It’s back-to-school time, which, for millions of American college students, means picking a major. Should you steer yourself toward a career in engineering or medicine? Maybe study French literature or German metaphysics? Me, I’d recommend diving into another field entirely: ramen.
That’s what chef Wei Ren did when he traveled to Osaka, Japan, to attend Miyajima Ramen School. Rikisai Miyajima, a former chef, opened the institution in 2009 and has since tutored more than 400 students, 90 percent of them from overseas, who have gone on to open at least 100 ramen shops all over the world.
Ren, who previously worked as a sushi chef for 14 years, spent a month learning from Miyajima before returning to Bradenton to open Mitaka Japanese Ramen House last December. The eatery is located in a Manatee Avenue strip mall anchored by a Fresh Market and a Five Guys. A dozen or so tables crowd the main floor, while bar seating runs the length of the open kitchen on the left.
Japanese ramen shops typically specialize in one variety of soup, perfected over years or even decades, with competing philosophies, regional distinctions and devoted cults. (One Japanese publication names a top ramen chef each year, and the results are watched as closely as a World Cup final.) At Mitaka, Ren offers multiple types of broth: tonkotsu (flavored with pork bones), shoyu (which has a soy sauce base), miso, tantanmen (made with spicy miso and chicken), tori paitan (a chicken broth) and a vegetarian broth made with mushrooms and soy milk.
Those are the bases. The bowls themselves come stocked with noodles and a combination of different meats or seafood, soft-boiled eggs, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, toasted seaweed, scallions, corn, cilantro and ginger.
A bowl of tantanmen ($13.50) is a revelation. It contains a creamy broth, gooey egg halves, a generous heap of spicy ground pork, floating beansprouts and wood ear mushrooms, seaweed off to the side and a constellation of chopped cilantro, stem and all. It looks almost too beautiful to eat. Almost.
The fun part of eating ramen is the way the broth binds together all the flavors, but each bite also tastes distinct, depending on the variety of toppings that end up on your oversized spoon or between your chopsticks, and the tantanmen delivers in a big way. The lobster udon ($20.50), meanwhile, doesn’t provide that same thrill. The dish is more one-dimensional, with less of the whimsical flavor flips of the tantanmen, and it doesn’t help that the lobster becomes tough after soaking in the hot broth.
Soup isn’t the only thing Mitaka serves. It also offers rice bowls with chicken, eel and beef ($12-$15) and an excellent selection of appetizers. The steamed buns, in particular, are fantastic. The crustacean in the soft shell crab bun ($10 for two) is fried to perfection. That expertise with the deep fryer extends to the restaurant’s karaage ($6). The hunks of fried chicken taste like Chick-Fil-A nuggets, but much better. At lunchtime, the restaurant also serves bento boxes ($12-$15) and combos that include half portions of ramens and appetizers ($12-$13).
Mitaka manager Mei Yang says the restaurant has been buzzing since it opened, particularly among Japanese athletes living in Bradenton while studying at IMG Academy. Overseas students here to learn the intricacies of tennis and soccer, slurping ramen made by a man who traveled to their home country to perfect his ramen—it’s an exchange-student program that benefits us all.
Mitaka Japanese Ramen House | 6749 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton, (941) 896-3552,