Aji Ramen Bar couldn’t have picked a better time to open in Little Rock. The warm days of summer (and early fall) already seem like a distant memory, leaving behind a yearning for comfort food that warms you all the way up. A well-made ramen is ideal for the task, which is how Aji has found itself packed to bursting during lunch and dinner on the six days a week it is open. We only recently got a chance to check out this new spot in Westchase Plaza on Shackleford Road, but over a couple of visits we’ve found plenty to like and even a few dishes to love. Even better, it all comes at a very consumer-friendly price tag.
Aji Ramen Bar is the product of four men who have worked for years in various Asian-themed restaurants around Little Rock. Co-owner Oki Sutanto told me the group loved to travel together and try new food. After eating at several ramen bars around the country, the four friends decided that Little Rock needed a ramen spot of its own. And so they quickly converted a former office space into a skinny, traditionally styled ramen bar with seating for about 40 people. As I previously indicated, those seats go quickly during lunch and dinner. For this story, I got to the restaurant at 11:20 a.m. only to find a line starting to form out the door. I came back around 3 p.m., but even then about half the seats were taken.
The appetizer menu has more than half a dozen small plates, all for less than $6. These are true appetizers, with portion sizes big enough for a good taste but nowhere near enough to fill you up. The highlight for me is the Takoyaki, which takes pureed octopus meat and deep-fries it in a fritter. The octopus flavor was a solid hit, and the creamy texture made for a melt-in-your-mouth experience. I also thoroughly enjoyed the steamed buns, which are pillowy and layered with pork belly, “Aji sauce” and mayonnaise. The pork belly is handled wonderfully, with a good balance of meat to fat. The belly is also available by itself on the appetizer menu, served with green onions and a sweet (but still savory) sauce.
The ramen, of course, is the focal point of the entrée menu. Most of the ingredients found in the bowl are traditional and handled well. I say most, because I’m fairly certain the Japanese don’t use corn kernels, which feature in every ramen I watched go out. Still, the element every great ramen bowl has to get right is the broth, and Aji is doing a very good job in that department early on. Rich, slightly creamy and layered, the broth is only missing some further developed seasoning to really shine. You can doctor the broth up with some chili paste upon request, which gives the whole dish a brand new perspective. I enjoyed the chili broth, but there’s something about the original version that I preferred more.
Other ingredients in the ramen can be added or subtracted as you see fit. The soft-boiled egg in my dish was cooked as well as I could ask for, as was the pork. Other options include green onion, seaweed and mushrooms. You can also get the miso ramen, which adds fermented soybean paste to the broth for a slightly funky kick. And if you’re not in the mood for ramen, Aji does offer two rice bowls for a bargain. The pork rice bowl is $7.50, and the chicken at $6.50 is both tasty and filling. My wife particularly enjoyed how the chicken was tender and moist, even after taking leftovers home.
Aji Ramen Bar is off to a fantastic start in Little Rock. No doubt, there will be plenty of people who have fallen in love with ramen around the country (or the world) who might not swoon for this new restaurant. But for most people in Arkansas who have never experienced ramen on this scale, Aji is going to be an absolute treat. I know I can’t wait for my next visit. There is a world of potential for this already capable little ramen bar.