When I lived in New York City, ramen was my go-to comfort food—an easy one to have since there were ramen shops all over the place. My travels further south have not proven so fruitful with the umami noodley goodness. So when I learned about Johnny Chen’s latest downtown venture, all I could think was “send noods.”
Chen is famous for being the third owner of downtown sushi establishment Nikki’s, which he and his family franchised across town, from Military Cutoff to Carolina Beach, over 15 years. I’m a fan of Nikki’s, so the news of Chen’s new venture excited me. Despite my skepticism of online reviews, I like to do a little digging before I try somewhere for the first time. The jury was out for Fun Bowl—so it was time to go eat.
I rounded up a flock of my girlfriends for a Monday afternoon lunch. It’s rare we get to be in the same place at the same time, so it felt like a special occasion. We were greeted by what was once a classic jewelry store and art gallery storefront, previously Crescent Moon. A stubby hall of windows led us to the front door. The restaurant’s setup was simple with a handful of four- and six-top tables and a few two-tops in the dining room and next to the kitchen. Apparently, Chen handmade all the beautifully crafted tables. The light remained low and comfortable, and pieces of trees and driftwood hung alongside seemingly unrelated knickknacks. Honestly, though, they didn’t bother me. I was starving.
The server greeted us from across the restaurant when we were at the door. She instructed us to order at the counter when we were ready. Initially, we were put off since most of us hadn’t been there before and needed menus, but she brought them to us after we decided where to sit. That and a friendly mid-meal check-in was perfect for a counter-service joint.
A quick glimpse over the menu showed three sections: starters, ramen and poke bowls. It’s a humble selection. There’s no option to “build your own” but plenty for customization.
We started with the lump crab salad, avocado and English cucumber salad, and mantou bun. The avocado and English cucumber salad was topped with Sriracha mayo that wasn’t listed on the menu. It was bright and refreshing, but the avocado was scant. Also, I was glad a salt shaker was nearby on the table.
I was surprised when the lump crab salad arrived; the menu listed it “on a bed of mixed herb, mixed with spicy mayo sauce.” In real life, it was crab on top of the avocado and English cucumber salad, with an upcharge of $2.50. We were all disappointed; one of my girlfriends really didn’t like cucumbers and just-so-happened to order a second for the table before we knew what was coming. My two cents: Update the literature, Fun Bowl. We ended up with three massive piles of cucumber on the table, and we barely touched it.
However, the mantou bun made up for the lackadaisical salad experience. The Chinese have a few types of steamed buns: bao, served either sweet or savory, and round with a flat base, and mantou, usually served plain and round with flat sides. The mantou were perfection, made a little flatter and used to create a delicious Chinese slider filled with sweet, chewy Berkshire pork belly. Snappy, fresh cucumbers, spring greens, and a salty, umami sesame sauce filled the sweet, chewy steam bun. I could have eaten a six pack. Heck, give me 12. I like a challenge.
But it was time to move on to the main events, ramen and poke.
The gals and I split to four corners of the menu going for #1 Fun Bowl Ramen with pork chashu, #7 Spicy Kimchi Ramen with pork chashu, #8 Fun Bowl with brown rice and Sriracha mayo, and #13 House Fun Bowl with sushi rice and Sriracha mayo.
My #1 was fabulous. The housemade noodles were the perfect texture with goodies galore—green onion, bamboo shoots, woodear mushroom, egg, seaweed, and red ginger. Yet, the star of the show was the pork broth. Chen and his team perfected it with all the balanced elements of flavor: salt, sweet, umami. It had a restrained sesame presence that gave it a “chef’s kiss” of nuttiness. They could have cooked shoe laces in this broth and I would have gladly slurped them up and asked for seconds. The textures in the dish all married beautifully, too, providing crunch, chew and creaminess at every turn.
Costar to the broth was the half soft-boiled egg perched on top of the noodle bowl. It tasted like it was preserved in soy sauce, which is a restaurant savvy move as far as cost goes. It was absolutely delicious, not to mention cooked with a perfectly medium yolk. The #7 Spicy Kimchi Bowl boasted similar strengths and the addition of corn and kimchi for a sweet-spicy complement. The pork broth in the #7 had noticeably more sesame oil in the mix, a welcome taste to the spicy bowl.
The name of the game with poke bowls is both fish freshness and texture variety, and Fun Bowl nails it. The #8 boasts ahi tuna, mango, avocado, English cucumber, edamame, corn, and seaweed salad, while #13 includes an adventurous combination of tuna, salmon, blue crab, English cucumber, red onion, jalapeño, avocado, corn, edamame, and seaweed salad. In both cases the fish was very fresh and the textures were playful. I was particularly impressed with the ripeness of the mango in the #8. Under-ripe mango can be a fibrous mess that tastes like it met a tropical fruit once. Fun Bowl made sure it was fresh, succulent, juicy, and an excellent teammate alongside its co-ingredients.
In the customization process, diners can choose from five sauces and three bases. One of the base options is spring mix, which would be perfect for a lighter option on a hot day. I’m not really a poke person because I don’t love the texture of raw fish, but Fun Bowl made me a believer because the pieces were bite-sized.
It’s worth mentioning the portions are very large, and the value is insane at Fun Bowl. All ramen and poke range between $10.95 and $13.95 without add-ons. Also, it’s definitely possible to get at least one meal and a snack out of it.
There isn’t any alcohol on the beverage menu—just iced teas and Coke products (yes, Coke, not Pepsi, as one of my girlfriends thought a worthy mention since many local restaurants lean toward supporting our state brand). Despite the fact that I would rather be doing most things with a beer in my hand, I wasn’t bothered by the absence of booze. And, if I felt like I needed it, I would get my noods to go. Because what says “couch food” better than a big ol’ bowl of noodles and broth? If you think of something let me know.
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