It’s a few minutes before lunch time in OTR (Over-the-Rhine), we met each other by the parking meter and across the street we saw a few people hovering by 220 W 12th St. We looked at each other and wondered, what were they standing around for? Nothing in the vicinity was open.
We crossed the street to stand in front of a closed shop and chatted for what seemed like a few seconds and like clockwork, the shades are up, the door opens, the people who were patiently waiting (mostly repeat customers we should add) filed into the restaurant and out comes David Chao with their A-frame street board sign. He looked at us and said, “Welcome to Zundo‘s”!
David Chao (a very energetic talker), is a partner at Zundo’s together with Chef Han Lin, both very knowledgeable about the Cincinnati food scene. Chef Han is credited for the amazing recipes that make-up the menu of Zundo’s. After quick introductions, he dove right into the soup and noodles of the place.
Formerly an office space, choosing this location was strategic. They are surprisingly the only restaurant on this side of OTR, Zundo’s is located across the street from the music hall, right next to Queen City Radio and they don’t have a shortage of people lining up in the cold or heat to dine with them.
David gave us a tour…facing the bar, he proudly tells us that Zundo’s is the
the only true saké bar in Cincinnati. They offer over 30 different styles Japanese saké .
The restaurant’s interior was designed by Donald Beck (designer of The Mercer, Nada and Kaze..just to name a few) who transformed the former office building to what it is now. With beautiful exposed brick, they incorporated materials from the past structure into the design, like their bar top as well as created an open kitchen space that is both trendy and transparent to their customers. If the location was strategic, the design was even more–wanting to give off a hybrid of “big city/metropolitan vibe” married to conservative Cincinnati dining, Zundo’s definitely introduces a unique dining experience.
As we walked further into the restaurant, your senses are in a juxtaposition. On one hand your brain is in the Zen calming vibe, in sync with the Japanese decor around you but on the other hand you are moving to the deep house/urban style music playing in the background. These two things combined is a niche in typical Cincinnati.
Chef Han and David are indeed ramen experts. Chef Han has 20 years worth of experience, in Tokyo no less. Chef Han and David toured the US visiting various ramen restaurants.
With tons of research + Chef Han’s culinary expertise = Zundo’s fantastic and versatile menu.
So how did these two meet you ask? Call it fate. David and Han were working at restaurants that were side by side in Montgomery, became fast friends because of their love for food (duh)…and GOLF and the rest as they say is history.
The first question we asked ..
What makes Ramen so special? Without hesitation, David answered “Ramen is LIFE!”. Noodles are a staple in every Asian culture. With each culture evoking its own preparation style. It also offers a versatility like none other. Noodles can be eaten at anytime of the day, breakfast, lunch, dinner or if you are from the Philippines, then it is your 3 pm snack (right Ann!)
Zundo’s is all about being the best, therefore it is only fitting that you are served the best quality. The noodles served are imported directly from Japan. Chef Han uses two types of noodles. A thicker noodle mainly for the miso and veggie ramen and a thinner kind is used for the rest of their noodle offerings. This is far from and a million times better than the 99c dehydrated noodles that provided you warmth and sustenance in you college dormitory days.
If you aren’t impressed that their noodles are sourced from Japan… maybe their broth will. The pork broth takes 15h to make..let that sink in!….15 hrs.
Enough said..time for us to order.
Let’s start with the appetizers
Tako Yaki– this is octupus rolled in a wheat ball, covered with benito flakes. When you take a bite you are immediately subjected to the creamy softness of the octopus and contrasting flavors – sweetness of the Japanese mayo and slight saltiness of the Benito flakes. So amazing!!!!
Soft Shell Crab– this deep fried crab was crispy and crunchy. If you are a texture person, then this is the app for you. Luan, liked this one because it wasn’t too filling and was very tasty, when you’re done then you look forward to your entrees even more.
Chashu Bun– to the inexperienced the color of the buns might make you think “raw dough” BUT when you take a bite..the smoky pork paired with green onion notes, cushioned in the slightly sticky yet mildly sweet, pillowy bun made us say one word…D-A-M-N!
Now that our appetite is peeked, let’s move on the the main dishes.
Veggie Ramen– First let’s start with the appearance,this dish is beautiful to look at with splashes of red and green. The broth is very mild, slightly salty with a hint of ginger (for the flavor, not the heat). The bamboo roots add a nice texture while the lotus roots, which has a potato/starch-like taste adds a layer of complexity to the eating experience like none other. There is a play on textures as soon as you take your 1st bite.
Una don– This is BBQ eel served over a bed of white rice. “Eel” is not the typical word you would hear next to “BBQ” but you will be fabulously pleased with this dish. Eel is both firm and fatty as well being very flavorful especially with Zundo’s soy based sauce and slight charred notes on top of rice . The pickled daikon added a splash of orange/yellow color as well as a crunch that compliments the eel.
Tonkatsu Ramen– The pork broth (remember the broth cooked for 15 hours using 2 whole pigs?? #mindblown) is creamy with a hint of sweetness . The pork belly served with this dish is not only tender, grilled, smoky and has that melts-in-your-mouth texture that takes you to a happy place. The ‘piece de resistance’ is the soft boiled egg that was marinated for 24hrs with a rich, sweet AND salty flavor.
We’ll let you in on a little secret that David shared with us. For the adventurous or those that need a little bit something extra to their ramen, at each table you will find three little bottles (White pepper, Japanese 7 spice seasoning and a Spicy oil), use 3 dashes of each one and you will unlock a whole new taste dimension.
We could tell you what it tastes like…but where’s the fun in that???
Spicy Miso- (not pictured) This has the same pork broth as the Tonkatsu but the spicy miso add a smokiness and earthiness that would be associated with smoked paprika.
Japanese Curry– Being from the Caribbean, Luan was excited to try to Japanese Curry. The main differences between this curry roux from the Caribbean is the Japanese curry was well blended, very balanced as well as sweet versus the spicy and peeky. Think of it as almost round if you must. Stark contrast to most Caribbean curries which are like a symphony with various crescendos of the ingredients .
So usually at this point, it is time for the bitesizedduo to wrap the experience, but David had more!!!
He surprised us with some desserts…..not just any desserts but CANNOLIS! Ann (who swears she was Italian in her past life but is very proud to be asian) almost fell out her chair. We were presented with 2 of the most beautiful Cannolis that we’ve ever seen… EVER!!!
one matcha green tea and one spicy plum sake.
Think about it, it is BOTH Italian and Asian!!!!!
So there are two special points to make about these.
- 1-The spicy plum is made from Hannya- a sake infused with plum wine, barrel aged and soaked in a serrano pepper. Needless to say this is an adult only dessert.
- 2- These are only exclusive to Zundos. They are baked fresh every Friday morning and delivered by Del Gardo’s
We also got to try the red bean ice cream and a warm sasadango, both traditional Asian desserts, made with red bean paste and sticky rice.
To sum it up, while it may take a few minutes from the time you order to get your ramen, it takes years to master the art of creating these masterpieces. The Japanese culture is one known for its elegance and perfection with a slight enigmatic aura..(think of the Geisha and the Samurais) this also holds true for the Ramen experience. Zundo’s Chef Han– has mastered combining simple ingredients in the perfect ratio that comes with so many layers of complexity which reflects the time and effort needed to create perfection bringing them to the forefront of the Cincinnati ramen movement.
Ann & Lu