Wa Ramen in Orlando's Lake Nona neighborhood gives guests a glimpse of the 'Japanese way'

'Japanese food that Japanese people will actually enjoy'

Soy milk tonkotsu ramen is a standout
Soy milk tonkotsu ramen is a standout photo by Rob Bartlett

For all of Lake Nona's rapid development and hyperconnectedness, there's been a hyperdisconnect in the organic development of independent, chef-run restaurants in this "fastest-growing community in Orlando." For the most part, corporate-run outfits and chains rule in the Kingdom of Tavistock, so it's encouraging to see restaurants like Piazza Italia, arguably the finest pizzeria in the city, thrive in the suburban enclave off Narcoossee Road. I even felt a pang of hope when the owners of Wa Sushi in Casselberry opened Wa Ramen just a mile down from that Neapolitan pie haven last November.

Owner Hong Wong, lamenting the dearth of Japanese cuisine in this neighborhood he calls home, took it upon himself to, as he put it, "make Japanese food that Japanese people will actually enjoy." The man even snagged the services of chef Tatsuki Takayama, a longtime mainstay at Hanamizuki Japanese Restaurant on I-Drive, and all appears to be going as planned.

"Wa" means "the Japanese way" and the restaurant, says Wong, adheres to traditional Japanese methods and principles in food preparation and presentation. Seems Takayama is fully on board. His pan-fried gyoza ($8) came draped with a crisp square lattice that added a generous crackle to the pork-filled dumplings. Hanetsuki gyoza (or "gyoza with wings") are what they're called and they, along with chicken karaage ($10) and sweet purple potato tempura ($6), drew the noisiest grunts of affirmation from the riotous gang of gourmands at my table.

But that chatter turned to debate at the sight of iidako karaage ($10) being placed on the table. "Is eating octopus ethical?" said one of my pals. "If it isn't, then eating one of these baby octopus fritters will definitely get you canceled," I said as I popped some fried intelligence into my mouth. It was the only dish that polarized the table — we could all agree on the heaping plateful of stupidity, or grilled sausages ($10). We all quite enjoyed those shiny little links of Berkshire pork after dipping them into some coarse Dijon — all of us except the pescatarian, who went to town on the superbly charred miso-marinated black cod ($15) served atop a bamboo leaf.

click to enlarge Wa Ramen in Orlando's Lake Nona neighborhood gives guests a glimpse of the 'Japanese way'
photo by Rob Bartlett

Yes, this pre-ramen preamble impressed us plenty — but we, along with the others sitting inside the cozy, square-shaped room embellished with origami butterflies, came for the slurpage, and two soups in particular stood out. One was the soy milk tonkotsu ramen ($18). Its pork bone and kombu (kelp) broth is combined with soy milk to create a creamy liquid that's simultaneously light yet hearty. In that liquid: thin, straight egg noodz; thick, meaty cuts of pork chashu; a whole ajitama (soy sauce-marinated egg) and sprouts, bamboo shoots and bok choy. And if you're going to get all snobby about bok choy instead of spinach in your ramen, just remember ramen's Chinese origins. That said, I'd prefer the egg be cut in half for ease of eating.

The other standout was the spicy ramen ($18), reddened with a paste of gochujang and tobanjan (chili bean paste). Togarashi threads added a bit of aesthetic fire to the wavy-noodled wonder, but no matter which of the ramens you choose (veggie ramen excluded), the broth base is the same — pork- and chicken-based, slow cooked for eight hours with bonito and saba flakes, leeks, dried shiitake, ginger, garlic and kombu. In the miso ramen ($17), three different kinds of miso are used in the tare (seasoning) for all the salty-sweet-umami feels.

There's plenty of umami in the mushroom- and kombu-based broth of the vegetarian ramen ($17) as well. The black sesame tantanmen ($19), with its Sichuan roots, has a lot of depth, and a lot of ground pork — almost too much ground pork, which weighed the whole thing down. Some may not see that as a negative, however, and that's quite all right because there's plenty to be positive about at Wa.

And that includes the wait staff. One server who has a penchant for fine whiskey may have even poured us all a complimentary shot from his personal collection. So here's to you, Wa, and thanks for showing us "the way."

Location Details

Wa Ramen

10627 Narcoossee Road, Orlando Lake Nona



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