There’s no doubt that the economic recession is wearing on the public’s patience. Unfortunately, people get desperate and resort to robbery on our neighborhood streets. Under cover of darkness, they steal electronics from locked cars. Sometimes, they break into our houses and make off with high resale flat screen TVs. But, you know that things have really taken a turn for the worse when restaurant servers find their payment withheld by the customers they’ve worked hard to please.
Here’s some evidence of the belt tightening induced depravity from a local restaurant owner who’d rather remain anonymous:
Hey Jason, do you think you could do a piece on tipping – I swear the tipping situation is getting really bad – people who leave raving about the food and service and they’re leaving 10%. I guess it’s the economy, but someone needs to remind people that wait staff live in the very same economic environment. Just for example, last Sunday brunch, $54.00 check, left a $5 tip, $9.99 check left $1.01 – I’ve taken to throwing some money in my wait staff’s tip jar so they don’t weep at the end of the shift.
The economy affects everything around us in some way. At home, our meals have featured more filler: pasta, rice, bread and potatoes. Meals out, though already infrequent for my household, usually make use of coupons, nightly specials, and always shared entrees. But, we still try to spend with our local growers, bakers, and food artisans. And, for God’s sake, we don’t cheat the server out of the gratuity they’ve earned by shlepping to and fro throughout my meal.
What do you think? Is there a trend afoot with people treating gratuity as optional? Or, economically conditional? Personally, the topic of how much to tip feels so remedial to me. You don’t have to make your server’s day every time you leave money on the table (though, it’s your prerogative). Just get in the habit of dividing the total by five and anteing up. That way, if you get confused, or drunk, or economically depressed, you won’t short-change your server.
Last week, a coworker and I met up for lunch at Mama’s Kitchen on Grace before a meeting on VCU campus. She recently moved close to Ejay Rin in Manchester and is really excited about it. She’s eaten there twice, loved the pork buns, but hasn’t made up her mind about the ramen. I haven’t been in yet, but we’re on the same page when it comes to noodle bowls. We both loved the cheap noodle meals in college and Vietnamese pho as independant adults, but those haven’t really prepared either of us for Chinese influenced Japanese ramen. Or a Korean version, for that matter. So, to get a little context before my eventual first visit to Ejay Rin, and to give my coworker a ramen comparison, we agreed on Mama’s Kitchen.
Tofu ramen and a small side of kimchi.
Before we get into the meal, I should say that Mama’s Kitchen is kind of an enigma for me. It’s been there for several years, but I rarely see people coming or going. A glance at the menu shows a pretty wide range of Asian dishes, from Korean to Japanese and Vietnamese, with significant efforts made for vegetarians (they have a vegetarian pho!). The Asian umbrella restaurant is something I’m kind of unsettled by (see my rave about King of Szechuan’s focus on authentic Chinese and hot pot). But, a Korean friend of mine speaks highly of Mama’s kimchi (fermented/pickled cabbage) and bulgogi (bbq spiced meat). Another coworker of mine who taught English in Korea for years says that Mama’s food is spot on, standard versions of Korean dishes that he ate lots of over there.
Unfortunately, kimchi isn’t my favorite. In fact, Korean chili paste tastes kinda weird to me. And bi-bim-bap, though vegetarian and fun to say, is like torture for me. All those pickled veggies. A big taste and texture ‘No thanks’ from me. And, of course, generally trying not to eat meat, I miss out on bulgogi. So, being a nay-sayer on Korean food in general (this is me, acknowledging my personal bias), I always approach Mama’s Kitchen with trepidation. But, I’m not so easily deterred. I’ve actually been using Mama’s as a testing ground for my palate when it comes to Korean flavors. So, I haven’t actually tried many of the Japanese or Vietnamese dishes. Instead, Karen and I have ordered combo meals for take-out. We both recommend that experience, because we like variety, and they throw in several different sides/starters to accompany the main dish (dumplings, soft spring rolls, veggie sides, miso soup…). That’s a fun meal that any curious open-minded eater would enjoy. And in those combo meals, I got to try more kimchi: both fresh and aged versions. At this point, it’s small bites for me, so I can savor the flavor instead of overwhelming my mouth with sour limp but crunchy cabbage with hints of compost – I mean, seafood and chili.
The soft tofu soup (Soondubu) brought this flavor/texture in spades, and I had to slog through it. The dish wasn’t ideal for me, but I managed. The honorary Korean I was dining with said it was very authentic (maybe that was my problem). It was months later that I tried the standard ramen with tofu while my co-worker got beef with her noodles. We spent the next 10 minutes hunched over our bowls, slurping and abandoning the upright civility of your average ‘American meal.’ If you’ve seen the classic movie Tampopo, then you know this is part of the enjoyment of a good bowl of noodles (or maybe the comic relief). You get into it. Literally and figuratively. It’s almost intimate (comedic). Going down on a steamy bowl and making ungodly primal noises. You can’t really appreciate it without getting a little freaky with it. Maybe that’s why my Korean friend says ram-yum, instead of ramen.
The Mama’s Kitchen ramen isn’t fancy. Nothing about the place is. In fact, the noodles are scarcely more interesting than the Nissin Oodles of Noodles that I grew up on. But, they weren’t over or under cooked (like mine at home) and the broth was surprisingly rich and tasty, as were the veggie garnishes. My co-worker loved the beef on top of her noodles. My tofu wasn’t fried, unfortunately, but it had soaked up some seasoning from the broth. I wound up drinking mine, tilting the bowl up in the air for Grace Street passers-by to witness. For around $6, the dish seemed about right. It was clear that their profit margins were maximized, but my belly was full and my taste-buds pretty happy. This wasn’t Momofuku level food, by any means. So, clearly Ejay Rin has a lot of room to expand on the ramen restaurant idea (I hear their specials are their strong suit).
Love the font and menu design.
On the other hand, Mama’s Kitchen offers so much more than ramen, quickly and competently. The food is utterly without pretense. Order at the counter. Carry it to your seat on a plastic tray. Return your dishes with a nod of thanks. Make plans to try something new next visit, knowing you’ll probably get stuck in a rut, ordering the same reliable dish, time after time. It’s a worthy food vendor for VCU and the Fan, or anyone who stops in. Especially folks who’ve passed it by repeatedly, like me. Take notice. Investigate. Cross some culinary experiences off your list with each visit. And then, branch out. That’s the message I get from Mama’s Kitchen and their Pan-Asian menu.