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Whole Foods Market debuts Florida’s first in-store ramen noodle bar

Set aside your bacon cravings and pork cheek addictions for a moment. The porcine-rich dish that may become your next obsession is hearty, Japanese-style pork bone broth, one that’s poured over plump ramen noodles and a good heap of contrasting ingredients.

Such broth is the base for the main dish at the new Genji ramen counter at Whole Foods Market in Palm Beach Gardens, the first counter of its kind in Florida.

Ladled into that rich stock – or into a lighter veggie broth – is a world of ingredients. The signature version is swimming with bean sprouts, black mushrooms, sliced pork, scallions, red ginger, seaweed and thick wheat noodles, and flavored with black garlic oil and sprinkling of sesame seeds. A marinated soft-boiled egg is nestled upon the swirl of elements.

The result is an enormous, steaming and soul-soothing bowl of noodle soup. This is a bowl that requires a soup spoon, chopsticks – and for novices, maybe even a fork and knife. (And, yes, slurping is not only allowed – in ramen-indulged circles, it’s encouraged.)

The ramen counter was brought to the north county Whole Foods location in October by Genji, the Philadelphia-based vendor that is one of the largest sushi providers for the international supermarket chain. It’s a straightforward operation: three types of pork-broth ramen bowls and one veggie broth option, priced from $8.99 for the veggie bowl to $11.99 for the pork broth varieties. Extra add-ins, from house-made rayu chili oil to red ginger to marinated boiled eggs cost between 50 cents to $3.50.

The counter sits in the store’s prepared foods section. You can order for takeout or enjoy the ramen at the market’s dine-in area.

“I think ramen, this year alone, has continued to trend in a lot of places,” says Jonathan Arons, a spokesman for Genji. “I know that here in Philadelphia, a lot of ramen places have opened.”

The ramen counter concept is a new one for Genji, which has opened three other such counters across the country and plans to open two others by the end of the year, says Arons. So far, the concept has been a hit, he says.

“Ramen is so simple. People enjoy the Asian flavor profile to begin with,” he says. “Ramen is fun, easy, delicious — and filling.”

A national ramen wave rolled in a few years ago, lending hipster status to Japan’s iconic noodle soup. In his book, “The Untold Story of Ramen,” New York University professor George Solt reminds us Japan’s Nissin Foods Corp. introduced instant “Chikin” ramen in 1958. America got its first taste of the company’s Cup O’Noodles in 1973, paving the way for a noodle revolution that would transform dorm-room pantries across the United States.

In Japan, the tangle of noodles made slightly yellow by baking soda-infused water and flavored by long-simmered broth, has secured its spot as the national dish.

“There is something excessive about ramen … there is nothing else quite like it in Japan,” Solt writes. “Every type of food has its fans, but the exaltation of ramen in Japanese popular culture in the past three decades is difficult to overstate. Ramen is now referred to as the national food in Japan, and it is rapidly gaining popularity among foodies abroad.”

At Palm Beach Gardens’ new, humble ramen counter, pork-broth (tonkotsu) ramen varieties include an aromatic original version, a spicy miso rendition, and a soy sauce-spiked option. The veggie ramen bowl contains a light vegetable broth, ramen noodles, scallions, red ginger, steamed mixed veggies, black mushrooms, seaweed, black garlic oil and a soft-boiled egg on the side.

Local sommelier Mariya Kovacheva happened on the new counter on a recent day. She was “pleasantly surprised” to find the former sandwich counter had been reborn as a ramen bar.

“I chose the spicy miso ramen. While we were waiting, the cook made the ramen to order. The dish was hearty, moderately spicy and delicious. I was truly pleased,” says Kovacheva, a wine brand ambassador for Pernod Ricard USA. “We only wish Whole Foods had it in their West Palm Beach location — that is closer for us.”

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