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: Nishikawa Ramen
Location: 1909 East Ray Road, Chandler
Open: About a month
Eats: Japanese noodle bar
While there still aren't all that many places in the Valley to get your fix of Japanese ramen, we've certainly seen an increase in options during the last year. Standbys including Hana Japanese Eatery and Republic Ramen in Tempe are still slinging noodles as well as they've ever been, and in the last 12 months, they've been joined by places such as Tampopo Ramen, a Tempe ramen spot known for its housemade noodles and Hakata-style offerings.
Last month, the Valley's ramen options increased by at least one with the opening of Nishikawa Ramen in Chandler. Billing itself as the "1st Authentic Ramen Noodle Bar In East Valley," Nishikawa offers six types of ramen, as well as a selection of tapas, donburi, and desserts. You'll find the restaurant at the end of a beige strip mall; the interior is decorated neatly with shining wooden tables, green walls, and red and white paper lanterns hanging over the kitchen bar.
During our late lunch visit, service was slow — albeit there was just one server handling the entire dining room, which saw a steady stream of diners even late into lunch service, which runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the week. We started our meal with both the takoyaki ($6.45) and pork gyoza ($4.95).
The takoyaki arrived first, a six-set of deep fried, octopus-stuffed balls buried under a thick layer of kastuobushi, or bonito flakes, and spicy mayo. Bite into one (carefully, as ours were piping hot even after we waited several minutes to dig in) and you'll find the crunchy exterior of each orb hides a small nugget of chewy octopus, but mostly just a lot of doughy batter. The gyoza were better. Each dumpling featured a delicate wrapper that gave way to a flavorful, meaty filling.
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As for the ramen, Nishikawa's offerings center around two broth options: either tonkostu or miso. Both can also be ordered with the addition of house spicy paste, and there's the choice to go for the restaurant's namesake Nishikawa Black ramen ($11.95) made with tonkostu broth that's punched up with sesame and garlic.
The Nishikawa Black is a flavorful bowl of noodles that's heavy even compared to most hearty, pork-based broths. But the umami-heavy combo of sesame and garlic is hard not like. The oil may be the only problem for some diners, as the bowl shines under a slick of black garlic oil. Toppings — including succulent pork chashu, green onion, fried onion, and a soft-boiled egg — are a highlight. The fried onions lose some of their crunch after sitting in the broth, but over all the combination of add-ons delivers a nice variety of texture to the tangle of house-made noodles.
Spicy tonkotsu ramen ($8.95) is also a good choice — though be warned, even an order of "medium spice" ramen will pack a pretty punch. In fact, the spice somewhat outshines the flavor of pork broth itself, which may be a deterrent to those who seek out a well-made tonkotsu broth. Topped with pork chasu, bean sprouts, green onion, and a soft-boiled egg, this bowl may get your nose running, but makes for a lighter meal than the Nishikawa Black.
In the end, there are probably as many varieties of ramen as there are restaurants that serve it, and finding the bowl of your dreams can only be achieved through trial and error. In the quest for your own perfect combination of noodles and soup, Chandler's Nishikawa is at least a worth a trip.