By: Paige Hubbard
HOUSTON — It was a sea — and by sea we mean a packed house and parking lot — full of the best Japanese cuisine and cocktails the Bayou City may have ever tasted, add to it a bumping DJ and excited guests…..and you have one heck of a pre-grand opening reception! Why not, because Houston, we definitely have something to shout about!
After three years of international accolades and serving as a Hawaiian haven for Japanese comfort food with five Oahu locations spanning from Honolulu to Aiea, AGU Ramen has made its mainland debut in Houston.
Acclaimed chef Hisashi “Teddy” Uehara has moved his central operations to Houston as he embarks on a national expansion for his authentic and traditional Japanese ramen eateries. That endeavor began with three local debuts, including locations in the Energy Corridor, another one near Memorial Park, and a third in the Westchase District at 9310 Westheimer, the location for Thursday night’s launch party.
“I was very excited about this, I think the food is delicious,” said Mike Baker, an attendee. “It’s the first time I’ve been here, the location is the best and the weather is incredible, it’s all the best, just great.”
Who would have thought that a couple of business partners brainstorming over beers — and doodling on napkins — led to the concept of a high-end ramen house. The dream became a reality and the first location opened in Honolulu, Hawaii. The success of that location birthed the expansion for many more franchises to open up around the states.
Because of Houston’s pro-business climate, affinity for dining out and a wide array of cuisine, it has long been on Uehara’s radar.
“I chose this city because I love Houston. I have come here many, many times, and my experience has been that the people here are welcoming and accepting. I wanted to open a restaurant where guests have an appreciation of food, and Houstonians know quality food,” Uehara said.
His approach to making ramen, the restaurant’s signature, relies on time-honored and time-intensive mastery rarely utilized in the current wave of ramen fast casual restaurants.
“My ramen is very simple, and my technique is very old school. There is no shortcut; the key is to use the best product and to not rush the preparation or cooking process. It’s truly a science,” he said.
To create AGU’s signature, creamy, tonkotsu broth, more than 1,560 pounds of pork bones are slowly boiled at an extremely high heat in 80 gallon Japanese kettles, each costing upwards of $25,000. All of AGU’s dishes are made from scratch, and the majority of ingredients are imported from Japan.
“Our signature broth takes 22 hours, our chicken broth, nine hours, and our cha-shu 18 hours,” says Uehara. “When cooking ramen, you need passion and patience in order to create a piece of art”.
Uehara’s methods are so well-renowned, he is invited to Japan regularly to teach chefs from around the globe his craft, and he typically makes the trip half a dozen times a year for research purposes. It is at these international symposiums that he not only shares his adoration of ramen and cooking with fellow enthusiasts, but also finds inspiration for new dishes and techniques from other culture’s flavors and culinary traditions.
More than 20 different ramen varieties will be offered at the Houston locations. Standout selections include the Original Kotteri, a bowl comprised of extra rich broth with black garlic oil, garlic chips and silky se-abura. For guests craving an extra kick can opt for The Spicy Kotteri, made with fresh house made pork char siu, aji tamago, crunchy menma, fried garlic chips, fresh negi and sesame seeds; or the Tan Tan Tonkotsu, a tonkotsu broth blended with spicy sesame tare and served with tan tan noodles, ground pork miso, bok choy, zaasai and aji tamago. Lighter fare includes Yuzu Jidori, a jidori ramen served with an assemblage of cilantro and Thai chili; and AGU’s Savory Parmesan, a twist on the Original Kotteri topped with freshly grated parmesan cheese.
With equal emphasis on ramen and a variety of Asian offerings, AGU’s Houston menu comprises a variety of small plates, mains and dishes created specifically for the local market. Menu highlights include small plate options like Ban Ban Ji Kurage, noodle-like slices of crunchy jelly fish, marinated in sesame ginger sauce, tossed with cucumbers and topped with sesame seeds; Char Siu Curry Croquette, a hot and crusty Japanese style Korokke filled with potato, char siu and cheese served with AGU’s popular yuzu aioli; and Karaage, a contemporary Japanese recipe of crispy fried chicken served with Okinawan shikwasa ponzu sauce. Entrees include Char Siu Donburi, a house made char suy (BBQ pork) chopped and sautéed in a sweet shoyu ginger sauce, served over rice and topped with fresh negi and sesame seeds; and Buta Curry Rice, AGU’s authentic, full-flavored Japanese pork curry served with fukujinzuke, a Japanese relish. Poke bowls and salads are also showcased.
As a backdrop for AGU’s fare, each Houston restaurant – averaging approximately 2,500 square feet – combines traditional and modern design elements ranging from geometric lattice work to potted fountain grass. Minh Nguyen, principal of Houston-based J’RH Designs, wanted AGU’s interior to be contemporary and industrial while incorporating original Japanese aspects.
Community tables will also be a staple feature in order to enable guests to have a true Japanese ramen experience.
“When I think about ramen, I cannot help but envision how the Japanese would consume this soup dish in a typically small and tightly packed space. Whether it is a fine dining restaurant or a fast food restaurant, Houstonians are accustomed to our own personal space. I want to share the ramen experience of eating a soup dish while sitting next to a stranger and inviting new and unexpected interactions,” Nguyyen said.
“I am definitely going to be a regular, this is some of the best food I’ve ever tasted,” said Joanna Pruitt.
Now If that doesn’t make you want to jump up and go check it out for yourself, maybe the delicious handcrafted cocktails will make you give it a try, oh and don’t forget to tell them News With Attitude sent you!
AGU will be open 7 days a week from 11 a.m. – 2 a.m. at Westheimer and Washington, and 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. at Eldridge Parkway. The Washington and Westheimer locations will offer a full bar while Eldridge will serve beer and wine only.
Check out more behind-the-scenes footage!