Let me start by saying this: I love ramen. Translated directly from Japanese as “pulled noodles,” strict traditionalists use chinese wheat noodles served in a meat or fish-based broth, boiled until the texture gives delightful chew. This can then be flavored with miso or soy sauce. Nearly every region in Japan has their own take on the delicacy, their recipe often closely guarded. The resulting soup is equal parts savory and filling; done right, it soothes and comforts in a way that borders on divine. And the toppings! You can add Nori (dried seaweed), to give it a salty flair. You can blanket it with bean sprouts. Smooth out the umami with butter. Shake in white pepper for a kick, spoon in corn for the crunch. Or if you’re more like me-- an irreverent heathen, no doubt-- just dump everything in with enough sriracha to burn-off an eyebrow.
That’s what I love about ramen. Ramen gives you permission to riff, to be imperfect, to be what you want. Rarely does a food capture the DIY essence of the island music scene so well. And now, in Blaine _____ and AC’s Noodle Ille’gal, I can say that the island has a new, welcome entry into the depressingly bereft asian food scene, delivered in the spirit of the same impromptu pop-up shows and late-night-after-the-bar munchies that inspired its inception in the first place.
Both Blaine and AC are musicians to the bone. I’ve been caught headbanging in their audience more than once. But you taste that same soul in their food. Much like the punk rock aesthetic or the syncopated rhymes that characterize their craft, they like to experiment. Ramen, at its heart, is like a guitar solo: it leaves room for variation. And the way that Noodle Ill’egal celebrates that in each new version of their dish speaks to how the duo riffs off of each other for their next big idea. To hear Blaine describe it, “We cook Japanese food with a Texas soul to it.”
“Really, most of the time when you taste popups, it’s him and I putting input in both of the dishes and shit together you know?” said AC. “We’ll adapt. We’ll look at traditional ways to prepare these bowls, and then we’ll be like, ‘you know what? What is close to that and would have a similar flavor, but be more extravagant, something more tight? We’re constantly evolving.”
For example, in one of their most memorable dishes, the Texas State bowl, AC drew upon his heritage for inspiration as he cooked up a batch of charro beans to use as a ramen topping. Blaine added his own innovation by using miso with black beans instead of the traditional doubanjiang (fermented soybean). The noodles? Topped off with fajita meat seasoned with asian spices.
For some, such creativity may lean so far as to be sacrilegious. But it’s in that tension between tradition and rebellion where Noodle Ill’egal starts to truly find its footing. While hardcore purists may scoff at the idea of Mexican sensibilites invading their soup, the willingness to explore interesting ways to break the rules motivates their study of the ways of ramen.
“[Ramen] is a renegade kind of food, you can put whatever in there,” said Blaine. “And when I started the idea… I guess if you really had to describe what Noodle Ill’egal is supposed to be, it’s Japanese-Texas soul food. We both learned how to cook southern food our entire lives, so why not incorporate what we know? Good food is good food at the end of the day.”