On Tuesday the Rockville-based chain California Tortilla unleashed a new culinary mashup on the world: the ramen burrito. Like the orignal ramen burger and its culinary offspring—ramen sliders, ramen doughnuts—the dish capitalizes on the trendiness of the noodle soup and current obsession with food mashups (thanks, Cronut). But unlike some of the other ramen Frankenfoods, it doesn’t taste good. And that’s just the beginning of what’s wrong.
Hybirds such as the original ramen burger, created by chef Keizo Shimamoto, are a product of what cooks do best: take a classic technique or dish—in this case, two dishes—and make it their own through creativity and talent. That’s not to say the now-trademarked innovation is the second culinary coming (and the lines can be a little ridiculous). But if thought is what counts, at least it’s in the noodle patty—a bun fashioned out of Sun Noodle strands, the seasoned patty glazed with shoyu ramen sauce.
Stuffing a heap of bland, unseasoned “authentic Asian noodle base” into a flour tortilla and calling it a ramen burrito is the opposite, a half-hearted attempt at trendiness. The glutinous cushion doesn’t add any flavor, while the other ingredients—avocado, spinach, corn, cilantro, scallions—are overwhelmed by a heap of potent Sriracha-pickled onions (pack a few mints for after). Cal-Tor’s meats are tasty, and the slow-cooked pork carnitas are probably the best choice for mimicking ramen’s popular pork topping. Still, the sweet Thai chili sauce used to Asian-ize the proteins has as much to do with the traditional soup as a flour tortilla, and no connection to “all the classic flavors” the ram-rito is supposed to contain. Should you try it? Only if you need to carb-load while driving.
David Chang notes in his Lucky Peach article “The State of Ramen” that “the balance between innovation and quality is totally out of whack. Progress is good if you know what you’re doing and pay appropriate respect to what came before it.” So is the ramen burrito the “fucking end of everything,” as Chang suggests? Not in any diet-altering way, but it’s likely to pave the bottom of the barrel when it comes to any ramen hybrids to come.