This isn’t my first time at Zen Street, and as the only ramen shop anywhere close to UCR or the Riverside area in general, I had to return to give it a second chance after hearing praise about particular dishes that I didn’t order my first time, which had me vowing to never return.
Zen Street, located in a somewhat discreet plaza on Central Avenue across from the Riverside Plaza, boasts a dark and modern interior with string lights and hanging lightbulbs to add to the cool atmosphere. Posters and menu items hung from the walls and a sizable fish tank at the entrance divided the first half of the restaurant (which seemed more cheerful with more windows) from the second (which exuded a darker and more modern feeling).
The waiter greeted me and my companion cheerfully despite our prompt arrival 10 minutes after opening, and we were seated by the window toward the back of the restaurant where natural light flooded around us. This time around, I ordered what my friend recommended to me: drunken ramen with pork belly, which consisted of a sweet basil in pork bone broth, a side of chicken dumplings, shrimp fried rice with a side of fried tempura and a glass of green Thai tea.
Last time I was here, however, I distinctly remember ordering a spicy miso ramen and shamelessly hating it. The broth was flat-out disgusting and the spiciness of it took over any possibility of tasting something other than salty fire. To make matters worse, the ramen noodles were clumped together and clearly undercooked, leaving a mushy texture — needless to say, I left with an empty stomach and an increased longing for good ramen that could only be found near my hometown 30 minutes away.
As I attempted to erase my bias based on my previous horrible experience, I noticed our food had arrived rather quickly. The decent pile of shrimp fried rice was plated with three meatball-sized lumps of chicken dumplings and a small bowl of salad, while the ramen came in a big soup bowl and was accompanied by two small tempura on a separate plate with salad as well. The salad was refreshing and crisp, although there was nothing special about it and it lacked the citrus dressing, which meant we lacked motivation to finish it.
I appreciated the generous servings of shrimp in the fried rice, since we received maybe five jumbo pieces, which is way more than most restaurants tend to give out. The fried rice was a little on the salty side, although that didn’t really bother us. When the dumplings cooled down, we each took a bite with sweet and sour sauce and unanimously agreed that it was pretty good. Although the texture was slightly mushier than I remembered, the subtle taste of chicken and veggies wrapped in what looked like wonton skin was a winner.
I honestly have no idea why the green tea is called a Thai tea, but either way, when it arrived in a small mason glass jar, I was slightly awed by the layers of the matcha tea and cream — my amazement soon ended when I tasted it, though. The green tea tasted very light and artificial (I think my employment at a tea shop altered my taste for green tea) and it felt like I was drinking creamer with a splash of matcha.
To my disappointment, the tempura and the ramen were plain unappetizing. The shrimp inside the fried tempura was really soft — not how freshly breaded ones are — and I’m pretty sure it was just part of a microwavable bulk pack. The broth on the other hand was once again distasteful and the ramen noodles were once again undercooked and clumped together. The only praise I have for the ramen is that the pork belly was extremely tender and was probably the only thing saving the entire bowl of strange-tasting salty sadness from going on my blacklist.
Despite the fact that they pride themselves in serving ramen, my fried rice and dumplings were so much better. If you’re craving ramen in Riverside, sadly, you might be out of luck unless you would like to give Zen Street a try for yourself.