Restaurant Review: Yoshi Ramen and Veggie Heaven
Chef Stacy Chen is the bandleader of two distinctly tasty Asian restaurants
Reviewed by Jessi Cape, Fri., March 23, 2018
Daily, 11am-10pm; Happy Hour: Mon.-Thu., 2-5pm
There's something remarkable about food so tasty, so filling, so warm that it becomes a craving even on days when our local climate suggests we're being cooked in a convection oven. Such is ramen, Japan's solution to humans' insatiable desire for comfort. The newest addition to Austin's ramen roster is Yoshi Ramen, a sister to Veggie Heaven, whose new iteration croons our weird city's heart song.
Immediately upon entering Yoshi Ramen, the small restaurant tucked inside a new, nondescript commercial building in the Cherrywood corridor, a peaceful feeling ensues. Contemporary but not sterile, odd but not cheesy, the bright interior incorporates the five feng shui elements needed for a harmonious environment – water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. Streams of tiny paper cranes line the windows, casting whimsical shadows across the room; custom reclaimed wood furniture pairs beautifully with the mostly white color scheme. Strategically placed wall art and interesting Star Wars memorabilia balance the sleek design with character and charm. It's a great place to share a meal.
The familiar, comforting ambience is a testament to the familial ties with these restaurants. Owner, chef, and designer of the space, Stacy Chen opened Yoshi in January of this year as an ode to her grandmother's Osaka, Japan, ramen shop; Chen also reopened and relocated her mother's classic Austin restaurant Veggie Heaven last year, after Mei retired in 2014.
Priced to win fans, the Yoshi menu is approachable. The pork gyoza is a golden, crispy steal at $3.50 for three delicious pieces, and for the same amount, their veggie harumaki (fried spring rolls) are another great option. Verde chicken enchiladas are a Tex-Mex restaurant litmus test, and shoyu ramen serves that role in Japanese fare. Here, its chicken-based broth (all the meat-based broths are cooked for 16-plus hours each day) is robust in flavor, yet light and delicate – a great option for those still wavering about the richness factor of traditional pork tonkotsu. The bonus roasted tomatoes pushed it past the finish line for me, as well as my dining companions. If you're more adventurous, however, try the dan dan noodle-style tantanmen ramen. Spicy, with minced pork – a Sichuan twist away from the usual slice of fatty pork belly – its combo pork and chicken broth amped up with roasted jalapeños and a chili bomb is Chinese-inspired. It's so intensely flavorful that it made me dizzy. (That, and the $4 cucumber sake cocktails.) As an aside, my deep, abiding love for ajitama (missing from the dan dan, but included in most of their other options) forced my hand, and I added a few of the perfectly cooked blessings to my bowl.
Chen, who is clearly having a very busy year, has continued to expand her menu. They're now offering six donburi (rice) bowls and eight brothless ramens. Even better: They've seriously upped their game with vegetarian, vegan, and meat ramen burgers – a 2013 food craze out of New York City. I cannot wait to return, and, lucky for me, it's less than a 10-minute walk from my office.
Chen must be a real Star Wars fan, by the way, because that theme carries over into Veggie Heaven's new Fifth Street location, with delightfully quirky R2D2 soy sauce dispensers. The dishes I tried, however, were so well-balanced that I didn't need to use them, which was one of only two strange bummers. (The restrooms at the new spot were confusingly messy – not necessarily dirty – but it felt nostalgic, almost like a callback to Veggie Heaven's notoriously dingy former digs on the Drag, where there were college kids dining for decades.)
If before you felt cramped and concerned about elbowing the adjacent stranger, the new space (though not nearly as refined as Yoshi) has graduated. There's long bench seating on one side, paired with simple black chairs, and a few standalone tables near the front, and everything sits under the most fascinating – and abundant – light fixtures with dangling crystals. The artwork is mesmerizing enough to double as a dining companion. Just like the Guadalupe parking situation, Fifth Street isn't a breeze, but there is free parking in the back. Charmingly, the service is, well, pretty similar to the old haunt. Also new, this 2.0 version is now completely vegan (it was vegetarian before), but longtime fans can relax: The food is better than ever. Just in case you're new to town, or, like many of us, you've passed the peace pipe a few too many times since your last Veggie Heaven rendezvous, I'll reintroduce some of their best options.
Where her Yoshi menu is predominantly Japanese with hints of Chinese, Veggie Heaven is mostly Taiwanese flavors. My favorite, the Magic Tomato, arrives in a portion so large that it's at least two meals, and is best served with the trio rice – lovely, subdued purple combo rice that is more texturally interesting than flavorful – perfect for soaking up the 2-chile-level spicy, garlicky brown sauce. There's nothing more disappointing than greasy fried tofu, but these cubes are perfectly crispy on the outside and soft inside. The plate has an almost comical aesthetic with jumbo-sized vegetables reminiscent of big-bodied Mario & Luigi after a Super Mushroom encounter, including large broccoli and cauliflower trees, quarter- and half-dollar-sized carrot slices, and impressive pieces of napa cabbage. Speaking of fungi, the tangy sauce tossed with the (also hilariously large) fried button mushrooms and broccoli in the Tangerine Mushroom dish is another good choice. If you've got a ramen craving, the Protein Nuggets has the noodles, sans broth, weaving through fried vegetable proteins and heaps of veggies. Oh, and rejoice: The Protein 2000 has been reincarnated.
In a town of people trying to reinvent the wheel, it's refreshing to visit two spots, both under the helm of one talented woman, that pair the essence of oddball Austin with traditional global flavors.
Yoshi Ramen3320 Harmon, 512/243-6161
Daily, 11am-10pm; Happy Hour: Mon.-Thu., 2-5pm
Veggie Heaven1611 W. Fifth #135, 512/457-1013