I got really into ramen when I first moved to Los Angeles in 2014. The ramen craze hadn’t yet fully swept across the nation, and there was no ramen shop to be found in Durham, NC, where I was living before then. Well, actually, there was a certain butcher shop that had started making ramen one day a week. That butcher shop later turned into a full-fledged restaurant and bakery called Rose’s. Many years later, I spent a couple months working there. But in Los Angeles, ramen was already a big deal. I had spent fifteen years eating pho, and this was my time to branch out. I obsessively went all over gigantic LA, eating as much ramen as I could. I’d hit up Daikokuya in Little Tokyo; Modan in Eagle Rock; Tatsunoya in Pasadena; Ramen Champ in Chinatown (which, sadly, has since closed); the brilliant Tsujita in Sawtelle/Japantown, and many more.
In 2017 life brought me to Berlin, Germany, and sure enough, I found some amazing ramen spots there as well. I was gaga over the Tonkotsu at Cocolo, and I was always impressed with what they were making at Hako. There were still more places popping up. Ramen was spreading everywhere. It was as though white people finally gave it the stamp of approval it needed to open up more widely to the western world. Thank goodness.
Many German beers and currywursts later, it was time for me to head back to the US. I wasn’t ready to go back to the East Coast, so I decided to move to Portland, Oregon. I showed up with just the two suitcases I had left Berlin with, and crashed on a friend’s floor until I figured out my own living situation. I spent the next two years working at a delicious and very popular ramen bar called Kayo’s. Needless to say, I ate an incredible amount of ramen there. Once I was enmeshed with the crew there, the kitchen staff let me put together my own bowls. It was wonderful. However, eating at the place where I worked did not stop me from exploring other ramen shops around Portland, of which there were several.
Fast forward through my brief time living in Long Beach, CA, walking to get ramen from Jounetsu. Fast forward through moving back to the East Coast, and my year back in Durham, eating soup at Dashi. Now I’m back in Richmond and still always on the lookout for great noodles, ramen being among them. The place I keep going back to here is Grace Noodle, on Main Street in Shockoe Bottom. I aways enjoy stopping in there for my late lunches. Everything I’ve tried has been fantastic. I think their “Wantan Ramen” is outstanding. I highly recommend it. But in this Noodle Time series, I already wrote about a wonton noodle soup. I decided it was important to focus my attention on one of my truest ramen loves, and that’s Tonkotsu.
Tonkotsu has a rich and creamy broth made from pork bones. At Grace Noodle, the broth has tons of black pepper in it, which I thoroughly enjoy. They add a slice of perfectly tender pork chashu; half a boiled egg; bright pink, finely sliced pickled ginger; seaweed; bamboo shoots; and cute little slices of that classic white and pink swirled Naruto (or narutomaki), which you don’t always see. Naruto is essentially a tube made from minced fishcake, and it’s well known in Japan. Both the broth and the pork chashu include a special, secret sauce, created by Grace Noodle’s owner, Malay.
Malay is originally from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Not only does she own Grace Noodle, but she also owns and operates an Asian Market on West Broad Street called, quite simply, Asia Market. She doesn’t spend too much time working at Grace Noodle, so I hunted her down at Asia Market so we could chat. I asked her why she named her ramen shop Grace Noodle if it’s on Main Street. Did it used to be located on Grace Street? The answer is no. It’s called Grace Noodle because of what she believes to be the grace of God, and she launched into a story which brought tears to her eyes, and ended with me giving her a little hug.
In the 1990s Malay fled military-run Burma. She got a visa and moved to Tokyo, Japan. She married her husband there. In 1999 her daughter was born. There were unforeseen complications. The baby had water in her brain, which left her disabled for life. The hospital bills were racking up, and Malay worked in a ramen shop for eight years. This is where she honed her craft. Eventually she and her husband’s visas ran out, but they could not return to Burma, so they continued to stay in Japan, illegally. They had no insurance and a daughter who needed a lot of care. The United States was running a visa lottery. She and her husband prayed that they would win, and they did! In 2003 they moved the family to the US, originally to Southern California. They learned to speak English, and later came to Richmond for a lower cost of living.
In 2014 she opened Grace Noodle. This June they will have been open for eight years. In 2018 she had an opportunity to take over as the owner of Asia Market, and took it. So if Malay is rarely at Grace Noodle, who runs the shop? That would be Malay’s kind-hearted sister Lulu, also a refugee from Myanmar. Their niece Lily is the one in the kitchen making the food to order. This means that Grace Noodle is an establishment 100% owned and operated by a family of immigrant women. It’s a beautiful thing.
You can see elements of Asia Market inside Grace Noodle. They have lots of Asian beverages, including canned bubble tea, and several flavors of the sugary Japanese soda, Ramuné. The Ramunés are lined up on a counter like a lovely glass bottle rainbow. If you’ve never drunk one before, I can tell you that it’s a very fun bottle to open. You’ll see what I mean. And when I’m paying at the register, I often buy a package of Hi-Chew candy. I like the mango flavor. If you’re a Pocky fan, you can grab some of those as well.
One thing that makes the ramen at Grace Noodle so particularly divine is right there in their name: the noodles. They make the noodles in-house, every day, and it shows. After a while of eating ramen, you learn to tell which places are using store-bought noodles. They just don’t have the same oomph to them. It’s the difference between dried pasta and freshly made pasta. You can just tell, and you grow to appreciate the people who take the time to make it themselves. Originally they were hand-cutting all those noodles, but eventually they were able to get a special noodle machine sent over from Japan, making their lives a lot easier. Someday I’d like to see this machine in action.
There are still plenty more styles of Ramen I’ve yet to try at Grace Noodle. I can see myself going there even more as the weather gets colder. I’d like to try every ramen they make. I’m so fixated on soup that it’s hard to consider ordering some of the many other non-ramen dishes they make, but I feel I owe it to them, and myself, to give them a try. I’ve got their menu in front of me now as I write, and I’m eyeing the Mabo Tofu, the Sauce Yaki Soba, and the Curry Rice.
I suggest you start with the ramen as well, but no matter what you order, know that you’re supporting very good and kind people who make their food with a whole lot of love. And, like me, you don’t have to be religious to enjoy the story behind their name. I really appreciate the sentiment. Malay and her family have been through quite a lot of hardships and have persevered, finding success with not just one, but two distinct businesses. I find the whole thing to be very inspiring. It reminds me that I’ve still got a lot of work to do to get to wherever it is I’m going in this crazy life.
Grace Noodle is located at 1823 E Main Street. They’re open Monday through Saturday 11-9. Closed Sundays.
All Photos by Matthew Park.