Ramen seems to have been one of the hot dishes for the Triangle in 2017 and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down much for 2018! The new Tonbo Ramen has brought a more traditional take to ramen for the downtown Raleigh crowd. Part ramen shop, part izakaya, you’ll be familiar with concept if you enjoy Dashi out in Durham. But for the Oak City, it’s one of a kind and off to a great start! Here’s what to expect when you visit the stylish Tonbo Ramen…
Located on the north end of busy Wilmington Street in downtown Raleigh, Tonbo Ramen is built in traditional Japanese fashion! Ramen shop on the 1st floor and a second entrance for the izakaya (Japanese for pub), upstairs. The ramen shop on the 1st floor strikes a nice blend of old and new. Weathered wood on the walls, along with metal stools lined around the ramen bar with big steaming pots of broth bubbling in back. The glowing pendant lights overhead make for a warm and comfortable scene here, perfect for slurping down some soup! But as much as I like the design of the ramen shop on the 1st floor, you’re probably better off eating at the izakaya upstairs. Tonbo Ramen offers up two different menus (ramen vs. small plates-bar food) and while both menus are available upstairs at the izakaya, you’re limited to ramen downstairs.
Upstairs at the izakaya, Tonbo Ramen gets a lot more modern with a glam bar highlighted by purple lighting. There’s also another small kitchen here, pumping out small plates and snacks as bar food. Tonbo’s ramen menu offers up 8 or so classic bowls ranging from shio (salt-base), shoyu (soy sauce-base) to tonkotsu (pork bone base). You can customize your ramen with extras such as pork belly, soy-marinated eggs, mushrooms, meatballs and more. The izakaya menu focuses on buns, fried meats along with yakimono (grilled skewers). Pretty much everything on Tonbo’s menu is $4 to $15, very affordable! A decent selection of beers, wine, sake and cocktails gives you some good drinking options to go along with your meal.
Over the course of my three visits to Tonbo Ramen, I’ve had quite a bit off their menu and it’s all really good. Some favorites of mine include the warm cauliflower salad and karaage chicken ($6). The cauliflower salad is not really a salad but just plain delicious sauteed florets in a savory sauce with seared tomatoes, yum! And if you haven’t had karaage before, think flash-fried pieces of dark chicken meat in a crunchy, starchy coating. Dipped into the aioli-like sauce, it’s wonderfully satisfying and tasty.
But of course, you shouldn’t visit Tonbo without trying the noodle side of the menu. And while it’s definitely a good bowl of ramen, Tonbo blings things out a bit with extras. My bowl of tonkotsu ramen seems a bit small (bowl diameter) but it’s deep and there’s plenty to eat. In addition to the broth, noodles, egg and pork belly, Tonbo adds in three dumplings which totally makes it a meal. I wasn’t blown away by the broth, though. It didn’t seem to have the depth and mouth-feel that I usually get from a rich tonkotsu broth. I also tried the mazemen at Tonbo which is a dry ramen. It’s pretty much a noodle bowl lightly coated with chili oil and served up with pork meatballs, fried garlic and onion along with scallions and greens. A wonderful bowl of noodles and definitely different from what I usually get at a ramen house. There’s just a bit of heat on the noodles along with a nice variety of proteins and crunch in this meal, thumbs up here!
Service at Tonbo Ramen was decent for all three of my visits, they are still fairly new so I would think that it has room to improve. And while I still think Sono has the best ramen in Raleigh, I do like what Tonbo Ramen is trying to do and how it feels. The space is really beautiful and well-designed while the menu certainly holds its own, offering not only the soups, but savory small plates upstairs in the izakaya. In the end, Tonbo Ramen offers up pretty decent food at a excellent price in great environs which gets my stamp of approval. It’s definitely a solid 4-star effort for me with more upside potential if they lock down that ramen broth. Because when you’ve got ramen in your name, you gotta deliver on that soup!