When Au Tran was a little girl in Vietnam, she was always given chores, some of which revolved around helping the family prepare food. It started with squatting over a clay oven, stoking the fire and keeping it going so her mother could cook. By and by, she graduated to prepping the food and was eventually responsible for making meals on her own. Tran and her mother immigrated to the United States when she was 17 years old in search of the endless possibilities of the “American Dream.”
Fast forward to 2019: Tran owns two restaurants in Little Rock (Ohia Poke, downtown and in the Promenade) and has just opened her third, That Ramen Place, in the Heights. It’s a culmination of her lifelong passion for cooking and a dogged dedication to make her mark on the food scene of what once seemed a far-away place.
“She’s a ball of spunk and energy,” restaurant general manager Jay Nguyen says. “She uses that energy to think about things she wants to do. She has an ambition to leave something in this world that’s physical, so she decided restaurants were the best way to do that.”
On a Saturday evening, just one month after the restaurant opened, Nguyen plops a pile of noodles into a huge bowl of tonkotsu broth. He places the pork belly, the soft-boiled egg, the green onion, and the bamboo shoots carefully on top. Steam rises, dishes clank, the doorbell jingles as hungry diners arrive, folks at a table for three talk about their just-finished band practice and how nice it is to have a vegan option on the menu.
The decor is sparse but welcoming. The kitchen is open. Edison bulbs hang in loose strings from the ceiling in a criss-cross pattern. Three-dimensional geometric panels jut from the wall like foam in a recording studio. It’s understated but well crafted, like the menu.
“Au’s always trying to make things better,” Nguyen says. “Even up until last week, we changed the recipe for the broth. She’s always looking for what’s missing. She keeps trying to improve.”
At this point, there doesn’t seem to be much room for improvement. The tonkotsu broth is made from pork and chicken bones that have been braised for over 15 hours and left to simmer. The process gives it a really creamy consistency that booms with umami.
The bowl Nguyen is preparing is the Underbelly Bowl ($9). It’s comforting, warm, salty and delicious. The “It Tastes Like Chicken” Bowl is just as satisfying; take all the ingredients from the pork bowl and sub out shredded chicken breast ($9). The Tonkot-Soy Bowl is your vegetarian and vegan option.
“The mock tonkotsu broth is an original recipe from Au,” Nguyen says. “We wanted to give the same look of a tonkotsu broth as well as that umami flavor that you get from it, without using meat. We use a shoyu broth and a mixture of sesame seasonings and some other soy-based products.”
The Big Boy Bowl is for the hungry person at the table. It comes loaded down with two wantons stuffed with spicy beef, pork belly, shredded chicken and bacon. It’s definitely the most filling option on the menu and offers a nice sampling of everything.
The inside page of the menus is blank. Nguyen says it will soon be filled with more toppings once That Ramen Place is done with its soft opening. There will also be a bar in the coming weeks, featuring cocktails, beer and wine. The restaurant might even extend the hours once the bar is up and going. Nguyen says the restaurant wants to create a space where a late crowd can gather, drink, talk with their friends and get a great meal at the same time.
Don’t sleep on the appetizers here. The Salted Wings ($4) are great — deep-fried and peppery. A smart diner might grab and order and dump them straight into her ramen bowl. The gyoza ($3) are filled with spicy beef and served with a sweetened soy sauce, thickened up to give it some traction on slippery steamed dumplings. The Seaweed Salad ($4), which is served with cucumber, announces itself with its vibrant green color. The crunchy, lightly dressed salad is a nice antidote to a hearty ramen bowl.
At the end of our meal, a friend said he honestly didn’t know which part of it was his favorite, which is a great way to sum up the food at That Ramen Place.
“Au wants to be known for her ramen,” Nguyen says. “It’s her having fun with the recipes, but it’s also about living out her dream of having a great ramen shop.”
That Ramen Place
5711 Kavanaugh Blvd.
11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.
Credit cards accepted; full bar coming soon.