First Taste

Umami in Tempe an Acceptable Entry to the Valley's Woefully Small Ramen Scene

When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

Restaurant: Umami Location: 21 East Sixth Street, Tempe Open: Over three weeks. Eats: Ramen Price: $11 to $20 per person.

Umami is the new ramen shop in Tempe, which, if you're keeping score, now puts the Valley about three years and jillions of noodle houses (minus one) behind the rest of the country's major cities when it comes to the utility food gone fad.

Tucked into the Brickyard building on Sixth Street, Umami is owned by chef Jared Lupin, who used to do noodle bowls at Tempe's Republic Ramen & Noodles, and Matt Marlowe, a former JP Morgan Chase consultant turned chef. The two scored the space upon winning a start-up restaurant contest in March, with the prize including six months of free rent and marketing.

See also: The Gladly, Sadly, a Hit-or-Miss First Taste

After you settle in to one of the tables in the brightly painted bar or dining room, your server will probably run you through the ramen order ticket instructions: pick your traditional broth flavoring of shio (sea salt), shoyu (soy), or miso (fermented bean paste) and then choose, if you wish, from nearly 20 optional proteins and toppings such as chashu (pork belly), corn, and tofu.

You probably will not be unhappy with the miso ($8), which, like all the three types of ramen, comes standard with pickled bamboo shoots, scallions, spinach, carrot flowers, naturo (fish cake) and nori (seaweed). The broth is satisfying -- a little sweet, a little salty, not too rich, but flavorful enough so that you can taste it on the accompanying thin and bouncy noodles (specially made for the restaurant by Sun Noodle in California) and well-balanced array of toppings.

Adding equally acceptable optional ingredients such as roasted chicken ($1.50), a hard egg ($1), and corn (50 cents) -- as I did on my visit -- brings the bowl to $11.

There is a build-your-own bento section as well ($2.50 each, four for $8), with eight standard offerings and a daily special. Across the board, my bento of kimchi, squid salad, pickled veggies, and a seaweed salad was adequate at best, with most of the flavors staying on the timid side. For now, stick with the noodle bowls.

Is Umami taking ramen to a new extreme? No, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a good ramen shop, not a great one. And sometimes, it's nice just to appreciate a more robust ramen scene in the Valley, no matter how glacial the pace of getting one is.

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