Prepping ramen is a process.
It takes time to get the broth just right; developing deep flavors through patience and virtue of the slowly steeping ingredients. It is also an obsession. Ramen houses are popping up all over the place, some great, some not so much, with various restaurants offering up their version of the Asian creation. Ramen is that good and that popular. But know this: Ramen is not for the weekend cook or timid eater by any measure.
There is just a lot going on in that bowl. You have the noodles, of course, as the star of the dish. The noodles have to be exact. They have to entice, they have to collaborate with the other components and, most importantly, they have to comply with the workhorse in that bowl, the broth. There are virtually endless combinations a chef can do to make the broth worthy of drinking straight from the bowl. The most common ramen broths start with a protein of some kind, with bones to give it a rich hearty body. For those who steer clear of eating animals, miso is a good place to start before adding vegetables and letting it just do its thing.
Ramon Gonzales knows this. All too well.
Born and raised here in Tucson, Gonzales started off as a baker, working in downtown hotspots, while at the same time assisting on the line and learning all the right moves of surviving in a busy kitchen. We have his mom, though, to thank for the first inclination to get into the ramen business.
"She was watching this show on the Food Network that featured Ivan Ramen," says Gonzales. "Here was this white guy in Japan making ramen and we just thought that maybe we could do that too. So, I just started studying and getting really into ramen."
It took months of research and a stint at the Los Angeles extension of Singapore's Yamato School of Ramen before Gonzales possessed the chops to open a noddle truck. Tucson Fat Noodle made its debut nearly four years ago as a mobile ramen unit and recently found a permanent location in an old coffee shop, slightly hidden on First Avenue and Wetmore Road.
"It's risky being where we are, but if you think about it, anything is risky," Gonzales notes. "We got the students here, there's other businesses around, but I am just confident that we have one of the best products in town. We still have the truck, so I'm not too scared. If you do it right, they will come."
What Gonzales and his team definitely do right are the two big ramen contenders: the broth and the noodles. Fat Noodle starts with 40 pounds of chicken backbones (which they boil for about 10 hours), 30 pounds of pork femur bones (that simmer for about 12 to 14 hours) and a vegetable stock, complete with mushrooms and leeks, that stews for about three to four hours. Each broth can be ordered individually but the Fat Noodle "service broth" is a combination of all three.
The noodles are a bit less complicated, yet technical just the same. Made with Arizona wheat and high-gluten flour and mixed with water, the noodles go through kneading, shaping, flattening and rolling. When the noodles are mixed with the broth, the magic happens. And Gonzales doesn't just use the noodles in the ramen; he also forms them into "buns."
Gonzales says he's working on a dessert menu that will include crème brulee and sweet filled dumplings.
"My passion is still pies," Gonzales says. "This will be something that you can only get here and not on the truck."