By Clint Smith // Photography by Jana Jones
As the saying goes, your meals are for consumption ocularly … well, something like that. In this Instagram-driven world of aesthetes and visual athletes, we’ve come to expect the same visual experience from our foods. Here, four southside dishes to feed your orbits.
Traditional Ramen at Kissaten Japanese and Asian Cuisine
8908 Saint Peter St., Indianapolis, (317) 300-1057
While savvy aesthetics can certainly elevate a dish, often it’s the component of honoring tradition that’s equally important. Take the classic noodle soup, ramen — a specialty at Kissaten. “Although it’s mainly a Japanese restaurant,” says owner Sai Lung, “Kissaten offers a broad selection of Asian and Western foods as well.” Kissaten literally translates to “tea-drinking shop.” Not to disappoint, the fragrant beverage is indeed a featured item on a menu that mingles some “greatest hits” from Asian cuisine: General Tso’s chicken (China), tonkatsu pork (Japan), and pho (Vietnam).
And while “fusion” has fueled the restaurant’s concept for over a decade, Lung acknowledges that it’s adhering to the discipline of ramen that has earned Kissaten a praise-worthy reputation. “Ramen actually originated in China,” Lung notes. “However, the name of ramen only became known as one of the popular dishes in Japan in recent decades.”
The classic, old-school ramen is a pairing of a potent broth and hearty, high-alkaline noodles. It’s traditional to then top the savory concoction with a slice of roasted pork belly. “All our ramens are freshly made, and original ramen ingredients are used,” says Lung, who cites the miso, shoyu and garlic tonkatsu-shoyu ramen varieties as their most popular. Lung is also rolling out a few new menu items, such as yakisoba and golden curry ramen.
Lung notes his extended exposure to traditional ramen, and he uses these culinary encounters to enrich the dining experience at Kissaten. “I always feel so happy and satisfied,” he says, when customers share how delicious the food is. And at Kissaten, an empty, post-dinner soup bowl is a compliment. One of the most memorable exchanges, one Lung says he “will never forget,” occurred when a group of Japanese guests paid a visit. “They tell me that they haven’t tasted the actual ramen for a long time and really appreciate me for that.”
Pineapple Fried Rice at Thai Spice
2220 County Line Road, Indianapolis, (317) 881-2243
The diminutive and otherwise unassuming brick building on the north side of County Line Road is home to Thai Spice, a staple for southsiders and a destination for food enthusiasts.
One of the most popular and enduring dishes at Thai Spice is the pineapple fried rice. Sure, artistically presenting a bowl of rice to dazzle diners is a challenge for even the most creative culinarian, but Thai Spice employs a delicious trick. “A lot of people are surprised and excited when we bring [the fried rice] out in a pineapple shell,” says manager Greg Luzietti, who’s been with the restaurant for 15 years. And the fresh, pineapple-shell delivery system is just one component that makes the dish so unique. “It’s a bit different from regular fried rice,” he says. “The pineapple and tomatoes make it a little sweeter than most fried rice.” Luzietti notes that many Thai restaurants feature some version of pineapple fried rice. “However, ours has our special recipe mixed in, which is what our loyal customers enjoy about Thai Spice,” he says.
While pleasing to the eye, the consistent mechanics of the pineapple fried rice contribute to its ongoing popularity. “It has a good balance of sweet, salty and sour that hits all your taste buds,” Luzietti says. And like many of the menu items, the pineapple fried rice can be ordered with chicken, pork or shrimp (or a combination of the three), and is also available vegetarian or vegan.
The also beautiful fried red snapper is the latest addition to the Thai Spice menu — deep-fried, paired with either a sweet-and-sour or a spicy basil sauce and accompanied with rice. “We hope it will be a hit with seafood lovers,” says Luzietti.
And a parting note about the pineapple fried rice: “More than once, I’ve heard, ‘I’ve traveled all over and had many Thai foods; yours is the best I’ve ever had!’” Luzietti says.
Key Lime Cheesecake Chimichanga at Humble Taco
172 Melody Ave., Greenwood, (317) 883-9048
Sometimes, visual appeal is about taking something familiar and reconstructing it with an unconventional execution, and with a dish like the Key lime cheesecake chimichanga, the team at Humble Taco has devised (and revised) its version of dessert. Marketing manager Sarah Humphrey says, “We took this Tex-Mex dinner favorite and turned it into a delectable dessert.” This sweet hybrid has been on Humble Taco’s menu since it opened in March and was created by Willie Roegner, director of operations and culinary partner for Barefoot Restaurant Concepts (also the parent company to Tried & True Alehouse). “Humble Taco is fun and unique,” Humphrey says. “We love this non-traditional dessert to complement our eclectic character.”
Humble Taco begins the dish with a “scratch-made” Key lime cheesecake filling and a house Key lime sauce; and though the core components of the chimi are easily recognizable, it’s the method of deep-frying that flips the script. “The Key lime cheesecake chimi is served warm in a fried flour tortilla,” Humphrey explains, “with a cool, refreshing Key lime center.” The chimi is then garnished with crumbled graham crackers, whipped cream and fresh lime wedges for a dessert that’s truly “Instagram-able.”
And the Key lime chimi may have some decadent competition as Humble Taco plans to roll out a choco-taco sundae. “When you dine at Humble Taco, it’s hard to decide if you should go for that extra taco or save room for the Key lime cheesecake chimichanga,” Humphrey says. “We’re making it more difficult to decide.”
Signature Pulled Pork Nachos at Big Woods Franklin
1800 E. King St. Franklin, (317) 739-0378
As arresting as appearances can be, the visual appeal of the signature pulled pork nachos at Big Woods Franklin is merely the first step in what Megan O’Bryan describes as “an experience” in and of itself. O’Bryan, the brand manager who’s been with Big Woods since its inception in 2009, says the star of the dish is the house-smoked pork. “The quality and flavor of that pork makes a perfect anchor for this dish.”
The nachos have remained a steadfast staple throughout 12 years of growth with Big Woods (along with associated companies, Quaff On and Hard Truth Distilling Co.). “Our founding team worked closely with chefs to develop an accessible, but unique, collection of dishes that went well with the craft beer we were making,” notes O’Bryan. “It took bar food and upped the ante, creating our most enduring menu item.”
While the house-smoked pork is a fundamental component, the layers of crispy, tri-tortilla chips showcase a savory stratification of key ingredients: pickled jalapenos, sweet corn, black beans, diced tomatoes and shredded cheddar cheese. The nachos are then topped with barbecue sauce and a drizzle of house-made peppercorn ranch. “This dish had crunchiness, creaminess, crispness, richness,” says O’Bryan, “and that just makes it really satisfying, if not rewardingly indulgent.”
Notable rivals to the nachos’ popularity (but not quite eclipsing it) are the house-smoked brewer’s wings and artisan pizzas. “Originally, the [Franklin] location didn’t have pizzas on the menu,” O’Bryan says. “The demand for it was so high that we sat down and figured out how to make the space. It was a lot of work, but well worth it.”
In addition to edible aesthetics, Big Woods is keen on variation. “We do a themed feature menu every month,” she says, which offers a new appetizer, sandwich, entree and dessert, alongside a Hard Truth cocktail and Quaff On beer of the month. “The themes vary and often take seasonality into account.”