9889 BELLAIRE BLVD
HOUSTON, TX 77036
I may have mentioned it once or twice before, but I kind of like ramen. I've had it here, in California and in the East Coast. I like it in Japanese restaurants where it's just another menu item and in shops that specialize in it. Hell, I even like that instant ramen stuff. But when a serious ramen craving hits me, then I go to one place for the REALLY GREAT STUFF, and that's Tiger Den in Alief's Chinatown.
They're closed Mondays, but are open until 11 pm most nights and until midnight Fridays and Saturdays. There's usually a crowd of people outside Tiger Den at any given night. They have a waiting list posted by the door, and they seat parties as space becomes available.
Once you walk in, there's a wall of origami (which is pretty neat) and the walls are covered with photos of Japan. There are booths on the sides, and long communal tables in the middle of the restaurant. There's also a bar at the back, which is where I usually sit. You can watch the chefs prepare the food while you wait for your order. It can get very animated, but not so loud that you can't talk to your companions. It's probably the closest thing I've encountered in Houston to an actual Japanese izakaya, a casual place for after-work drinking and eating. Tiger Den serves beer and other alcoholic beverages, but since I don't/can't drink, my focus is on the eating.
The staff is very efficient. They take your order on a tablet: it's then printed out and taped to your table, and items are crossed off as they get served. It's not always perfect (they forgot an item on my last visit, but they quickly rectified the problem), but for the most part it works quite well.
Strictly speaking, Tiger Den is not simply a noodle joint. In addition to their ramen, Tiger Den also serves up yakitori, a Japanese term referring to food on skewers in general, although some items on this part of Tiger Den's menu isn't necessarily served on sticks. They have quite a selection, ranging from the aforementioned skewers (whole prawns, chicken and scallions, and Black Angus ribeye to name a few) to chicken wings. They also have specials like gyoza dumplings and roasted brussel sprouts. My personal favorites are the grilled beef tongue and berkshire pork belly (not skewered, served with scallion ribbons and spicy mustard) and the whole squid teriyaki. If you haven't tried or don't like beef tongue, you're missing out: it's some of the most intense beef flavor around. (More for me so, hey, your loss.) And if you have room for dessert, I highly recommend the pandan custard donuts. The donuts in this case are fluffy deep-fried dough nuggets (donuggets?) sprinkled with a light dusting of sugar, and they're almost croissant-like in their flakiness. They're light and not at all greasy. The custard is actually a dipping sauce infused with pandan, an Southeast Asian herb. A perfect end to the meal.
Like I said earlier, I go to Tiger Den for the ramen. The broth is made fresh daily and when they run out, they stop serving. They have the usual pork-based tonkotsu ramen as well as regular and spicy miso. They also have tantan-men with spicy ground pork. But my personal favorite -- not just at Tiger Den, but ANYWHERE (so far): here, Cali, Jersey or New York -- is their garlic black bean ramen. While black bean sauces are usually salty, such is NOT the case with this ramen. It's a very subtle thing, not overwhelming at all, and this allows the flavor of the roasted garlic to really shine. I always order extra chashu pork with my ramen, and there's a list of extras you can add (like buttered corn, extra noodles, etc.).
I have yet to find a ramen in Houston that beats Tiger Den's garlic black bean ramen. It's gonna take one HELL of a ramen to beat it in my list of personal faves. As far as I'm concerned, Tiger Den is THE ramen joint for me, hands down.