to cut through the miso’s rich savoriness, and the choice of rye in the beer’s grain bill seems to bring out a touch of sweet that complements the serious sodium going on too.
I had a couple of good meals at Dashi and would love to return soon (with friends!) to explore more of their izakaya offerings as well as the drink menu. The prices were reasonable and even generous for the ramen itself, making Dashi an accessible place to spark that ramen craze North Carolinians don’t know they have yet. I promise – this is one trend you’ll want to be early on.
Nathan Griesedieck is a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and Raleigh native who works in the transfusion service at Duke University Medical Center in Durham – a true-blue Triangle foodie in every sense of the word(s). He spends most of his downtime either learning and thinking about food, or in his (tiny) kitchen making it for his girlfriend and best friend, Sarah. You can find him on Instagram (@n8greasy).