By Layne Saliba and Kelsey Richardson
When Monkey Barrel, a longtime favorite restaurant and bar in Gainesville, closed in 2016, residents weren’t very happy. Novella’s Italian Restaurant and Bar opened in the same space shortly after, trying to breathe new life into the once-popular location. But it didn’t find any luck and closed in the middle of 2018.
Now, Zen Ramen & Sushi Burrito is giving the space at 115 Washington St. NE, just off the downtown square, a try.
Employee Yanesis Villegas came down from Zen’s location in Clemson, South Carolina, to help open the one in Gainesville.
“The first day was actually slow because it was kind of a small opening,” Villegas said of the April 8 opening. “Every day, it’s just been gradually increasing and getting a little bit busier, and once Friday and Saturday came, it got really busy. But it’s good. People like the food.”
Will Stump was there for his second visit Tuesday, ordering ramen this time. His first trip to Zen was for a sushi burrito.
“This is really good ramen,” Stump said. “Fresh ingredients and stuff make it feel wholesome.”
Jennifer McCall, who was at the table with Stump, had the same feeling.
“I’ve had ramen in Gwinnett and Atlanta, and I really liked it here,” McCall said. “The broth is flavorful. The noodles are fresh-tasting. It doesn’t taste like pre-packaged ramen.”
Sushi burritos are what pulled Joey Wigley into the restaurant, though. He said he’d never heard of a sushi burrito but knew he had to get his hands on one once Zen opened.
“I loved it,” Wigley said. “I had never had a sushi burrito before but it was really good. It looked like a giant sushi roll, so I was up for it.”
The restaurant is named for these two dishes. So we tried both.
The Japanese izakaya-inspired restaurant serves varieties of tonkotsu ramen, which are pork- and chicken-broth based.
Lee Kwang, owner of the restaurant, said he prepares the broth from the bones of chicken and pork, a process that can take up to 12 hours.
Kwang said the restaurant’s chefs don’t make the noodles in-house but receive them pre-made.
We tried the tonkotsu chicken ramen.
The deep bowl was set on the table with enough noodles that the pile rose above the surface of the broth. The fried chicken was sticking halfway out, resting on the side of the bowl, and half of a boiled egg sat on top. All of the other ingredients, like the baby bok choy and wood ear mushrooms, were piled underneath.
There’s something about ramen — not the kind you get in a plastic package from the grocery store for less than $1 — that is so satisfying
Maybe it’s the warm broth. Maybe it’s the fresh ingredients. Maybe it’s just trying something new. Whatever it is, Zen has it.
The mix of pork and chicken broth is somewhat unexpected, but it was delicious and smooth. It almost seemed like a cream-based broth, which made slurping it with a spoon all the better.
The spice that was added hit the back of the throat just right, leaving a little heat, but not too much. The noodles that soaked all of that broth up were cooked well and made for the perfect bite when eaten with the bok choy and mushrooms.
I’ll admit, the fried chicken is nothing to write home about, and it’s a little strange eating chicken that’s been sitting in a liquid. Somehow, though, it was still a little crispy, which didn’t make it too offputting. And it was good enough that none was left in the bowl by the end of our visit.
Going into the meal, I tried not to set the bar high. I’m not saying I’m a ramen connoisseur, but I’ve had my fair share of well-made
ramen — not the kind eaten by starving college students.
It surpassed my expectations. The noodles did a fantastic job absorbing the flavor of the broth, and the bits of fried chicken added a delightful texture to the mix.
Even with all of the tasty elements working together in harmony, the broth stole the show. The fat from the chicken and pork composed a creamy melody that I couldn’t get enough of.
I know it’s tempting to savor every bite you take of ramen, but I recommend eating it as quickly as possible. Trust me, room temperature ramen is not ideal.
The sushi burrito
Have you ever gone to a sushi restaurant and wanted more sushi but didn’t want to seem crazy ordering three or four rolls? Or maybe you just didn’t have the money to splurge on that much sushi?
That’s where the sushi burrito comes in, and at Zen, it doesn’t disappoint.
The restaurant’s sushi burritos can include chicken, tuna, salmon, shrimp and other fillings.
Kwang said the fish comes delivered fresh from a seafood company based out of Atlanta.
We ordered the dancing sushi burrito, which comes with tuna, fried shrimp, salmon, cream cheese and some other small ingredients like lettuce, cucumber, avocado and edamame.
Let me start off by saying it’s really, really, good. The rice is actual sushi rice, which is essential because it holds everything together. Then, that’s surrounded by a sheet of nori, or seaweed, so you’re not getting sticky hands from touching the rice.
I was pleasantly surprised by how easy the nori was to bite through. I was worried about it being tough to get a good bite, but it was perfect and allowed me to easily get to the delicious ingredients inside the burrito.
All the ingredients were great — the tuna and salmon tasted fresh, and there was plenty of cream cheese, which added the perfect tang with the seafood. But the essential ingredient here was the fried shrimp.
If I’m going to give you one recommendation when it comes to ordering a sushi burrito, I recommend getting something fried.
Remember, this isn’t a little slice of sushi you’re eating. It’s a burrito-sized bite. And when you’re taking such a big bite, sushi burritos are begging for some texture — that’s exactly what the fried shrimp added.
The only knock I’d give to sushi burritos in general after my first one is the smell. If you’re able to get past having the smell of sushi that close to your face — and nose — when you're taking a bite, then I highly recommend giving Zen’s version a shot.
This isn’t my first time eating a sushi burrito. I tried my first one when I lived in Hong Kong for a summer. I’m a huge fan of sushi burritos, so I couldn’t help but get my hands on another once Zen opened.
Let me tell you folks, this sushi burrito is massive.
I usually don’t have trouble consuming large quantities of food, but this meal slowed me down by the halfway mark. I blame the heaviness of the dish on the rice and fish, which I found pretty scrumptious.
I recommend not stripping the paper wrapping away from the sushi burrito when it arrives.
You’ll want to slowly peel away at its covering as you eat the sushi burrito. Because of its size, the paper wrapping helps support the seaweed, which holds the other ingredients together.
As for the flavor, it’s exactly what I expected. It tastes like sushi from a decent Japanese restaurant, only the roll is the length of your head.
However, the size did factor into the flavor of the sushi burrito. Instead of tasting all of the ingredients in one bite like a typical sushi roll, the dish forces you to try different sections.
With one mouthful you may receive a rush of cream cheese and salmon, and the other might only include shrimp and rice. It’s not necessarily a negative characteristic, just a different way of eating sushi.