Union Ramen sizzles
New Orleans is a melting pot in more ways than one. Like its music, the food often expresses itself through improvisation. Starting from a common point, chefs play with form, rolling in local influences and ingredients to spread the gospel of taste. Union Ramen is a new place in town using the popular Japanese noodle dish as its muse to present variations on a theme.
Union Ramen is a joint venture between friends Jeff Gapultos and Nhat Nguyen. Jeff serves as operating manager and Nguyen is the executive chef, having honed his chops at, among other places, Bayona and (more recently) Kin. The pair knew they wanted to do ramen but there was some hesitancy. “We knew we could make the food in an enjoyable style, but we wondered if we were going to be accepted as a serious ramen place if we played with the flavors,” said Gapultos. Wanting to make an informed decision, they flew to Japan to do their due diligence at the Tokyo Ramen Show, the largest ramen festival in the world.
“That was one of the most amazing experiences we ever had,” Gapultos said. “And it encouraged us to keep going. Because what we discovered was that the only rule of ramen is you have to have ramen noodles in it.” Unlike other more traditional Japanese foods, experimentation was encouraged. “Chefs from all over were putting their own take on the dish. That gave us the confidence to do what we do best, which was adding the flavors of Philippines and Vietnam that we grew up with in our families. And, of course, our native New Orleans.”
One of the ways Union sets itself apart is with the small plates. Regional influences appear wrapped in traditional trappings. In their “Beggar’s Purse Dumplings,” tiny packages come stuffed with the regional favorite pimento cheese. “Southern Shorty,” a dish of braised spare rib, shreds with a fork. Its unctuousness is rounded out with BBQ sauce and a garnish of their homemade kimchee. The Lumpia – a Filipino take on eggrolls – are stuffed with a blend of cream cheese, shrimp and crawfish alongside a sweet pepper dipping sauce. Don’t miss their “Sweet and Spicy Wings” – a crowd pleaser that is easy to share.
Still, most people come for the ramen and Union offers several takes. They do a traditional Tori version built around a poultry broth. It comes loaded with roasted pork, bamboo shoots, scallions and more and then garnished with seasoned egg. There are a couple iterations of “Mazemen Ramen” – a version where the noodles absorb all the stock, created a “brothless” version which was born of their pivot to take-out during the pandemic. The “Dirty Mazemen” employs ground beef, tasso and other ingredients to build on a “dirty rice” theme. The “Slap-Ya-Kimchee” includes blackened chicken and kimchee. There are also vegetarian and vegan ramen bowls, including a miso one that gets its umami from an oyster mushroom confit. Indeed, given its variety of plant-based dishes, Ramen is highly recommended for both vegetarian and vegan diners. Ramen bowls can be accessorized with a laundry list of add-ons, though those can quickly drive up cost.
All this is served in a contemporary Lower Garden District dining room with a large common table in the center surrounded by a ring of smaller tables and bar seating offering a tempting array of cocktails and more. “We take our bar program as seriously as we take our food,” Gapultos said.
Union Ramen, 1837 Magazine St. Suite B, Lower Garden District, 459-2819. Unionramen.com
ABOUT THE CHEF
Longtime friends and now business partners, owners Jeff Gapultos and Nhat Nguyen bring a combined background in culinary and event management to Union Ramen. Born out of a series of pop-ups and supercharged by success at Gretna’s pre-pandemic NOLA Nite Market festival, Union’s original opening was postponed by the shutdown but they are back on track, slinging noodles in their LGD outpost. Their respective backgrounds – Gapultos’ Filipino and Nguyen’s Vietnamese – bring an added layer of cultural influences to bear on their ramen compositions. It truly is a “Union” of tastes.