The tag line for Smokin’ Bowls is “not what you think.”
Obviously, with the Jerry Bears and tie-dye look, they’re playing up the green euphemisms out there (hello legalization?). So unless “traditional ramen meets Southern twist” in a mobile food truck comes to mind when you hear “Smokin’ Bowl,” it’s true, it isn’t what you might think.
On this wintery Nashville day, I decided to try Smokin’ Bowls out. Because I grew up making and eating wontons (I know, ramen =/= wonton) before helping my sister open a noodle shop, I have a particular fondness for noodle soup, especially unique broths or a different take on something. Call me crazy, but the LSD trip-inspired artwork of the food truck didn’t scream “traditional,” so I was prepared for something different. And that’s what I got.
While they have four core ramen offerings (Snoop, Jerry, Oz, Shroomin’), I opted for the Snoop ($10) because 1) it included pork bone in the broth and 2) it was the first one listed. It’s their most popular one and usually features pork bone and miso broth, smoked pork, kyotu noodles, shiitake mushrooms, green onions, pickled ginger, & hot chili paste. For an extra charge, I substituted my noodles for gluten-free rice noodles (+$1) and added a soy egg (+$1) to the bowl.
The owner asked me if I wanted a true gluten free option. That was nice, since food contamination is a real issue and not everyone boils the water separately. I declined, since I was only trying to reduce carbs. I asked for it to be HOT since I love spicy food, and took the little container down the street to eat it.
When I opened the container, I could immediately smell the smoke of the meat and the robust fragrance of the mushrooms. Since I asked for it to be spicy, I was slightly disappointed at the small dab of chili oil on the egg – but perhaps my spice standards are quite different than most Nashvillians.
The first step of any soup: test the broth.
The broth here was very rich – again, the smoke from the meat infused into the broth, so the slight bitterness of burnt wood (hickory, maybe mesquite) was immediately in the front, like an overeager party guest. At this gathering, the quiet introverts hanging in the back would be the umami flavors from the mushrooms. While it was salty and packed with flavor, it didn’t have the depth or body that you’d find in a traditional ramen broth (such as tonkotsu pork bone or shio). Personally, I wish the smoke flavors were dialed back some to allow that pork bone to shine…but that’s a very delicate balance that is tough to get. Having more chili oil (or perhaps a rice vinegar) would complement the existing recipe better and give it some more depth.
The ramen toppings tasted great: large chunks of pork (again, very pronounced smokey flavors), the mushrooms were bouncy and had solid flavor, and the pickled ginger was a nice bright spot that cut through the saltiness of everything else. The soy egg was perfectly cooked so the yolk oozed out. You could taste the soy and sake marinade throughout the soft boil – it was by far, my favorite part of this bowl.
The noodles weren’t anything to write home about. It probably would have been different with traditional ramen noodles, as these were your basic dried rice stick noodle. In fact, I wish that they were a fresh wide flat rice noodle instead (something like shahe fen), which would give it more chewiness without the tendency to fall apart into smaller pieces. Having it fresh as opposed to a dried stick would not only give it better texture, but taste too.
I knew that this wasn’t going to be a traditional experience – and it wasn’t. However, Smokin’ Bowls is trying something different, something that resonates with the flavor profiles of the South, and combine that familiar, yet new feeling. For some, it’s the kind of food you’d enjoy after a smokin’ bowl (the kind you do think). For others who just want a warm bowl of soup, it’s worth a trip (no, not that kind)
Smokin’ Bowl Nashville (locations vary, see their schedule here).