I can’t quite pinpoint the aroma inside Ren’s Ramen (11043 Amherst), newly opened next to Ruan Thai in Wheaton, having closed up shop in Bethesda last September. It involves soy, and miso, maybe some oil, probably pork, but the overall smell is savory and complicated, in a really good way. It is the smell of umami(mmmmm, glutamates…).
Ren’s menu is short, just a selection of four styles (i.e. broth flavors) of ramen (three with pork, one veggie version featuring seaweed broth), sides of gyoza or rice, and a few non-alcoholic drinks. You can add extra ramen toppings — more pork, corn, egg, butter (!) — for an extra dollar or three, but I’m not sure the value is there. The ramen costs $10 per bowl ($11 for the vegetable version), which sounds kind of steep, but the bowls are huge — does anyone ever actually pay $2 extra for the “large size serving”?
Not only huge, but delicious. The broth, like the ambient aroma, is rich, salty and complex, laden with a couple of pieces of roast pork, sprouts, bamboo (almost mushroom-like in appearance and texture), onion, bits of ground pork, and piled with scallions in the middle. It is also served hot (temperature, not capsaicin), I scalded my tongue a bit. Lurking beneath the surface is a tangle of ramen noodles, imported from Sapporo; they are fine, but the broth is the real star, nicely augmented by the tender pork. Did I lift the bowl up to drink the final drops of miso broth nectar? Are there pupusas in Wheaton?
I also tried the house-made gyoza, delicate dumplings stuffed with a super-finely-chopped pork mixture, seared on one side and then steamed. Five pieces for $5.50, very tasty. Overall the food here is not a superb value, the prices were higher than I expected, but the quality is very high, it will fill you right up, and you can’t get food like this anywhere else around here; Moby Dick is also Japanese cuisine and also very good, but completely different menu.
The only real issue is parking: the lot out front is tiny (do NOT park in front of the other businesses in the strip mall, at risk of being quickly towed), and most of the (metered) street spaces are 30 minute spots thanks to the post office a few doors down (meters/zoning not in effect for dinner of course, just lunch). Lots of hour-plus parking on Amherst on the South side of University, including the big Metro garage.
Ren’s is also still sorting out its staffing, it is family-owned-and-operated but in the process of hiring additional servers. Not much on the walls at this point either, just a couple of banners, but maybe they are going for distinctive minimalism? Beige tile floors, beige walls, dark wood chairs and tables. If the ramen doesn’t work out, they could serve whitefish sandwiches and Swedish meatballs and not change the decor at all. But I think the ramen will work out!