Is there room for another ramen restaurant in Atlanta? The resounding answer seems to be yes.
A couple of years ago, when the crowds waiting for a seat at Allen Suh’s Gato Arigato would spill nightly onto the otherwise quiet sidewalks of Candler Park, I thought surely we were at the peak of ramen fever in Atlanta. How wrong I was.
Ramen has gone from the territory of old-school Japanese spots in the suburbs and fleeting intown pop-ups to becoming part of the Atlanta dining establishment. The past year or so has brought Hajime on Cheshire Bridge, Wagaya in Midtown, Ton Ton in Ponce City Market and Nexto on the Beltline, to name a few. Makan in Decatur has rebranded as Taiyo Ramen, and more than a half-dozen chefs in town offer some riff on the dish on their menus — I suppose because they’re afraid of being left out.
Now, we have Jinya Ramen Bar, not to be confused with Ginya Izakaya, which serves (what else?) ramen on Northside Drive.
Jinya Ramen Bar is a chain founded by Tomonori Takahashi, the scion of a restaurant family who emigrated from Japan less than a decade ago. Takahashi’s success has been unequivocal.
A review of the Studio City location by the Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold in 2010 described Jinya’s tonkotsu broth as a physically transcendent experience: “a broth on steroids, a broth that seemed to be trying to establish the record for the most umami per milligram. Can tongues pant? After a few bites, you may feel as if yours had just run a half-marathon without bothering to notify the rest of your head.”
Six years later, Jinya is all over North America, from Vancouver to Tulsa to Houston, not to mention more than a half-dozen locations in California alone. How did they manage to expand so quickly? Well, if their corporate website is any indication, you, too, can be a Jinya Ramen Bar owner: “Franchise opportunities are available for an initial investment as low as $450,000.”
Though I’ve seen mixed reports from other cities where this rapid expansion has taken place, my recent meals at Jinya Ramen Bar in Sandy Springs have been good. If Jinya is not yet a fully-oiled corporate ramen machine, it is well on its way.
If you detect a little apprehension here, well, I have some.
The first bit we might call “the Gold effect.” When strong praise comes from such a high source, when the success that follows is so meteoric, the bar of expectations gets set at perhaps an unrealistic height. I’ve enjoyed the tonkotsu broth at Jinya very much, perhaps as much as any I’ve tasted in Atlanta. Have I experienced such an intense depth of flavor and umami that it created a temporary disruption of my mind-body communications? No. That’s not Jinya’s fault, though, even if they’ve benefited from such unrealistic praise.
The other factor is a kind of trend fatigue. At a point where nearly every neighborhood in Atlanta has a decent ramen place to call its own, it is hard to muster up much excitement about a pretty good chain restaurant, which, in the end, is what Jinya is.
Jinya has achieved a kind of consistency, with details that some of its peers struggle with: the soft-boiled egg here never fails to hit that perfect line between runny and custardy. The noodles, whether thick or thin, are consistently in the sweet spot just below firm. Though I’ve heard talk of inconsistent broths from the opening summer months, I’ve enjoyed a consistently rich pork broth that has some, but not too much, rendered fat floating at the surface. The service here is always fine, though nothing special.
In other words, a well-executed chain restaurant.
If anything, Jinya stands out for a willingness to gild the lily. The Cha Cha Cha ramen combines the richness of the pork broth with an almost comical amount of roast garlic and pork. The vegetable soup ramen compensates for meatlessness with a full survey of the produce section: mushrooms, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and asparagus.
The portions here are impressively large. I have yet to be able to finish a single bowl. On a couple of occasions, I’ve been able to make an entire second meal from the leftovers.
There’s something vaguely Californian about Jinya’s touches on the side: fried kale chips, roast cauliflower and pine nuts, quinoa salad and so on. This light touch helps to balance out the inevitably heavy ramen.
I’ll say that I’m not at all surprised to find Jinya regularly full of customers and, often, a wait. It’s a good option for ramen and, if I lived in the neighborhood, it’d be my choice. As it stands, though, I’d have to drive by three good bowls of ramen to get there.
When will we reach peak ramen in Atlanta? Well, there’s already another Jinya Ramen Bar location planned for Buckhead, if that tells you anything.
Jinya Ramen Bar
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 5975 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs. 404-600-6974, jinya-ramenbar.com.