Merriam-Webster defines ramen as "quick-cooking egg noodles usually served in a broth with bits of meat and vegetables," which sounds a lot like the definition I would've given it after first discovering it in college: supercheap, superquick, supersalty, reasonably filling, and that was about it.
That, of course, applies to the instant version, which did for Japanese cuisine what Chef Boy-Ar-Dee did for Italian, which is to say not much beyond destroying the mystique. (Which I guess isn't such a bad thing if it opens doors, but that's a discussion for another time.)
But true ramen, that time-honored Japanese dish, is as different as wood-fired pizza is from the boxed-and-canned stuff. And if you want to try it in its most exquisite form, make a visit to Monta Ramen.
I could get into the history and cultural implications of ramen here, but I realize that what you want to know is whether the food is good, so I'll keep it simple. Monta serves four basic styles of ramen - tonkatsu, which is pork; shoyu, which is a lighter chicken-and-vegetable base with soy sauce; tonkatsu-shoyu, which is, appropriately, a combination of the two; and miso, which you're familiar with if you've ever eaten in a teppanyaki palace, also known as a "Japanese steakhouse" (but more on that later). There also are fried-rice dishes and bowls, but this is a ramen house, so we decided on two types of ramen. But first we'd do the American thing and start with an appetizer, the gyoza, which our waitress warned us would take about seven minutes, and which she brought before the ramen.
And the gyoza ($5.15 for six) were the first indication that something special was at hand; I knew as soon as the beguiling aroma of sesame oil wafted to my nostrils. These were, quite simply, the best gyoza I've ever had, obviously handmade with delicate wrappers, carefully pleated, with a light pork-and-vegetable filling rich with the flavor of ginger. And, in true pot sticker fashion, they'd been carefully pan-fried so that one side was crisp. Heaven on a plate.
And well, if things didn't get better from there - which would be sort of difficult to imagine, considering the number of superlatives I included in the previous paragraph - they sure didn't get any worse. The tonkatsu ($6.95) had, as the menu promised, a creamy, buttery broth with the clear taste of pork, slightly smoky. The big bowl was filled with lots of springy noodles, topped by two slices of chashu, a rolled-and-sliced pork with the approximate consistency of butter (that's a good thing). Plus sliced scallions, a shower of bamboo shoots and sliced wood-ear mushrooms for color, texture and flavor. From the add-on list we chose corn (50 cents), the scoop of kernels contributing more color, texture and flavor.
The miso ($7.25) was, I'd venture to say, unlike any of those watered-down, barely-discernible versions we've had in any teppanyaki spot anywhere in the country. With a base of tonkatsu, it was blended with, as the menu says, "copious amounts of miso" to create a smoky, silken wonder. It also was topped with the slices of chashu, the scallions, bamboo shoots and mushrooms, and I added some nori (75 cents). Additional condiments were available, but that would've been just gilding the lily.
The atmosphere in this tiny place (a handful of tables, and seating at the counter) is simple but pleasant, with the prominent use of wood reflecting the Japanese reverence for nature. Service throughout was great; I don't know how the servers manage to keep their good humor in this hectic, crowded atmosphere, but they do.
And hot. It was very hot, in large part because of our summer heat wave, in large part because of ... well, the previous paragraph.
So why did I review Monta Ramen in August? The vagaries of the schedule, I guess. But you can bet that when the weather turns nippy, I'll be a frequent slurper.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Las Vegas Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or email her at email@example.com.