First look: Ramen at Meshikou on Bethel

Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave

It's funny how sometimes the best ideas stare you straight in the face. That's what happened with Mike Shek, co-owner of Meshikou, a new ramen-focused eatery in the Bethel Centre strip mall. Every time Shek and his silent business partner would travel, they'd seek out ramen joints.

Finally, they grew tired of looking elsewhere for great ramen and focused on bringing it here. There was just one problem: Though Shek has a culinary background (he's worked in Asian-cuisine kitchens since he was 15) he had never made ramen before. And anyone who adores the noodle and broth bowl that has its own cult following lately knows this isn't a dish you simply whip up. Chefs in Japan spend decades honing their craft.

So, as the space was being remodeled into a vibrant orange and dark wood eatery with a long counter serving as a front-row seat to the kitchen, Shek headed for New York City. Here, he sought the help of a chef, who trained him under the condition that the NYC chef's name not be made public. Shek learned to make this chef's soup base-namely a tonkotsu (pork) broth that takes roughly 12 hours to make-to which he's added his own touches and adjustments for Central Ohio palates. For example, he's toned down the miso in the Spicy Miso Ramen, knowing many diners may not be used to the fermented flavor.

"We wanted to make the menu as simple as possible at first," Shek says, adding they sought to give customers both variety and ingredients that would be familiar. "Then we'll change the menu and add more flavor to build a taste [for authentic ramen]."

I've stopped in once and was impressed. The service was very friendly and the staff knowledgeable, able to answer our table's questions about dish flavors and ingredients.

A few dishes I recommend:

Meshikou Karaage ($7): Think of this as Meshikou's take on fried popcorn chicken. The appetizer is a metal basket filled with crunchy, flash-fried chicken, but it's the side of spicy citrus dipping sauce that makes the dish. It's got a good kick, but also a bitter citrusy note from a touch of grapefruit-like yuzu. Dip chicken pieces generously.

Shoyu Tonkotsu Ramen ($13): This is what Shek calls his house signature, a bastardized pork broth (known as tonkotsu) to which he adds soy tare, thickening the broth to a rich and velvety texture. My favorite part was the pork belly, which is tender and meaty, thanks to a 20-hour double braising method. Shek wavered from tradition with this process because he didn't like the fatty slices of pork belly that often come with ramen bowls. Also in this bowl you'll find green scallions, kikurage mushroom, slices of fish cake and a soft-boiled egg marinated in a soy-based sauce for five hours.

Spicy Miso Ramen ($13): Even the miso adverse will love this dish. Shek tones down the miso (he knows many Columbus diners may not be used to the strong, fermented flavor) and pumps up the spice level. It's not lip-tingling hot, but it does have a good kick. For the best result, give it a good stir to work the chili oil into every bite. It comes with kikurage mushrooms, corn, white scallions, a marinated soft-boiled egg and braised pork belly.

Also on the menu are a few chicken chintan (clear broth) ramen bowls that our server said eat more like traditional chicken noodle soup, but still include the traditional accoutrements (including pork belly, no chicken here). There are also "broth-less ramen" dishes that are basically cold noodle salads, including Yuzu Soy Mazeman with ramen noodles, pork belly, spring greens, spicy pickles, soft boiled egg and shredded seaweed in a yuzu soy dressing.

For more great spots to slurp ramen, check out our story here.