Arden Tse and Terry Wong were smitten with ramen, Japan's signature comfort food, before it gained traction in Edmonton.
Rather than attempting to replicate verbatim what one might order in, say, Tokyo or Kyoto, the pair looked to their hometown's geographic surroundings for insight. The land was generous and inspiration ample. Mr. Tse and Mr. Wong revelled in a bounty of Alberta-raised pork, handmade wheat noodles and even Gouda from a cheesery in nearby Red Deer County.
Mr. Wong and Mr. Tse tested their fledgling idea over the span of a year through a quasi-periodic series of pop-ups, and found public response to be rapid and ravenous. Indeed, Prairie Noodle Shop gained a loyal and burgeoning fan base that counted down the days until the pair's permanent digs threw open its doors in December, 2015.
Prairie Noodle Shop's cozy home is down a short flight of concrete steps facing the ever-busy, ever-tony 124th Street. The interminable queues and apologetic "sold out" signs of the Shop's nascent days have dissipated now and a comfortable crowd, spanning smartly dressed twentysomethings to families with babies, jockeys for seats. Silhouettes of prairie fauna – coyotes, hares, bison, pronghorn antelope – are etched out of plywood, frozen mid-gallop across the entire length of the dining room. The kitchen crew, clad in black T-shirts and rugged aprons, are all business and wry smiles. Co-owner Arden Tse is working the room tonight, and greets diners with easy conviviality.
Prairie Noodle's menu is right to the point. Three appetizers and three mains are scratched across a blackboard near the open kitchen. To begin, a Bao'wich ($6) arrives on a square of Japanese newspaper in a miniature bamboo steamer. The kitchen packs an impressive amount of flavour into a very small package; the summation of steamed bun, pork belly, red onion and slaw tastes impeccably reminiscent of a cheeseburger. An owl-emblazoned, gargantuan bottle of malty-sweet Hitachino Red Rice Ale ($16) and a dish of salted edamame ($5) with an acidic hit from fresh lemon juice bridges the gap between precursory snacks and the main attraction.
Smoked Gouda ramen ($15) arrives as a sublime tangle of toothsome noodles relaxing under a slowly-melting crown of golden Gouda cheese, procured from nearby, award-winning Sylvan Star Cheese Farm. Though cheese and soup are, upon first examination, strange bedfellows, further investigation reveals this creation to be an immensely satisfying synthesis of creamy dairy, toasty garlic, little whispers of chili oil, and grassy interjections of Chinese chive. It's rich, nuanced, and unexpected.
Prairie pork ramen ($15), the Shop's flagship noodle bowl, presents precise quadrants of smoked and shredded pork shoulder, charred corn kernels, bitter chopped scallions and a fawn-hued nest of noodles all bridged by a well-marbled section of pork belly. A halved umeboshi egg floats atop like a lifeboat carrying treasured cargo – a twist of fried pork rind. This egg is a centre of unrequited joy; a creamy alchemy of unctuous protein bewitched by the essence of salted plums. The namesake pork, though ample in physical presence, is disconcertingly dull. The surrounding broth, which ought to be the heart and soul of a ramen bowl, is similarly one-dimensional and one cannot help but wonder if something was lost in the transition from pop-up to permanency.
There is no dessert menu, and thus those hankering for something sweet are best advised to wander up the street in search of a bakery. A Lilliputian bottle of Indigo Wind Sparkling Sake ($15), though, washes away any residual yearnings with a measured crescendo of glittering bubbles that settles down to a gentle, floral suggestion of polished white rice. It could be the gustatory counterpart to a contemplative moment in a minimalist rock garden, but tonight it is an impromptu toast to an urbane crowd tapping their toes to Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Indeed, Prairie Noodle Shop doesn't pretend to be anything it is not. Mimicking what already exists would run contrary to the philosophy of ramen itself, which is to celebrate and recapitulate intense regionality. Prairie Noodle Shop sticks to their mantra of "Asian Noodles, Prairie Flavours" and does their hometown proud.