Chef Mark Gabriel Medina—who goes by Gabe, for short—has quietly been turning out some of the city's best ramen at Soma Sushi since joining the Japanese restaurant on Washington Ave. in November 2012. Those who know ramen know to seek out Medina's oft-changing varieties, from the limited-time Texas ramen with slices of barbecued beef brisket to his Kaisen ramen, a seafood bisque-like soup that's filled with shrimp, crab, scallops, corn, and bright green seaweed.
4820 Washington Ave.
One of the reasons Medina's ramen is so respected is the amount of research he puts into each recipe. In addition to devouring cookbooks and taking tasting trips when he's able, Medina often hosts members of the Ramen In Common club—a Houston-based Faceook group 800-strong whose members are known to travel the world in search of the best bowl of ramen. During these evening slurp sessions, Medina solicits advice and input from these ramen connoisseurs, cooking up special batches of soups he's considering adding to Soma's menu.
The latest is a black garlic-based Hakata-style ramen with a dark mahogany broth. Aggressively peppered pieces of pork tenderloin float on top, the crusty bark reminiscent of barbecued brisket. "There are three regional varieties of ramen," Medina said as he delivered a sample of the new ramen. "Sapporo, Tokyo, and Hakata." The Hakata style, he explained, is heavy on meat, as the southern islands of Japan—where the Hakata ramen originated—are plentiful in pigs.
"This is a tonkotsu broth," Medina said of the pork-based broth, which is normally a soft white color thanks to the pig fat and collagen, "but it turned almost black when I put the garlic in." If the Ramen In Common group likes his new black garlic Hakata-style ramen, it will likely show on up Soma's menu soon.
In the meantime, lunch is the best time to go by and sample Medina's ramen repertoire for yourself. Right now, the lunch menu offers four varieties: the standard Soma ramen with pork belly in a traditional tonkotsu broth for $9; seafood ramen for $11; a Korean-inspired black bean ramen with beef bulgogi and kimchi for $12; and my favorite, a spicy miso ramen with pork and three kinds of mushrooms for only $9.
But Medina's excellent ramen isn't the only secret at Soma: though lunchtime prices on his ramen are significantly lower than at dinner (when ramen ranges from $13 to $17), the portion size is exactly the same.