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Instant ramen can be delicious. Discard the flavor packet; make a broth with instant stock, hoisin, soy sauce, sesame oil and Sriracha; hard-boil an egg; and throw in whatever leftovers you can find in the fridge. That's good eating. Tasty enough that we regularly crave the real version — fresh noodles and a broth made delicious by hours of cooking and all sorts of pork parts — which is hard to find around here. The Southern Gourmasian's excellent pulled pork ramen fits the bill most of the time, but we've longed for diversity, lobbying restaurateur friends to open up shop and giving our pro chef brother-in-law a ramen cookbook, to no avail.
So we were thrilled to hear that Dr. Bruce Murphy, CEO of the Arkansas Heart Hospital, shared our craving. As the hospital prepared to reopen its cafe in November 2015, Murphy sent hospital cook Coby Smith to Tokyo for a crash course on ramen. With Murphy's Japanese-born assistant as a guide, Smith sampled nearly 20 ramen shops over the course of a couple of days. With that experience, a lot of Internet research and surveying all the ramen cookbooks he could find, Smith arrived at his stock. While it's pork based — he cooks pork butt, pork bones, chicken bones, ginger and bay leaf overnight; strains and adds soy sauce, ginger and onion; reduces it; then strains and reduces it again — it's much less fatty than a lot of traditional ramen. This is the cafe at the Heart Hospital after all. But that's no criticism.
On Monday of this week, we were happily slurping every last bit of the delicious broth and toothsome noodles. Smith rightly views his base and the fresh noodles he imports from Dallas as a foundation for experimentation. On Monday, aside from the pork broth, it was all veggies: caramelized onions and peppers, avocado, spinach, roasted and sliced portobello mushrooms, carrot, shredded squash and zucchini, bamboo shoots, basil and cilantro. On Wednesday, it was more traditional: pulled chicken, green onion, carrot, sesame oil and a soy-marinated hard-boiled egg. Friday, he'll go way far afield from traditional ramen with a Cajun variation, with smoked sausage, roasted corn, garbanzo beans, egg, red onion and jalapeno.
The cafe, named Coby's after the remodel last year, is designed with convenience and affordability in mind. Every day of the week there's a blue plate special ($4.50) — comfort food like pot roast, blackened tilapia and roast pork loin served with two veggies — available at lunch and at dinner. On weekdays, there's also a gourmet sandwich ($3.75) and a dessert of the day ($2). Recent offerings included a muffuletta panini, a turkey Rueben, an Italian cream cake and a red velvet cake. There's a salad bar and breakfast, too.
Ramen ($4.50) is an experiment, Smith says. It's only been underway for a month. He figures dashi, a stock usually made with fermented fish shavings, wouldn't go over well among his typical client base, but he might try it sometime. For now, because his broth requires such laborious prep, he's planning on continuing to offer ramen only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at lunch. Come summertime, who knows? He might try cold noodles. Check out the Heart Hospital on Facebook. He said its social media team would likely be posting specials soon.
Inside the Arkansas Heart Hospital
1701 S. Shackleford Road
Enter the hospital and take a left at the reception desk to get to the cafe. It's counter service. Chef Coby Smith will plop your uncooked noodles in boiling water as soon as you walk up and order the ramen and have you dished up in a matter of minutes. The cafe is clean, modern looking and bustling, with a long bar along one side that's ideal for solo diners. Smith said he and the hospital are thrilled to have people who aren't staff or patients or family members of patients come to eat.
7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily. (But ramen is only available 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.)
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