Authenticity is just the start of a good meal, not the end
Update 5/5/2020 – corrected typographical errors
Countless words have been written about authenticity in non-Western food, a thorny argument with two opposing sides. On one side, in broad strokes, there are the puritanical traditionalists that see any deviation from the mother country’s recipes as arrogant or ignorant cultural neo-imperialism. On the other side, in equally generalised terms, there are the anything-goes adapt-or-die types. They see the culinary arts – like the cultures they sprung from – as living, breathing things that never stand still, always taking in new influences to birth new dishes and techniques as a result.
Into this fray swaggers Kauboi Ramen, an eatery seemingly custom-made to muddy the argumentative waters swirling around authenticity. Set inside the compact bar area for Texas Joe’s, Kauboi Ramen serves up Japanese-style ramen noodle soups – but with Texan-style barbecued meats instead of the usual chashu pork.
If you’re a pro-authenticity traditionalist, then this would seem like yet another cack-handed attempt at a deceptively simple dish in a long list of cack-handed attempts littering the capital. If you’re an anti-authenticity go-getter, then this is a fine example of the infinite malleability and adaptability of a dish that, after all, started life as an adaptation of Chinese-style wheat noodles and roasted pork.
As with many other things in life, the truth – or rather the heart of the matter – is far more nuanced than that.
Noodle soups at Kauboi Ramen
The wrinkly noodles used in all of Kauboi Ramen’s bowls were tangy and moreish with a moderate chewiness. Their mouthfeel still needs work though – even when opting for the extra hard option, the noodles never achieved the springy, bouncy firmness that I find especially enjoyable.
The Lone Star part of the Texan Tonkotsu was a thick slab of pork belly, its joyously sweet, fatty and smoky bacon-like qualities unlike any Japanese chashu I’ve ever had. Sadly, the tonkotsu broth wasn’t anywhere as impressive. The thin soup wasn’t especially creamy or flavoursome, with an odd tart sourness to it. This was especially disappointing, given that tonkotsu is my favourite type of ramen. Even so, there was much joy to be had in this bowl given that the oinkish vivaciousness of the pork was matched by the richness of the barely set egg, while the firm, almost crunchy fungus complimented the flavoursome noodles.
My ever-present craving for a creamily unctuous jolt came instead from the Texan Jaguar. Its broth was not only creamier, fattier and packed with more umami than the tonkotsu, it also had a sesame-garlicky undertone – no doubt helped along by the liberal dusting of dried garlic powder. Its multilayered charms were given an unctuous boost by the moreish and fatty slice of pork. The nori was surprisingly dull, but the runny just-set egg and tangy bamboo shoots were spot-on accompaniments.
The Kauboi beef ramen was, as far as I can tell, based around a bovine-based shoyu broth. Its meaty umami was not only reminiscent of shoyu, but also of bouillon-derived broths closer to home. Its exceptional moreishness was matched by the slices of brisket which were – as expected from the same team behind Texas Joe’s – smooth and meaty with a peppery bark, a hint of smoke and a gentle umami of its own. Surprisingly, the egg and nori was merely shrug worthy, but the menma bamboo shoots were tangy with a tender bite.
Beef chilli tantanmen is perhaps the most similar to its Home Islands forebear. The broth, shimmering with globules of fat, packed a ticklishly spicy heat. The beef wasn’t the evenly ground mince that you might expect from an old school tantanmen or the related dan dan mian, but a heap of chunky, fleshy, meaty strands and morsels with a light piquancy all of their own. The double-pronged heat of broth and meat helped cut through the former’s fattiness. Spot-on egg, bamboo shoots and nori rounded out a superlative bowl of ramen.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that small variations in the beef chilli can have an outsized impact. On a subsequent visit, the beef wasn’t as fleshy or as piquant as it had been before which greatly dulled its enjoyability.
The sole vegetarian option sees the meat swapped out for umami shiitake and surprisingly unmemorable enoki mushrooms. The shoyu-style breath had only a modest umami, but it did have a clean aftertaste. This mushroom ramen wasn’t bad, but it’s clearly a second best option to the better meat-topped ramens.
Side dishes at Kauboi Ramen
Kauboi Ramen’s chicken karaage benefited from moist, almost gamey thigh meat encased in soft batter seemingly flecked with ginger. The batter can sometimes vary either way in its level of crunchiness; in any case it’s an oil-free delight – especially when dunked into the thick, creamy, lightly spiced mayo on the side.
Takoyaki are only occasionally available. Despite the meagre tentacle tidbits lurking at the centre of each ball, they’re still worth savouring. The soft, squidgy and doughy spheres were remarkably moreish, helped along by quivering katsuobushi flakes and a mixture of mayo and brown sauce.
Gyoza are deep-fried, increasing their resemblance to crab rangoons. The crunchy skins were nevertheless oil-free and filled with a punchy pairing of pork and chives, its moreishness helped along by a garlicky soy dipping sauce on the side.
Kauboi Ramen certainly isn’t a traditional ramen-ya, but then its apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Setting aside its disappointing tonkotsu broth and the lack of properly hard noodles, its innovations – mainly in its meat toppings – play into the dish’s strengths of bold, hearty flavours.
As for the issue of authenticity, my view sits somewhere in the middle between the purists and the get-over-it nay-sayers. Mainly because I remember the arse-clenchingly awful state of non-Western restaurant food in the UK throughout much of the 80s and 90s.
While there were a few exceptions, as a rule dishes and recipes back then were so heavily adapted to suit Western tastes – and often adapted so badly – that they were almost unrecognisable. This was done, of course, for economic reasons – if no one wants your traditionally made dishes, then there’s no point in selling them as you’ll soon be out of business.
We’ve come a long way since then, but adaptations – of course – still occur. As I see it, the difference is that such adaptations are no longer done purely out of fear – fear of alienating unadventurous customers that just want something familiar and relatable, fear of losing custom. Adaptations are now often made with respect to the source material, while driving forwards the state of the art – all of which has been made possible by an increasing proportion of diners that are no longer afraid of the unfamiliar.
That particular kind of respectful, quality-driven inauthenticity devoid of fear is one I can get on board with. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that it’s on display at Kauboi Ramen, a sister project to Texas Joe’s. The latter showed London how beautiful traditional Texan-style barbecue can be. Melding that culinary tradition with another from half-a-world away has produced something that, while not without its flaws, pays homage to its roots while being scrumptious in its own right. Few other London restaurants have managed similar feats. Despite the gravely uncertain future facing London’s restaurants, I hope we’ll always have room for such fearless ambition.
What to order: Kauboi beef ramen; Texan Jaguar ramen; Beef chilli tantanmen
What to avoid: Nothing is truly bad enough to be worth avoiding
Name: Kauboi Ramen
Address: 8-9 Snowsfields, London SE1 3SU
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-21.00. Closed Sunday.
Reservations: not taken.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £20-25 approx.