Jan 30, 2024 Restaurants
“Can I put my number down so you can give me a call when a table’s ready?” I asked the guy at the front counter. He looked nervous and harried. It was Grand Opening Day. Hardly anyone seated had food on their tables, and other people clustered around the entrance of the restaurant, waiting with their arms crossed and faces turned down, like they were about to be told their flight was cancelled. You could feel the tension rise every time someone else’s name was called. “No, sorry,” he replied. “If you’re not here when we call your name, we’ll have to just go down the list.”
We were not on Karangahape Rd, trying to get into the newest wine bar, or in Grey Lynn, clambering for a spot at a cafe that had the ‘best croissants in Auckland’. We were in the depths of the North Shore, in a little seaside suburb called Browns Bay, on a Sunday afternoon. Even in the light of day, diners were feral for ramen.
Browns Bay’s pavements are more familiar to me than any other streetscape in the city — well-worn and -trod by my God-awful school-sanctioned sandals and Docs. I ate ice cream at Penguino before I grew up and realised how badly it sucked, and drank latte bowls at La Tropezienne before I cared that I was lactose intolerant. Whenever something new opened in Browns Bay, it was an event in my household — especially as more and more Asian-owned restaurants moved in, starting with the white-friendly Japanese donburis and Thai stir-fries, then on to Cantonese yum chas and Sichuan hot pots, all the way to the Muslim Uyghur cuisine and Korean-Chinese jajangmyeon.
It is not considered a culinary destination by anyone, but after moving away, I’ve become weirdly protective of Brown Bay’s merits. The Korean restaurant, SongDo, has a pork-bone soup so good that I burn my fingers every time, picking up the knobbly bits of bone, sticking my pointer through the crevices to coax gelatinous fat into my mouth. The Korean-Chinese place next door to it has had the same woman manning the floor since I was a kid, and serves a sugary-sweet jajangmyeon so huge that I need to shovel it in at a consistently furious pace; if I stop and lose momentum, I’ll be defeated. There is a frequent turnover of cafes and restaurants in Browns Bay, as many fight for a sliver of a small pond; and I still bask in a degree of ownership, whether legitimate or not, over whatever opens there.
Ramen Takara is likely the busiest restaurant in the township, so it makes sense that someone else thought it was a good idea to open their own ramen joint. I think I had my first-ever bowl of ramen at Ramen Takara (somehow I had visited Japan and managed to avoid it there completely) — it opened when I was at intermediate and I ordered the spicy black tan-tan, because I saw it in Metro. I imagine that a lot of people living in Browns Bay had their first ramen at Takara.
I have a cheesy sort of reverence when I’m trying a dish that I’ve never eaten before, especially when it’s a staple in a culture’s cuisine. Even if you’ve had something similar, you know that this collection of ingredients, combined in this particular way and presented just so, is the product of many years of workshopping and development in domestic kitchens and restaurants, and has been loved and hated many times over. I like to imagine the way someone will taste it and think of home, just like I would with nasi lemak or char kway teow.
Zero Ramen’s head chef and owner, Joji, previously worked as a head chef at Metro Top 50 restaurant Kazuya . His new place has a wood-heavy fit-out; it’s a restaurant with depth, hiding a playpen in the back for parents to fence their kids in while they dine on karaage chicken, and with a tree-trunk-like bar counter with wiggly edges for dates to perch at. While we were waiting, we browsed the shortened menu: two main types of ramen (paitan or tonkotsu), with either a shoyu-base seasoning or salt-base seasoning, plus a vegetarian and miso variety; some donburi options; and tapas-style sides. Little stars signalled what the chef’s specials were: the paitan Zero Special ($27), which came with the works, and the homemade gyoza ($13), both of which we ordered.
Paitan is meant to be cloudy — its direct translation is ‘white soup’, though the broth doesn’t have to be white-white to be considered paitan. (It’s a little confusing, because tonkotsu, specifically a pork-based soup, is an example of paitan, but because of its popularity it’s often referred to as a separate style.) The chicken paitan at Zero has a base of shoyu, which is a type of soy sauce, and a cloudy opaqueness, and is clearer and sweeter than its tonkotsu counterpart. It tasted like the nori had been infused into the broth, spiking it with an earthy seaweed-ness. Unfortunately, the aburi chashu wasn’t seared enough before it hit the broth, and wasn’t braised long enough either — the meat was the type of chewy where you have to chomp it for a long time between your teeth and then discreetly swallow it once fully pummelled. When you got a fatty bit, though, the flavour was excellent, and it somehow tasted better in the tonkotsu broth than it did in the paitan.
The Tonkotsu Classic ($20) was rich, creamy and so savoury that it made me thirsty for hours after (in a good way); so garlicky that it overpowered all senses. Tonkotsu is tasty in a bash-over-your-head, all-consuming kind of way that always wins me over, no matter what it stands against. It has a weight when you drink it, infused with porky collagen — the type of liquid I can imagine keeping in a hip flask to take a quick swig of when you need to inject some life into a tedious afternoon.
The front-of-house staff were rushed off their feet. After taking our order, the server told us there’d be “a bit of a wait, sorry”. Having carved himself out a brief pocket of non-activity, he took down all the old tickets on the wall — tables that had already been served — obviously having been too busy to attend to them earlier. Though we did wait a while, we didn’t mind. I love experiencing the flurry of an opening day, that intangible zeal that buoys everyone and makes the diners who come in feel like a part of something.
In the Chinese dialect Hokkien (my dad’s language), we have a term, ‘kiasu’, which is basically a way of describing a fear of missing out. It is usually deployed in a negative way (‘She is so kiasu’), but it’s a fundamental characteristic of Chinese culture, particularly for Malaysians and Singaporeans — we want to be the first, and we don’t care what we have to do to get it, no matter how long the wait. I think this is an essential piece of the puzzle about why I like writing about food so much — my kiasu-ness, an anxious competitiveness, demands to be fed with the new. And I felt a sense of accomplishment having been fed with the new, this new ramen.
We were served on the tail end of lunch service, so late that we witnessed one of the staff, with palpable relief, turn over the Open sign on the door to Closed. The first hurdle, jumped.
Zero Japanese Ramen and Sake Bar
56 Clyde Rd, Browns Bay
09 200 0692
Wed–Fri 11.30am–2.30pm, 5–9pm;
Sat–Mon 11.30am–3pm, 5–9pm