After many moons of preparation and anticipation, the noodle shop under the Ambassador Bridge is finally open, and Detroiters can at last slurp to their heart's delight. Brought to you by Jacques Driscoll and chef Les Molnar of Green Dot Stables, Johnny Noodle King's name pays homage to the restaurant's former incarnation, Johnny Ham King. But fashions change, and while ham may have had a following back in the day, the ramen craze that's been in full force for several years on the coasts has finally made its way to metro Detroit (see also: Ann Arbor's Slurping Turtle).
The restaurant, a small cinder block building that seats maybe 60 people, has been decorated in an understated industrial chic. Metal booths, concrete floors, and bright white brick and tile are balanced by the warmth of the reclaimed wood bar. Iconic Detroit images float by on a flat screen, all with a noodle bowl superimposed in the foreground. Red and white are the signature colors, down to the restaurant's bespoke chopstick wrappers.
The menu gets right to the point, with just eight noodle bowls, eight sides, and eight types of beverages. In likely anticipation of those who would measure its food by the yardstick of authenticity, Johnny Noodle King has a disclaimer of sorts on the back of the menu, stating that while its food is "heavily inspired by" Japanese cuisine, that the chefs' backgrounds are diverse, and, in so many words, that their intention is not to reproduce a slavishly accurate bowl of Japanese ramen but rather to express culinary creativity.
Indeed, my unexpected favorite noodle bowl was the Southwest, a mash-up of Latin flavors and Asian presentation. Shredded pork in a slightly spicy broth reminiscent of menudo (although the tripe in this version is much less prevalent) is accented with chilis, corn, pickled tomatillos, and cilantro; a poached egg, ramen noodles, and nori deliver it into the Asian realm. The result is a combination where each element enhances the others, rather than coming off as confused.
A warning to those who eschew fat, skin and/or bones in your food: This might not be the place for you — although, you're missing out! Half of the bowls contain pork belly or confit chicken thighs with skin and a thick layer of fat still attached. Fat equals big, rich flavor, though; the broth in the miso ramen bowl tastes like roasted chicken drippings in soup form. Ironically, the shoyu, which contains pork belly, is lighter and cleaner-tasting, with a faint but distinct aroma of the sea.
Lovers of spicier fare should try the red curry bowl; although the menu doesn't list it as a spicy item, we'd say it ranks as at least "medium" on the standard Thai restaurant scale. My friend thought it was just right, but I would've preferred it ever so slightly milder, only because the heat distracted me from the spot-on flavor balance of sour, salty, and sweet.
The bowls are plenty filling for most appetites, but there are a few sides worth checking out. We couldn't pass up the tableside torched mackerel, enough to share between a foursome. Surprisingly (the menu makes no mention), the fish is marinated in some type of vinegary sauce, and the resulting dish tastes more Scandinavian than any Japanese preparations I'm familiar with. Regardless, it's addictive, especially when dipped in the accompanying spicy mustard. Bacon lovers will swoon over the bacon rice, with its thick, meaty slices burnished with a sweet glaze. I can't personally recommend the gyoza, which I found heavy, overseasoned, and greasy, but the guys I was dining with thought they were fine. The octopus appetizer, which we thought was going to be like octopus salad, disappointed with mealy texture and lack of seasoning.
Probably due to lack of storage space, beverages are limited to beer, sake, whiskey, and fancy bottled sodas. Beer geeks will recognize Hitachino Nest, the beer with the cute owl on the bottle; the white ale is one of the most delicious beers I've had the pleasure to drink lately. For something less rarefied, there's Sapporo on tap. House sake is pleasant and quaffable, if a bit pricey. "Johnny Smoking Gun" whiskey from Two James is the one and only liquor option; luckily, it's a good one. I was a little surprised green tea isn't offered as another nonalcoholic choice.
Online buzz about Johnny Noodle was mixed in the first couple of weeks after their opening; I chalk up the negative chatter to a combination of overblown expectations and the speed bumps that accompany almost any restaurant debut. We had a couple of side dishes we didn't love, but the noodle bowls consistently rewarded us with big flavors worth slurping up every last drop.