Commercial Appeal: Best Bets – Spicy Tan-Tan from Lucky Cat Ramen
Just hearing the description of "spicy tan-tan," one of Zach Nicholson's ramen noodle creations at Lucky Cat Ramen, made me crave a bowl.
The tan-tan, which includes chashu pork, is "heavily roasted sesame and chili flavored, so it's got a lot of back-of-the-throat heat," Nicholson said. "Nutty from the sesame. A little bit of fish sauce in there, too, for more umami. And ginger, shallot. A little bit of garlic in there, too. We top it with a mixture of roasted salted peanuts and some spicy chili oil that has some fresh shallots and garlic and sesame oil in there, too."
And then there's the egg. "The special thing about the egg is it's soft boiled very precisely. The center is custard-y. Once they're soft boiled, we peal them and marinate them in a shoyu (aged soy sauce) bath for 16 hours."
This is extremely flavorful. If you think it's too salty (it's supposed to be salty), Nicholson will be happy to add more broth.
For now, Lucky Cat Ramen is a pop-up restaurant every Sunday at The Cove from 4 p.m. until they sell out their food. They're planning future weekly events at Memphis Made Brewing Co. as well as other special events. Nicholson plans eventually to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
"Our concept is ramen, essentially," he said. "We don't claim to be strictly authentic Japanese by any means. We do ramen bowls, but we kind of play around with flavors from all over the East. The tan-tan is heavy Thai with the peanut and the fish sauce and topped with a little bit of loose cilantro."
Why ramen? "I chose ramen because I feel like it's a complete meal. My favorite type of food is food that tastes like it's been cooking for days. And it has, quite literally. It enables us to get creative and do whatever we want since we can break the rules as much as we want. We get to use good ingredients and offer it at a price that's accessible to a lot of people.
"The broth itself, we cook it for a minimum of 48 hours to really extract all the collagen and all the marrow and flavor. That makes it such a great broth."
Nicholson began his culinary career working for Erling Jensen at Erling Jensen: The Restaurant, where he worked on and off for eight or nine years.
His wife, Sarah, who works with him at Lucky Cat Ramen, is a pastry chef. She now works at Hollywood Feed, where she "developed all the recipes and designed the bakery for their new bakery at their Union location," Nicholson said.
Nicholson got his restaurant's name from "that ubiquitous lucky cat you see all over Asian restaurants. It's a symbol of good luck and of welcoming."
Eric Bourgeois and a group of his friends tried the spicy tan-tan the night I was there. "I really like the consistency of it," Bourgeois said. "It's the nutty flavor that really brings out that pop. And you've also got a hint of heat. I think that goes well with the egg, actually. The egg is one of my favorite parts of the dish."