A new restaurant on Lee Highway is looking to serve customers a hug, in the shape of a bowl of ramen.
Gaijin Ramen Shop (3800 Lee Highway) opened its doors last week on Tuesday for its soft opening and already the restaurant has had repeat customers, said co-owner Nicole Mazkour. On Friday, three days after opening, the restaurant had a waitlist of 65 people hoping to try its various ramen recipes.
The restaurant’s success so far is a bit surprising because it is summer and ramen is a hot soup, Mazkour said. It is also shocking because the Mazkour and co-owner Tuvan Pham have no prior restaurant experience.
“We’ve been best friends, and something we’ve dreamed of independently is owning our own restaurant,” Mazkour said.
The two pulled together their savings to build their restaurant, despite many people telling them they wouldn’t be successful. They originally looked to open in Georgetown but the landlord pulled out at the last minute. When they got the space in Cherrydale, four different construction companies refused the project, Pham said.
“This is our shot. This is our dream,” Mazkour said. “It is literally our skin, bones, sweat and tears. We’re positive that God has helped us.”
The two set out to bring an authentic, friendly ramen experience to Arlington. They traveled to Japan to learn how to make ramen and South Korea to learn the art of making kimchi.
“If you could describe us in one word, it’s passion,” Mazkour said. “That’s all it takes.”
Everything is made fresh at the restaurant, the owners say, and the ramen soup can take eight to 10 hours to make. The owners and their staff hand shuck the corn and peel the fuji apples that go into the ramen broth, and Mazkour said the amount of organic waste they produce from the fresh vegetables and meat is “unbelievable.”
A bowl of ramen costs between $10 and $11, which does not include extra toppings that one can add. Mazkour and Pham said that the soup is a bit expensive, but it’s the best price they could set in order to afford the fresh ingredients and preparation.
The restaurant offers traditional ramen like a miso ramen or spicy miso ramen, but also more creative ones like BBQ chicken ramen. Mazkour said that she hopes to get more even creative and is playing with the idea of a lobster ramen or a kobe beef ramen.
In addition to the ten types of ramen currently served, customers can also purchase chicken, pork or beef “buns.” Buns are similar to sliders, but the buns are a white, thick and doughy instead of a traditional bread. The restaurant is a family business, with Mazkour’s son making the buns.
Without a financial backer, Mazkour and Pham have been somewhat limited in their operation. They both have full time jobs outside of the restaurant, and can only open from 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. They want to expand the hours, either in the afternoon or late night Friday and Saturday, but they are seeking customer feedback to help them make their decision.
During the restaurant’s soft opening, the two owners want to hear customer feedback. They did a soft opening because they are currently training the staff to make the ramen and they are still hammering out other details.
When hiring, the two owners kept all the staff from the Kite Runner Cafe, which was previously in the spot. The two paid the employees for two months while the restaurant was being built because they knew the staff relied on the paychecks, Pham said.
“We’re not about business,” she said. “We’re about heart.”
They are also still working to accept credit cards and get their liquor license, but they expect to have both in the next few weeks.
The restaurant can seat 44 people and there will be about 17 seats outside as well. Mazkour and Pham want to give the restaurant the kind of friendly feel that they found in Japan, instead of the hip and exclusive feel that some other trendy ramen places have, Mazkour said.
Their light attitude is reflected in the restaurant name. Gaijin in Japanese means foreigner, and neither Mazkour nor Pham are Japanese, but they respect the culture and the food, so the name is a bit of a light-hearted joke.
“[Japanese people] love it,” Pham said.