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San Antonio Chefs Head to State Capital for First Ramen Expo USA 

click to enlarge JESSICA ELIZARRARAS
  • Jessica Elizarraras

A far-off exposition center which hosts off-beat events like kennel club competitions, Ironman races and this weekend's Austin Scale Modeler's Society was home to the first-ever Ramen Expo USA. Put on by the Japan External Trade Organization, Texas Restaurant Association and Next Global, Inc., the event grouped together noodle, broth and ramen miscellany vendors inside the center's banquet hall.

I can't mince words: as a consumer, Ramen Expo USA was a noodle wonderland. With ramen restaurants blowing up across the U.S., organizers felt hosting an expo like the ones in Japan made sense. And if you missed the festivities this year, don't kick yourself just yet.

Geared mainly for businesses and restaurants to gain direct access to vendors and producers, the event was open to the public for a limited time during both days. Members of the media and food industry were given early access to the noodles, sauces, seasonings and toppings and Texas showed up, according to Next Global Inc's marketing manager Jamie La Torre.

"Honestly, we felt the love from Texas, not just from Austin, but also San Antone, Dallas, Pflugerville, Houston. This is awesome," said La Torre. She estimated attendance of up to 3,000 for Monday (when people were off for school and work), and 1,500 for Tuesday throughout the day. They chose Texas for its centrality, according to La Torre, as it's accessible to both coasts.

The expo was broken down into booths, each sharing a different product or sample from noodles to poké and everything in between. The longest line, at least 30 people deep throughout the day, was for Nishiyama Seimeo, from Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan, which asked attendees to choose from one of eight noodle varieties available and served up the fresh noodles table-side in groups of four. The wait was worth it.

Also worth the drive were the kale noodles sampled, frozen okonomiyaki (seafood pancake), smoked garlic oil, green onion oil and Sapporo Reserve served, and now I know where to score chopsticks with grooves on the tip for better noodle control.

The behind-the-scenes look into the ramen industry (even ever-popular Sun Noodle Brand out of Hawaii made the trek) was a tad overwhelming from the amount of noodle varieties per producer, to concentrates used to produce large batches of ramen broth in little to no time (think Knorr bouillon, but better).

Hot Joy's John Philpot, who visited the expo on Monday, said he could have done with less ramen enthusiasts and more variety per vendor. Philpot said he wasn't privy to broth concentrates before the event.

"We always make everything here which takes two to three days, but I get with smaller restaurants that don't have the people to make stock that can go for two days, it would be smart to streamline," Philpot said. Still he took home new-to-him brand of mixed-fish bonito with mackerel, sardines and anchovies and dried kelp to make stocks with.

Kevin Chu of Nama Ramen and Kuma off Babcock, made the drive to Austin with two employees.

"I loved it," Chu said, "it was good to see vendors in Texas so we have more options, and access and more tools to be creative."

He hinted at a new line of ramen at the tiny eatery that might draw in purists of the genre in the coming weeks.

Others, like Quealy Watson, co-owner and chef at Tenko Ramen at the Bottling Department Food Hall, came away with more information for ramen tools.

"The main thing I enjoyed was getting more info on something I've been looking into, a tester for salinity and a refractometer to measure the total dissolved solids, so I can keep things consistent," said Tenko Ramen co-owner and chef Quealy Watson via message.

Other expo-goers included food scientists and aforementioned ramen nuts, who La Torre said had a chance to ask vendors questions on cooking, toppings and techniques.

"Honestly with the love we felt, we are planning on doing one again next year," La Torre said. "Maybe in a new location, but we definitely felt the love in Texas."

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