Remember when eating Japanese meant going to one of those gimmicky places where diners sat around a grill the size of a tennis court, and a guy would come out and do tricks with his knife and spatula while loudly cooking the food, flip a shrimp tail into his chef’s hat, give everyone an allegedly equal portion, and earn a round of applause?
Thank the heavens America dug out of that rut. There’s sushi, of course, but that’s become so pervasive that it tends to transcend its Japanese origins.
Enter ramen. It’s not just for poor college kids to microwave out of packets anymore.
Our contestants are Buya in St. Pete’s Edge District and Token Ramen in the Maximo neighborhood on the city’s far southern end. To go along with my noodle dish, I decided to add a couple of Asian favorites: edamame and steamed bao buns.
This growing chain, which was founded in 2019, has nine locations, seven of them in the greater Tampa Bay area. The one we chose was located in a cookie-cutter outdoor shopping mall at 34th Street South and the Pinellas Bayway. The interior was tidy, if nondescript.
We showed up around 8 on Monday and ordered at the front counter: Grilled Chicken Ramen ($14.99), Edamame ($4.50) and Pork Belly Bun (2 for $8.99). We sat at a booth that was a little too tight to my chest.
The large black bowl of stuff looked pretty appetizing. The chicken appeared nicely grilled, with the requisite char marks. Half a hard-boiled egg made the dish look sunny. I wasn’t expecting corn, but I like corn in almost everything.
The edamame came in a white bowl with a supplemental bowl for the husks. The bao buns’ gleaming white dough looked too fat and spongy, and dwarfed the sauced meat and greens inside.
Texture and Taste
Ramen is hard to eat — at least for the untrained, or at least for me. I did everything wrong, and ended up with my face essentially in the bowl, shoving big masses of long noodles into my mouth with chopsticks, and then chewing them off. I tried chopsticking the noodles into the spoon, only to watch them slither back into the bowl.
I had an easier time transporting the chicken into my mouth, but unfortunately that’s where the biggest problem occurred. I call a foul on this fowl. It felt rubbery in my mouth, although somehow not tough. The chicken had a strange flavor as well, one that I can’t put into words.
The rest of the soup was okay, although the broth was rather bland. I appreciated the corn, and the egg was the best part.
Elsewhere, the edamame was fine, not too salty. The dough of the buns tasted the way it looked, and stuck to my teeth.
I entered the hip urban eatery on Tuesday at 6:30 with newfound swagger. After some Youtubing, I had learned how to eat ramen! Although I hadn’t practiced, I was confident I could pull the technique off without looking like a buffoon in desperate need of a bib.
I was rolling alone, so sat on a bench at a two-top near the door. I ordered Char Grilled Edamame ($7), Pork Belly Buns ($11) and Grilled Chicken Ramen ($17).
Before we begin, here’s how to pronounce Buya: Boo-yuh. (Not By-ya, not Boo-yahh.)
The abstract-shaped plates that held the starters suggested that this was a next-level ramen experience. The Edamame was, as promised, charred, with plenty of black spots. The bao buns were smaller, and the dough looked more delicate.
The ramen (shown in the top photo) was artfully arrayed with the noodles lurking out of sight. I was heartened by the appearance of edamame beans and noticed that the egg was more softly boiled than the one at Token. I picked up my chopsticks brimming with optimism.
I probed, grabbed a small amount of noodles, formed my mouth into an O, inserted noodles and sucked them upward into my mouth. My newly acquired ramen consumption technique worked!
Texture and Taste
Let’s do this sequentially:
The edamame was like none other I’ve had. The char-grilling gave the beans an agreeably smokey flavor to go along with just the right level of saltiness. The huge portion had a lot of loose beans hanging around on the bottom.
The buns were, for starters, not too doughy. The pork belly inside was tender, with a few crispy edges. The diaphanous vegetables — led by thinly sliced cucumber — added a touch of sweetness.
Buya’s bowl of ramen blended its various ingredients into a cornucopia of tastes and textures, each distinct but all working together. The broth was brown, nearly opaque, and had a complexity that transcended its chicken base. Ah, the chicken: moist, heartily delicious. Real.
The noodles — thicker, darker and firmer than the competition’s — added substantial flavor, not just filler.
And the Winner of the Ramen Food Fight …
Hardly needs saying.
This mismatch is on me. My unfamiliarity with local ramen restaurants led me to think I might’ve booked a fair fight. How both places have earned four stars on Yelp is a true head-scratcher.
A couple of quick notes on Token Ramen:
We also ordered the Tonkotsu ramen, which used a pork-based broth and had pork slices that felt and tasted real. It was notably superior to the chicken ramen.
At about 8:40, 20 minutes before closing, while Bonnie and I were finishing up, the owners’ 4-year-old son was playing with his older sister near our booth. He looked at us and chirped, “Why are you here?”
My mind went to the puzzling chicken and I almost said, “Good question, kid.”