Noodle Boulevard’s dining room seats about two dozen people, half of them at a handful of tables and the other half – true to the ramen shop tradition that is the restaurant’s model – at counters. It’s a jewel box of a space with gold-hued walls of pine paneling spangled edge to edge with framed watercolors and newspaper pages mounted behind acrylic panels. The chairs at the granite-topped tables, painted in vibrant sherbet tones, are cheerily inviting.
But my favorite place to sit is at the counter facing the tiny kitchen, where I can watch owner/chef Lek Phromthong at work. A native of Thailand, Phromthong has owned Thai and Japanese restaurants all over this country, from the West Coast to Denver to Detroit (you’ll find rave reviews of some of those restaurants on the walls). His four decades of experience are evident as he navigates the narrow kitchen, adroitly filling cavernous bowls with noodles, slow-cooked meats, bright vegetables and ladles of steaming broth.
The chef turns out ten variations on the ramen theme, covering a pan-Asian spectrum from seafood kimchi to Thai-spiced tom yum. Beef noodle ramen serves up chunks of lean beef and beef shank, slow-cooked to tender submission, in a translucent Taiwanese-inflected broth that’s so mild you might find yourself amping up the flavor with a few shakes of soy sauce and togarashi chile from the bottles on the table.
You won’t need those bottles, though, if you order the chicken curry ramen: petal-thin slices of breast meat, bean sprouts, Asian greens and nori in a coconut curry subtly perfumed with Thai spices, garnished with a lime wedges and crisp ribbons of fried wonton.
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Traditional Japanese ramen bowls are well-represented, naturally, from miso (with pork belly, baby bok choy, scallions, nori and a soy-marinated ajisu egg) to shoyu, which raises the ante with marinated, braised pork belly called chashu (not to be confused with the similar-sounding Chinese roast pork called char siu – which, to make matters more confusing, turns up elsewhere on the menu).
Tonkotsu ramen goes all in with chashu and a rainbow of vegetables in a rich broth that gets its rich flavor, milky color and unctuous texture from pork bones that have been simmered to a fare-thee-well. It’s a gratifying dish as is, but your server may suggest adding an ajisu egg. Take her advice. Soft-boiled with a yolk just shy of set and a white permeated with a marinade of soy, mirin, ginger and garlic, the egg puts an already lavish dish over the top.
The ajisu egg is one of a dozen or so items on the list of optional toppings that includes everything from extra meat to enoki mushrooms. With most ramen bowls priced at $11-12 and extras at $1-2 a pop, you can customize to your heart’s content.
Feel free to follow your whim when it comes to choosing your ramen bowl, too. I’ve slurped my way through most of the list, and I’ve found quality to be consistent across the wide range of styles. My only quibble is with the noodles themselves: I wish they were a bit thicker with a more substantial bite.
Noodle Boulevard’s streamlined menu includes just three alternatives to ramen (this is a ramen shop, after all), which you’ll find under the heading of “Rice Bowl.” I haven’t tried the rice with pork belly and ajisu egg or Japanese fried rice with char-siu (the Chinese roast pork, that is), but my mouth still waters when I recall the rice with fried mackerel I landed back in May, not long after the restaurant opened. According to the current menu, the presentation has since changed to include teriyaki sauce. I’ll take that sauce on the side, thank you.
A handful of appetizers round out the offering. I’d skip the undersized, over-battered fried oysters, and satisfy my craving for crunchiness with an item mysteriously listed on the menu as “creamy croquette.” The “creamy” turns out to be mashed potato and “croquette” refers to its panko crust – a nibble that fans of Japanese cuisine will recognize as korokke,
“Fried veggie rolls” (aka Thai style egg rolls) are another rewarding option. But for my money the star of the starter list is the pork belly bun. Garnished with cucumber, chopped scallions and a generous slather of hoisin sauce, the steamed bun arrives cut neatly into halves. If you order one with the idea of sharing, though, be advised that you may come to regret that decision. You’ll want the whole thing for yourself.
Service is fast and generally friendly, and the charm level goes up notably several times a week when Lek Phromthong’s wife, Sara, is working in the dining room. Unfailingly attentive and eager to please, she is the quietly hospitable yin to her energetic, outgoing husband’s yang.
If you’re sitting at the counter, and the affable chef isn’t too busy, he’s happy to answer questions. Ask him about those newspaper pages on the walls – a mix of restaurant reviews and front pages with headlines announcing historic events – and he’ll explain that they’re mementos of his two careers. Turns out Phromthong was a newspaper journalist, first in Thailand and then in Los Angeles, before he became a chef.
Ask him how he wound up in the Triangle after all his travels, and he’ll tell you he discovered the area when visiting a friend, a retired U.S. Army colonel. “I fell in love with the trees, all the green,” he’ll say, of the lush landscape that reminds him of his childhood home.
The location he chose for his restaurant – tucked in next to a Subway in a small building adjacent to a mini Walmart-anchored strip mall in Cary – isn’t exactly verdant. It’s hardly what you’d call a prime night life destination, either, so you could say this little jewel box of a space contains a hidden gem.
919 N. Harrison Ave., Cary; 919-678-1199
Cuisine: Japanese, Asian
Atmosphere: compact, colorful and charming
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: fast and friendly
Recommended: pork belly bun, noodle soups (especially tonkotsu, shoyu and chicken curry), fried mackerel rice bowl
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Reservations: not accepted
Other: modest selection of beer, sake and plum wine; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.