A little over a year ago, pals Arden Tse and Terry Wong started testing their homemade ramen on friends. It was good, in fact, it was better than good, and the friends urged the pair to share their creation with the rest of the city. Tse and Wong enlisted the expertise of Kathryn Joel of Get Cooking and her team of culinary superheroes (Stephen Baidacoff, Eric Hansen, Wendy Mah) to consult, improve and test four types of ramen influenced by prairie flavours and ingredients. When one recipe was perfected, a pop up was held. Over 12 months, 600 bowls of ramen were served to ramen lovers before the pair announced they’d be moving in permanently on 124 Street. In December 2015, the doors to Prairie Noodle Shop opened—and all hell broke loose.
In the first two days, 600 bowls of ramen came out of that kitchen leaving the shelves bare and the crew exhausted. On both nights, the doors closed early, and those who had stood in line for 45 minutes, walked away dejected, even angry, but resolute in finding a way to score a bowl, perhaps the next day, if the ramen gods were kind.
I got lucky. I walked in at 4:20 p.m. a few days after they opened and managed to grab a seat at the counter. Fifteen minutes later, a lineup had formed 40-people deep. You can’t reserve a table; Prairie Noodle abides by a ‘first come, first serve’ policy. Spoiler alert: it’s worth the wait.
Beginning with the bao: Pork buns (bao) $10 – three pillowy soft buns each topped with different ingredients. So good, we almost ordered a second round. You choose either pulled pork or pork belly for the meat but then each bun comes topped with 1) pear, lime, ginger 2) pickled vegetables 3) fresh vegetables.
Edamame $5 – It’s hard to make edamame interesting but they do give it a go here with a smattering of charcoal salt and a spritz of lemon.
One of the great things about ramen (there are many) is that with the ingredients already prepared, assembly is quick meaning you don’t have long to wait before the bowl comes to your table.
First up, the ‘Prairie Pork’ $15 — locally made noodles, clear pork broth, and three different cuts of pork: belly, shoulder and rind, plus a half umeboshi egg (medium soft, marinated in Japanese salted plum), green onion, corn, and blackened garlic oil. The belly is fatty enough to make it succulent; the shoulder slow roasted for maximum flavour, and the rind adds a ‘you gotta be kidding me’ element that more dishes need in this city. I had one quibble: the pork broth didn’t have the same wow factor as it did when featured in the pop-up. Apparently, there was some tweaking going on with the recipe when I visited, and the end result wasn’t exactly what Stephen Baidacoff had perfected before he left to work at 3 Michelin-starred 11 Madison in New York City.
Roasted Barley Chicken $15 – Chicken broth cradles the noodles, a yakitori chicken wing, luscious thigh strips, sautéed kale, green onion, umeboshi egg, and pickled pearl onion petals. The soup tastes even better than it looks, and that’s saying something, because it really is a pretty bowl of ramen.
Dessert almost seems unnecessary at a ramen joint and if Prairie Noodle is looking for anywhere to ‘trim the fat’, as they say, the dessert list might be the place to start. Unlike the months of preparation that went in to the soup recipes, the two dishes pictured below come across as an afterthought.
What we didn’t try (but wish we would’ve): 1) Smoked Gouda Miso Ramen
…and 2) Meat & Potatoes Ramen – Here, noodles tossed in chili oil, topped with beef ragu, pickled Thai chilis and umeboshi egg are then dipped into a tangy potato/charred onion soup served on the side.
Jason Oliver was the chef in charge when I visited in December. Since that visit, Eric Hansen, who was part of the original R & D team, has taken over. It seems a better fit for the business. Operating hours have also changed, so take note: Closed Mondays, open Tuesday – Saturday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., then 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Sundays 11-3.
Listen to my on-air CBC Edmonton AM segment about Prairie Noodle with Mark Connolly here.
[Cover photo courtesy of Design Edge Canada]