Zundo Shows Us What Ramen Can Be Beyond the Styrofoam Cup

Chef Han Lin takes humble ramen and elevates it into an art form.

Photographs by Jeremy Kramer

As a lifelong user of bouillon cubes and pastes, my heart always sinks when I see instructions like “Simmer for at least 4 hours, but preferably 10 to 12 hours.” (This is from a recipe for tonkotsu ramen from Danielle Chang’s Lucky Rice.) Who has time to do things like this? But on the rare occasion I attempt such feats—making chicken soup from actual meat and bones, for example, instead of paste or a packet of powder—the differences are so profound I wonder why I settle for anything else.

Photographs by Jeremy Kramer

All of this is a preamble to explain why a ramen shop might be worth noticing and celebrating. Many of us associate this cuisine with Styrofoam cups and the need to fill one’s belly for a quarter. However, as served by Chef Han Lin at Zundo, these soups are a deep and exciting branch of cuisine, capable of subtlety, variation, and depth.

The backbone of the operation at Zundo is a constantly bubbling stockpot—filled either with pork bones or a medley of mushrooms and vegetables—with a thin, continuous stream of water that replaces what steams away. As it cooks, the broth develops the roundness and silkiness of good stock, the mysterious consoling quality that drives colds away and warms the heart, which can be imitated but never really duplicated by dashi powders and bouillons.

After the broth has simmered for half a day, it becomes a canvas on which many different soups can be painted. Unlike more formalized Japanese culinary traditions like sushi and kaiseki, ramen began its life as an import to which no rules applied, sort of like the burrito in America. Wheat-based ramen noodles came to Japan from China, then developed a number of regional variations. Tonkotsu, for example, developed in the southern Kyushu region, and miso ramen came from Sapporo in the north. When ramen shops began sprouting up in urban centers in Japan, these regional elements mixed and evolved, gradually becoming a vehicle for the chef’s personality rather than a standardized product.

Photographs by Jeremy Kramer

Chef Han Lin, like the ramen noodle itself, actually comes from China. He went to Tokyo as a student and says he fell in love with Japanese food. He started out in Cincinnati as a sushi chef at Jeff Ruby’s now-defunct Waterfront restaurant in Covington, then started Mei in Montgomery in 2000. A chef friend in Los Angeles, Hiro Oshima, got him interested in ramen and gave him some early pointers. Lin worked for three years on his recipes before opening Zundo in 2018.

Photographs by Jeremy Kramer

The simplicity of the dish’s name hides a world of complexity. Take the miso ramen. As Lin points out, there are miso pastes of every conceivable pungency, tone, and base ingredient (soy, rice, and barley, to name a few), all of which can be combined in different proportions to create the flavor and textural qualities of the soup, which can be salty or sweet or buttery or light, depending on the choices made. And this is just one possible element. Using the traditional Japanese building blocks of flavor—soy sauce, miso, sake, mirin—good ramen shops manage to create something simultaneously freewheeling and time-tested.

Zundo has an extensive menu, serving appetizers, ramen, and donburi, which literally means “deep bowl,” and generally contains rice with protein and sauce. These sauces could be a Japanese katsu curry (which pushes the Indian flavors in a more five-spice direction, with anise and clove) or the familiar teriyaki. The other dishes, from the nongreasy, nicely seared gyoza to the tako yaki, with its gently waving bonito flakes, are solid, but for me, the truly extraordinary dishes on the menu at Zundo are the bowls of ramen: miso, spicy miso, tonkotsu, and shoyu.

Each of these bowls comes with a marinated soft-boiled egg half, Wisconsin-raised roast pork, green onion, and a healthy serving of noodles (sourced from a California establishment), but each has a distinct identity, like the milky richness of the tonkotsu, the rich and buttery miso, or the light and faintly sweet shoyu ramen. You can add extra noodles, egg, or meat, but the truly transformative add-in is the mayu, or black garlic oil, where garlic is gently fried until black and then pureed. Dripped on top of one of the subtler broths, like the shoyu or the vegetarian ramen, it adds a deep, mushroom-y richness, with the hint of burned flavor that makes barbecue so good. The spicy miso, meanwhile, is not blistering or overwhelming, just pleasantly warming and balanced. The tantanmen ramen, while good, was dominated by meat and noodles instead of broth, and was less deeply flavorful than other dishes.

Photographs by Jeremy Kramer

Zundo is a place where attention is paid to detail. I even noticed what a pleasure it is to eat from their long-handled wooden spoons compared to the stubby plastic or ceramic ones generally found at other noodle soup joints. Servers are very helpful, especially for someone unfamiliar with the cuisine.

Ramen, as it deserves to, is spreading in Cincinnati. Kiki just opened in College Hill, and Zundo is set to open a second location in Mason. Go and see what the fuss is about.

Zundo Ramen & Donburi, 220 W. 12th St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 975-0706

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