It’s So Cool to Eat Noodles
Finally getting a table at Red Light Ramen
“There’s the spot,” someone in a trio of southbound bikes yells to his cohorts on a warm Friday evening while pointing out Red Light Ramen, chef Justin Carlisle’s new sister restaurant and next door neighbor to his lauded Ardent. And spot it is. Well, actually, spot it’s been - since way back before the restaurant had a kitchen or address of its own. All the way back when late night lines of Eastsiders used to snake and congregate along Farwell on Friday and Saturdays, like it was CBGB, like somebody hot was about to go onstage, like anything that would seem more hip than soup.
It’s been clear since those nascent days, when the Ardent kitchen would stop with the meticulousness and tiny plates to sling salty rich bowls of post-drink comfort, that Carlisle was onto something. Something buzzworthy, New York-ish. It was also clear from the levels of fashionability that ramen had certainly come full circle. From notions of a frugal college snack to the new paragon of East Side cool. And so it was time to make it all official, and make the enterprise an official brick and mortar, next door.
Walk into the new five-table spot and you’re met by warm, dark red hues, pulsing David Byrne and such, aggressively friendly server/owner/hosts, and a Bangkok-y aesthetic out of the less disastrous parts of “Only God Forgives.” It’s about then that you'll be greeted with a wait time prognosis. It probably won’t be good. And it probably won’t be comfortable, as their no text-when-table-is-ready policy will leave you on the street, checking the time on your phone, eyeing the endless edamame mounds through the window, or anxious and uncertain, as you hurriedly crush a pre-dinner drink at Halliday’s.
But within the next hour or so, you should be seated, greeted with plenty on the menu that the uninitiated may need help with. Like sake. Our server/bartender was quick with the recommendations, fast to point out, more than aptly, and with regard to its esoteric nature, “it’s like wine.” We thought it was wine. So one probably can and should run the conversational gamut between the sweet and the dry, between Zipang and Maboroshi, between sparkling rose, and junmai ginjo. Or there are always the non-stuffy comforts of a Hopothesis IPA, or a boozy, brain-freezy Brandy Old Fashioned slushie, the latter reminding, unlike Ardent, this is a spot not exactly taking itself too seriously.
Whatever the alcoholic option, a perfectly crisp, accompanying starting point is a seafood “tin.” You can choose between smoked mussels, chili and sardines, stuffed squid, smoked mackerel or chili mackerel. Our server assured us of the top shelf seafood quality, letting linger the line “they're from Spain,” this seeming to indicate all we’d need to know of it’s superiority. Still, if it feels a bit odd throwing down at a trendy restaurant for pre-packaged fare, you can rest assured these are certainly not your grandfather’s sardines. All the little oily sea critters we plucked from their metallic homes were delightfully pungent, salty, perfect to douse with chili oil, or sprinkle with the peppery Shichimi Togarashi, while drinking, pondering the Ocean’s fare and just what the hell it means to be a “ramen shop.”
It’s a bit harder for a waiter to speak to the quality or the presence of Spam. But order up a “Snack Pack” and you’ll find yourself constructing little tacos of a whipped version on the canned meat, like a creamy bologna, bedded neatly by surprisingly durable nori, topped with zesty pickle wedges, and begging for alternating spurts of a spicy yellow mayo and a horseradish-y, zesty Bulldog sauce. At this point you might realize it’s maybe silly to question the process, impossible to argue with the resultant mouth entrance.
But through it all, even through the zesty Shishito pepper appetizer with it’s deep, dark unagi sauce and delightful Bonito flakes, or the inevitable edamame, if you’re here, you should be here for one dish, the one in the restaurant’s name, after all, and the one the waiter asked us about as if there was no question our guts would be getting at least one of the three options therein. You could sample a mushroom miso, with enoki mushroom, miso, scallions, bamboo shoots, egg, and greens; or the chilled smoked trout shio, with nori, cucumber, crispy trout skin, and roe; but it’s the Tonkotsu that put Carlisle’s after-hours pet project on the map - literally. Here there is a fun little fish cake, salty wasabi greens. But the lasting impressions is entirely of a silky, milky, egg-washed broth, with mounds of steaming noodles, pockets of pork chunkage, and an unending richness. Really, the broth is almost disarmingly savory, literally bursting with hearty flavors, it all supporting the bobbing hardboiled eggs that are some of the best yolk bombs imaginable.
Exiting with stomach sloshing, it’s easy to get lost in revelry, wonder over just what makes ramen today so appealing, enticing. It strikes deep in the heart and gut of flavor country, yielding a complex bowl that is deeply satisfying, impossible to stop slurping, attacking with spoon and then chop sticks, it’s also an ethnic adventure of contrasting flavor notes and textures, but, is still as knowable as noodle soup. Simply, it’s high quality comfort food. And, as it turns out, you don’t have to know too much, to be too cool, to enjoy Red Light. Regardless, with reality blowing back in these next few months, this should well be the dream restaurant of Milwaukee winter time. If and whenever you can snag a table.