Dining » Dining Review

Aji Ramen Bar provides great food, atmosphere

And uncommon ramen.

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GO WITH THE PORK: The ramen bowl of pork belly, egg, onions, black mushrooms and "chili hair" was served piping hot.
  • GO WITH THE PORK: The ramen bowl of pork belly, egg, onions, black mushrooms and "chili hair" was served piping hot.

It's a random weekday night around 7 p.m. and Aji Ramen is buzzing. Its location in an unassuming West Little Rock strip mall (a couple of doors down from Star of India) belies the fun, hip vibe inside. There are several four-top tables along the southernmost wall and more seating around the L-shaped bar. The kitchen is open, allowing aromas to drift. Servers dart here and there. The sound of slurping can be heard at the little bar beside the front door. The whole place hums.

The wall of the long, narrow restaurant is home to a mural depicting jolly Japanese men making ramen noodles and broth. The good-spirited staff seemed to go about their work with a similar disposition. "It's always this busy," our server said when we asked if the amount of hubbub was normal. "On weekend nights, there's a line."

Aji achieves a rare bit of magic, making you feel like you're somewhere else entirely. Tucked into a table in the back corner of the restaurant with a couple of friends, we felt like we'd ducked into a ramen bar on a cold night in Brooklyn.

There are plenty of small plates to share. Although we were tempted by the fried octopus balls, we decided on some more familiar choices. The fried vegetable spring rolls ($2.95 for two) are what you'd expect: filled with veggies, fried to a golden brown, a safe and dependable choice. The pork and veggie gyoza dumplings ($4.95 for six) were one of our favorites. They're lightly fried, which adds a nice textural note, and the ponzu sauce that comes with them is bright and tasty. The pork buns ($4.25 for two) were a bit heftier than the rest, but they're great for splitting. The pork belly was cooked properly: tender and juicy. The bun itself was nothing remarkable (we've found that to be the case no matter where we've had them), but the pork and sauce more than made up for it.

For the main course, you basically have two options: ramen or rice bowls. Within those two categories, there are lots of varieties to choose from. We picked our server's brain about what to order for the main course. "Any of the Ms and Ts," she said, referring to different ramen options (M for miso broth and T for tonkotsu, or pork broth, as far as we know). "And go with pork over chicken."

We found that to be a good rule of thumb to follow at Aji Ramen. Despite the restaurant being full, turnaround was quick. Two orders of T1 ($10.50) — rich creamy pork broth with pork belly, soft-boiled egg, green onions, black mushrooms, seaweed, corn and "chili hair" — came out piping hot along with two rice bowls, one chicken and one with chopped pork.

GOOD GYOZA: Lightly fried dumplings, with a bright ponzu sauce.
  • GOOD GYOZA: Lightly fried dumplings, with a bright ponzu sauce.

The rice bowls were solid. Both the chicken ($6.50) and pork ($7.50) were flavorful and juicy, and the portions of both meat and rice were generous. The bowls were garnished with a leaf of lettuce (we recommend making a lettuce wrap with the leftover sauce from the appetizers). Next time we will add some fresh vegetables, one of the only things we found lacking. But really, though, you come to Aji Ramen Bar for the ramen.

We're no experts, by any stretch, but we do know good stuff when we taste it. The ramen was everything we were hoping it would be: rich, meaty broth with plenty of classic ramen noodles, veggies and protein. Knowing there was such a chill in the air outside made it that much better. The broth was nice and fatty, warming the soul on its way down the esophagus. The noodles were sturdy — cooked to a nice al dente — and filling, too. Of course, there's no cute way to eat it. It's best to keep your mouth as close to the bowl as possible and shovel and slurp your way through it. It was a surprisingly hearty meal, perfect for these cold, wet December days. Or any day for that matter. We just hope you can get a table.

Aji Ramen Bar

301 N Shackleford Road, Suite F3414-8433

QUICK BITE

We didn't expect to see — nor would we typically go for — creme brulee at a Japanese restaurant, but we're happy to admit we were short-sighted. Our server bragged that the creme brulee ($4.50) was homemade, so we figured what the hell. It was great. Pale yellow in color, with a nice stiff, creamy texture, and a good ol' layer of burned sugar on top. Try it. You'll be glad you did.

HOURS

11 a.m. until 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Open until 9:30 on Friday and Saturday. Closed Sundays.

OTHER INFO

Beer, wine and sake available. CC accepted.

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