Just south of Mizner Park’s upscale collection of shops and restaurants you can hear the slurping of housemade ramen noodles and bowls of rich broths echoing from Ramen Lab Eatery. Since opening in March, this cozy izakaya, or Japanese gastropub, has made a big impression in a short amount of time. Already a cornerstone of the small plaza, it was standing room only on a recent Saturday night. Even patio seats were filled with patrons open to indulging in bowls of hot ramen on a sticky Florida evening under a ceiling fan.
Lunch lines out the door aren’t unusual here. And from what I witnessed, Ramen Lab Eatery appears to have established a steady takeout business, too. The galley dining room accommodates table seating for a dozen, and 10 barstools offer a view of chefs firing food to order as friendly, efficient servers wait. Reclaimed wood accents, dangling Edison bulbs, colorful murals and a chalkboard wall of in-house artistry creates a hip, comfortable vibe.
During our visit, two smiling faces behind the counter greeted diners at the entrance and guided newcomers through the ordering process. Orders are taken at the register and delivered to tables by number. Because the quarters are tight, I couldn’t help but envy a neighbor’s serving of Nana Wings ($10) and order my own. I opted for the KFC version with Korean Gochujan spice over the TFC with tamarind, micro cilantro, roasted rice and fried shallots. I appreciated the wings’ meaty size, crispy fried skin that broke way to moist flesh and perfect amount of spice.
A thin circle of dough used for the pan-seared gyoza ($6) wrapper bolstered the “handcrafted made fresh daily” menu description and allowed the pork filling to shine through the blistered skin. The dumplings are also available stuffed with lobster and shrimp or vegetables.
Bao Bros Buns ($8) get kudos for their soft, airy pillows nestled in a bamboo steamer. I ordered them filled with Korean beef bulgogi and a slice of pickled daikon, balancing flavors while adding crunch. Other choices include chicken karaage, ChaShu pork belly, and Asian mushrooms.
Nanban chicken ($9), with housemade sauce that’s similar to a thin teriyaki, arrived as described. But after savoring the other appetizers that were so spot on, it was underwhelming. Vegetarians might gravitate toward the spiced edamame ($5) with truffle, togarashi and bonito flakes, agedashi tofu ($7) or spicy Korean cauliflower ($7).
Aside from ramen, the menu’s bowls include donburi ($11) and poke bowls made with tuna or salmon ($12 small / $15 large). Pork katsu don layers rice, crisp pork, and caramelized onion, and is topped with grilled egg. My tablemate enjoyed the dish yet felt it needed “something,” and drizzled the remaining nanban chicken sauce over her rice, which was brilliant and delicious. Chicken oyako don and Korean-style beef bulgogi are also donburi options. The Morikami salad bowl ($9) tops mixed greens with tomato, enoki mushrooms and sesame dressing.
It’s hard to go wrong with any of the ramen selections. The tough part is deciding which one to order. Miso ramen ($15) with Korean short ribs proved an excellent choice, with chicken broth, miso, egg, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, corn and mushrooms filling the hearty, satisfying bowl. It is also available with ChaShu pork belly ($12) or chicken ($12). Five-spice duck ramen ($16) was flavorful, but just subtle enough not to overpower the rest of the dish, which included sprouts, bok choy, garlic oil and micro cilantro. Tom Yum seafood ramen ($18) combines shrimp, calamari, scallops and a king prawn. Although the seafood was a bit sparse and the chewy muscle attachment remained on the scallops, the delicious spiced-tomato-based broth laced with lemongrass hit some high notes. The ramen selection continues with vegan ramen ($12), shoyu ramen ($12-$15) and a traditional tonkatsu ($13). Ramen spice levels can be adjusted to taste. And a side menu of extra toppings — proteins, starches and vegetables — allows diners to customize any bowl. The single dessert offering of Japanese cheesecake ($5) was memorable in that it had no crust, a light, airy filling and a balanced sweetness. It was topped with a fresh strawberry sauce.
Ramen Lab Eatery is the brainchild of the family-run restaurant company Urban Belly Group, which also owns the Lemongrass Asian Bistro chain and the Sea Asian Bistro in Delray Beach. I spoke to the family’s son, Louis Grayson, and he explained that although he owns and operates the new Eatery, it’s still very much a family affair. His mother helps make the ramen noodles from scratch daily and his grandmother and her team of seniors show up in the morning to masterfully prepare the dumplings. Staying true to the laboratory element, Grayson says, “We are always experimenting with new things, trying new dishes. You can expect to see lighter menu items for the summer months and delivery service and opening on Sundays, within the next few weeks.”
Ramen Lab Eatery proves that fast-casual restaurants don’t have to sacrifice quality or hospitality, as we were reminded when leaving and those same smiling faces, now engaged at the height of service, still managed to acknowledge us by bidding goodbye and “arigato.”
Ramen Lab Eatery
100 NE Second St., Boca Raton
Cuisine: Asian fusion
Hours: Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday for now
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Local craft beer, Japanese beer, wine, sake
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Only if it’s not offensive to other diners.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Kids: Highchairs and booster seats coming soon. No specified kids’ menu, but chicken appetizers, rice and noodles satisfy tots.