For all their simplicity, ramen noodles can inspire complex reactions. Of course, there’s the stereotype of the instant version consumed by cash-strapped college students. At the other end of the spectrum, there are ramen connoisseurs who claim that no local noodles can compare to what’s available in Tokyo, Los Angeles, or wherever else one might prefer to eat the dish. In Tempe, Republic Ramen successfully defines a middle ground, offering a half dozen broths based on regional variations from Japan and a few pan-Asian influences.
The restaurant is just under the upper limit of what most planners would consider walking distance from rail transit. The location is a retail plaza on the southeast corner of University and Dorsey. It’s a half mile walk from either the University / Rural or the Dorsey / Apache light rail stations, but the walk from the Dorsey station is the more pleasant one since it involves the quiet, partially shaded University Heights neighborhood rather than the heavy traffic of University Drive. If you can walk or bike from light rail to Four Peaks, you can make it to Republic Ramen.
|republic ramen with tofu|
The strip mall exterior suggests nothing special, but the restaurant has its own casual style on the inside. Extensive natural light illuminates a mix of large wood tables and smaller high tops made of more contemporary brushed metal. Even the youngest noodle slurpers benefit from a bit of homegrown style when they sit in futuristic high chairs from Boon, a Tempe-based firm founded by a graduate of ASU’s industrial design program. With all the emphasis these days on local ingredients, locally-designed furniture is an interesting and refreshing detail.
|shoyu ramen with chicken|
The service model here is fast casual. Order at the counter and expect oversized bowls of steaming noodle soup to arrive at the table a bit later. Staff at the counter vary in their knowledge of the menu’s intricacies. Some are great, but more consistency in employee training would be an improvement. For most customers, the first decision is which broth to order. There are always half a dozen choices available, along with some special broths and ingredient combinations handwritten on a board near the counter.
|shio ramen with beef|
The first choice, the restaurant’s namesake “Republic Ramen” is a spicy, soy sauce flavored broth. It’s delicious for anyone who can handle the heat, although it’s probably not the best way for rookies to start their ramen explorations. The miso broth has the familiar fermented taste found in the soups served at countless Japanese restaurants. The shoyu broth is dark and salty from soy sauce but without the spicy aspect of the Republic broth. Tonkatsu is a cloudy broth rendered almost milky in appearance from simmered pork bones.
|republic tonkatsu with tofu|
For novices, the two mildest choices are shio, a clear brine, and the vegetarian broth. The meatless version is unexpectedly dark, and although it’s not as salty and spicy as the other varieties, it has depth of flavor from a variety of vegetables. Regardless of the liquid base chosen, there’s a separate decision to be made regarding the protein source to be included. Choices include tofu, chicken, beef, spam, and char siu pork. There’s really no formula here. Tofu works well in the meaty tonkatsu, and the vegetable broth can hold its own with red meat.
|vegetarian broth with chicken|
The special broths are usually blends of two standard varieties, such as an amalgam of the Republic and tonkatsu broths, or augementations of a familiar broth, such as shoyu pumped up with thai chili flavor. Occasionally specials go a step further with predetermined add-ons. Butter corn miso uses the sweetness of maize to mellow the flavor of fermented soy with char siu defining a sort of neutral territory between the flavors. Various soup enhancements are available, including naruto, a cured fish product. One wish list item: Shrimp would be a nice option.
There is life beyond ramen at Republic. Starters and side dishes include edamame nicely adorned with coarse sea salt, meat-filled gyoza sold three to an order, and seaweed salad sprinkled with sesame. There are also a few options involving soba or udon instead of ramen. All the noodles are well-prepared to an appropriate texture and without the unwelcome complication of strands that have clumped together. The only non-noodle entree is a Japanese-style curry served over rice, so this may not be the place for anyone strictly avoiding carbohydrates.
There are no conventional desserts here, but the extensive boba menu provides plenty of sweet liquids in the form of snows, slushes, and milk teas, all served with the familiar thick straw needed for consumption of tapioca beads. There’s also a soda fountain, iced teas, sake, and a good variety of bottled beer, both American and Japanese. Somewhere between the instant noodle packets found in nearby dorm rooms and the longing for ramen that aficionados have experienced in other places, Republic Ramen has found itself a comfortable niche in Tempe.
1301 E. University Dr., Tempe AZ 85281