When Rumplings garnered such buzz as a dedicated noodle joint in 2014, it was a much-needed addition to the Louisville culinary scene.
When it closed seven months later, it would have been easy to feel despair — but ramen and pho have gotten a toehold ever since, with no sign of letting go. Spots like Chik’n & Mi, Mirin, Pho Ba Luu and Pho Café, among others, keep Louisville noodled up.
Enter Ramen Inochi, which opened earlier this year in the very Highlands spot where the craze began with Rumplings.
The new ramen eatery, opened in February by Jonathan Chiu and Jonathan Ham, features a succinct menu with a few appetizers and a handful of ramen dishes, with a list of extras if you want to customize your bowl a bit.
The menu also includes a few bottled beers and sake — lots of sake.
If that’s not enough, Ramen Inochi announced on its Facebook page in early May that a daily happy hour, 5-6 p.m., would begin and continue indefinitely offering 20 percent off all dine-in orders. And that includes alcohol.
That deal was too much to pass up, even if a steaming bowl of ramen isn’t necessarily my first choice on a sunny, 90-degree day.
I stopped in for dinner shortly after the happy hour started, and the place had only two parties. By the time I paid my check, it was two-thirds full and buzzing, and by then I understood why. The food is darn good.
The space looks very different from the Rumplings days, with gentle blue tones on the walls, hardwood floors, flowers, hanging lamps and Japanese décor. Gentle instrumental music plays while you dine.
I sat at a two-top table and immediately someone came to take my drink order.
When my Orion beer came out, my smiling server was ready to take my order, which was spicy garlic edamame, even though the housemade gyoza and pork belly buns (sort of like tacos) looked tempting as well. Sticking with the spicy theme, I chose as my main course spicy miso.
Shortly before my edamame arrived at the table, an adjacent party of two received their pork belly buns, and based on the visual and aromas, I momentarily feared I’d made a terrible mistake. But then the unexpectedly large order of edamame arrived, and my fears were assuaged.
This is not the boiled edamame many Japanese eateries serve; this is sautéed with minced garlic and dried hot peppers, browned slightly in spots and served hot. Much of the edamame I’ve had is sprinkled with sea salt, which you suck off before deshelling it and eating the beans inside.
The garlic and spices involved with this edamame makes it a whole different experience, messier but bursting with flavor.
I was maybe a fourth of the way into my appetizer when my large bowl of spicy miso arrived at the table. I set the edamame aside (there’s enough in that appetizer for two or three people, easily) and focused on the reason I came in the first place.
The broth was reddish-orange in color, with scallions and kimchi, several slabs of tender cha shu pork, bamboo shoots, and half a soft-boiled egg, garnished with a nori sheet.
Per my usual process, I started with a few tastes of broth to prepare my palate for the flavor profile that awaited — the spicy broth possessed a pleasing, almost buttery texture and equally pleasing flavor with only medium heat.
Plenty of tender noodles awaited me when I grabbed my chopsticks, and I let the slurping commence. The pork added a hearty aspect to the mix, while the bamboo shoots were cooked just right, to the point of being firm but tender.
The soft-boiled egg was like the prize in the cereal box for this classic, hearty meal in a bowl.
I personally could have handled more spicy heat, but that is no complaint; I would call the spice spot on for most palates. Not everyone is a pepper head like I am.
All in all, the noodles I experienced at Ramen Inochi were good to the last slurp. Mind you, having a beard can make eating ramen a messy proposition.
Did I end up with miso in my nose? Yes. Am I proud? No. Is what it is.
Ramen Inochi also offers desserts, and other ramen choices are regular miso (sans kim chi), shio (with a sea salt-based broth), shoyu (with a soy-based broth and corn), and tonkotsu (pork bone broth). Extras range from $1-$3 and include options like radish pickles, extra noodles, extra kim chi and more.
Located at 2009 Highland Ave., Ramen Inochi is open Monday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m.-midnight.