Zen Box Ramen Festival Overwhelmed
I was looking forward to some interesting ramen.
Apparently so were 2,000 other people. Unfortunately, the line, 3-4 people wide, went the length of the block and back again and I went to look at the head of the line and saw like 4 people eating ramen and people complaining about being in line for 4 hours. I watched the service line for 3-4 minutes, saw no movement and figured I could easily wait until 6 pm and wind up with no ramen to show for it. So I left.
Did anyone else go? How as the ramen? Was the line as bad as it looked?
I was there too, with the Mangosteentime clan. We got there at 1 and ended up waiting about 2.5 hours for our food. While waiting we got a teriyaki dog; don't remember what was on it but it hit the spot. We also had a takoyaki "dog" which I thought was a smart way to eat takoyaki (fried octopus), and which had great texture. Full disclosure: the takoyaki came straight out of a freezer bag- but to feed a huge crowd, I'm not surprised. There was also a veggie dog, basically the same toppings as the teriyaki dog. We thought these were very reasonably priced at $3.
About the ramen: We tried 2 kinds. The Ma-Zamen (?sp) was Chef Ng's take on a brothless ramen, with beef brisket, pickled mushrooms, mizuna salad and what I thought was spicy pickled mustard greens. I thought the salad was a little odd, but the rest of it was quite tasty- tender, slightly spicy brisket, chewy noodles with nice heft. The two kinds of pickles made it a little pickle-heavy, but it was good contrast to the other elements. We also had the "Mabo Nasu" which foreverhungry described above. Our group found it too salty, though the toppings were interesting.
We had wanted to try the third ramen available- the "Old School Tokyo" but we didn't get to it because of reasons which may have related to the long, long wait. When we got to the front of the line, a staff member admitted that the "Old School Tokyo" ramen took much longer than the other two to prepare. I was planning to get the other two kinds then wait for the "Old School" but there were at least like, 10 people ahead of me who were waiting just to put in an order for the "Old School," plus at least 15 more who'd placed an order for that particular ramen, and were just waiting for their food. It seems the chef was just taking whatever time it needed to make that particular ramen, and it might have been causing a bottleneck. Made me realize that perhaps proper ramen, done well with quality ingredients, isn't the best food to try to serve to the masses in a setting like that.
Some of our friends had arrived right at 12 and they still had to wait a full hour in line for food. Staff seemed pretty well organized, and given how long the line was it was amazing- I really didn't think people were as cranky as they could have been. We noticed they were somehow keeping a count and specificially did not oversell tickets for ramen, which was considerate/avoided a riot.
It may seem crazy that we stood in line that long, but it was partly because we had already invested money in the tickets for food, plus it was a gorgeous day out and not really that unpleasant. The kids loved the DJ and taiko drumming. If we'd known ahead of time about the lines, we wouldn't have gone, but overall we didn't regret going.
That was us, waiting almost 4 hours. We got there a little after 2, got on line around 2:15. We received our first ramen around 5:50, our second (I waited for the 2nd, while our first, which my fiancee got, [though we waited on line together], cooled down) around 6:05 or so. I had a Surly Cynic and an Overrated while we waited ($6 each, not a bad price), and my fiance got a free sake for looking cute while waiting so long on line.
Chef Shigetoshi Nakamura's ramen was "Old School Tokyo", a chicken based broth, medium weight, shoyu tare, with pork belly, fish cake, and egg. Old school as the name suggests, but an excellent rendition, The noodles were thin and curly. Maybe because I had to wait before eating it, the noodles were a bit soft, but with good flavor. the broth was clean and tasty.
Chef Mihoko Obunai's ramen was "Mabo Nasu", also a chicken based, a bit heavier than the Old School, with apple smoked bacon, eggplant, a habanero miso, and bean sprouts. Deep flavor, spicy with a perfect level of heat, the noodles were thin and straight, and perfectly cooked, nice a toothy.
While we were waiting (around hour 2) we got a Takoyaki hot dog - fried battered octopus dumplings (3, about quarter sized diameter), shaved cabbage, tonkatsu sauce, mayo, bonito flakes, and aonori. Not really a hot dog, but a great, complex taste.
The staff was great. People were grouchy, but these types of outdoor events in a place like MN are tough to run. It could have easily been 20 degrees colder and cloudy, and the crowd would have been half. Or it could have been 30 degrees colder and rainy, and the crowd would have struggled to reach triple digits. It's not like the chefs can pack up extra ingredients and bring them home. They did the best they could with the crowd they had. On the bright side, it's great to see such an interest in ramen in this area, and to have a chef from San Francisco and one from Tokyo come in for a sell-out event makes MPLS look pretty good in the ramen scene. That's better than having only a few hundred show up, the place takes a bath, and the chefs don't want to return. Hey, as my fiancee said, in a few months we'd be dying for the opportunity to stand outside in a tee shirt for a few hours.