Delicious Pork Buns and Calm Atmosphere in Burlington
The location and entryway to Gaku Ramen were both quite attractive; located on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont, the window-case featured a large sign with their logo. The logo itself immediately appealed to me as I recognized that it was a clever blend of Japanese kanji with an image of chopsticks and ramen noodles. We arrived around 12:30 on a Tuesday - a time I thought might be quite busy for restaurants - yet we found the place to be almost completely empty. Nonetheless, we entered and were seated right away by a friendly waiter. The table we were offered seemed to be a centerpiece of the restaurants as all the other seats were booth style near a wall while ours was a standalone table in the middle of the room, well lit by a hanging warm tinted light. The table was very efficiently set up, with two utensil stations featuring spoons and chopsticks on each side of the table. However, the shape of the table itself was rather strange, as it was long enough to seat four people across the long end, yet the width of the table was too short and I felt crammed due to the person sitting across from me.
Water was offered almost immediately as well as other drinks, but we found that this restaurant mostly offered alcoholic drinks and so our group (who are all under the age of 21) was stuck with a rather limited option for drinks. While we waited, we noted that the atmosphere was very inviting as a flavorful aroma from the kitchen filled the main area, and light music played in the background in contrast with light chatter of our group and another nearby group. The menus, presented on clipboards, had an air of subtle elegance and a Burlington hipster vibe. The first page of the menu was very informative, as it gave explanations about the taste and ingredients of their three main types of ramen broth: tonkotsu, shoyu, and miso. The authenticity of the restaurant seemed very legitimate at this point, save for the fact that Pokemon was playing on their TV, which felt inauthentic. Regardless, the main takeaway for the atmosphere of the restaurant was that it was very well put together, even down to their color scheme of dark red and black which dominated everything from the walls to the paint color on the outside to the utensils.
For appetizers, we noted that they were rather expensive, so we opted to share two appetizers across our entire group. First we ordered the six piece gyoza: a classic dish which we could compare to the gyoza/dumplings offered at other restaurants. The presentation of the dish was pretty, as the gyoza were all lined up neatly on a rectangular plate, with a small dish of soy sauce on the end. Although small, the smell was very aromatic, and the contrast between the perfectly crisped bottom wrapper and the soft filling created a melange of textures in my mouth. As for the taste, it was a classic dumpling with no bells or whistles. The crispiness of only the bottom part of the dumpling wrapper suggested that it was wok-fried, but the filling itself lacked a sort of spice combination which I am used to in the dumplings my Asian family makes at home. We also ordered the Gaku buns, which were small buns stuffed with tender pork and vegetables. The initial reaction to the buns were that of disappointment because the entire appetizer consisted of two small buns, each roughly the size of only an apricot. Furthermore, it was tough to share amongst a larger number of people, but our waiter went above and beyond to locate us a serrated knife from the kitchen to make our dividing easier. The experience with the Gaku buns increased exponentially once I had my first bite. It was flavorful beyond words, and the pork so tender that it quite literally melted in my mouth. The addition of acidity from the radish slices and sauce were perfectly juxtaposed by the delicate meat. It was quite a shame that I only had a mere two bites of the bun before it was completely devoured, as I would order it as a main dish in an instant if it were offered. Later in the meal, it was noted by one of the group members that the pork bun tasted like a McDonald’s Big Mac. Only when put into the context that this was said by a teenager can one really appreciate how significant a compliment this really was.
For the main dish, I ordered the Tonkotsu Ramen (pork based broth) with a ramen egg. The food came in decent time, and the portion size was more than adequate. The first thing I tasted was the broth, which was rich in flavor and still steaming. I couldn’t taste much of the pork flavor in the broth, but there was certainly a tone of some sort of meat fat in it which was satisfying enough for me. The ramen noodles themselves were fairly ordinary, and not particularly well seasoned as I found them slightly bland, but much more enjoyable when eaten in tandem with the broth. The vegetables and meat in the broth were very classic for ramen: pork chashu, kikurage mushrooms, scallions, and bamboo shoots. In addition, I added a soft boiled egg. The pork chashu was very tender and melted in my mouth, but the bamboo shoots were a strange flavor which I disliked. The mushrooms and scallions, in addition to the sesame seeds which were available in a salt shaker on the end of the table. added important aromatic features which enhanced the natural flavor of the broth. It was good ramen overall, though it lacked pizazz.
The service through our meal was stellar; our waiter did not make a single mistake in our orders, and was timely and friendly with all of his interactions. At any given moment, he made sure that all of our water glasses had water, and that our dishes were cleared if it seemed like we were done eating. In addition, when he saw that some members of the group were needing forks, he provided them in a timely manner.
The pricing at this establishment was a bit confusing - while the ramen seemed to be fairly priced at around eleven to fourteen dollars per bowl, everything else seemed quite overpriced. For starters, the Goku buns were almost eight dollars, yet we only got two small buns. The buns were delicious without a doubt, but at two dollars a bite, it probably was not worth it. The gyoza were seven dollars for six small dumplings. In addition, the add in soft boiled egg was two dollars. Thus, even though we shared the appetizers across five people, my bill came out to be twenty dollars excluding tip, which I was disappointed with considering the lack of authenticity in my meal. We travelled for nearly four hours round trip to get to Gaku Ramen, but the flavor, price, and atmosphere of the restaurant were all quite similar to that of Sushi Ya in Hanover, which offers a couple of different types of ramen for ten or eleven dollars per bowl. If you are really a pork bun aficionado, Gaku Ramen may be your go to because the Gaku buns were truly delectable, despite its steep price. But, a very similar local experience would be that of Sushi Ya, which to me tastes a little more authentic as well. All in all, if you are going to Burlington and craving some ramen, this may be a viable option for some tasty noodles, albeit not truly authentic.