"RAMEN IS ONE of those things that is kinda slow to the scene here in Savannah," is one of the first things Yatai Ramen + Yakitori marketing director Christine Cutlip told me when we sat down to talk ramen. I couldn't agree more. Savannah is a city full of culture, art, and food. We have miles of restaurants featuring flavors of the American South, Cuba, Asia, and Mexico, as well as everywhere in between – but until this year there was a major gap in the fully committed ramen restaurant.
The restaurant group behind Savannah Smokehouse, Seafood Shack, and Below Zero noticed the same and decided to take action. Tatami Ramen + Yakitori opened its doors mid-pandemic, but has been steadily growing since. It is the only fully devoted ramen and yakitori restaurant downtown.
“This is our newest venture, which is Japanese ramen bar and yakitori. As a whole, our restaurant group we specialize in fast-casual counter service,” explained Cutlip. Fast casual means order at the counter, pick a table, and then have your food delivered right to you.
The restaurant model keeps food costs low by limiting the amount of staff needed to run a business.
“We specialize in providing great food and affordable prices. Being downtown where there are some really really great restaurants, a lot of it is on the high end side of things,” Cutlip said. “We actually prefer not to be your special occasion. We don’t really want to be your anniversary spot, we would rather be your Monday-for-dinner, Tuesday-for-lunch type of place.”
The menu starts by introducing a long list of ramen options. Instead of offering several types of set ramen bowls, Yatai lets the customer make all of the decisions.
Cutlip explained that “we have a build-your-own-bowl option. We call it BYOB, build-your-own-bowl. That allows us to give you a standard with what it comes with but also allows the customer to customize, whether it is based on preference or dietary restrictions, the broth they want, what type of noodles, what type of protein, and additional toppings they want to add to that.”
The menu may be limited, but the combinations are endless. Every single visit you can try something completely different. I have already planned out my next bowl of ramen for my next lunchtime weekday meal.
Great ramen starts with a slow-cooked deeply flavored broth. “We have six of our different broths. Each broth is distinctively different in taste and ingredients. They are all carefully crafted, which makes it delicious,” says Cutlip. The tonkotsu is traditional, made of pork and chicken. In the same vein is the classic shoyu, or soy based broth, and shio, or salt broth.
My favorite so far is the creamy garlic broth, which is the tonkotsu but with a hearty addition of fragrant garlic. The spicy mala broth is not for the faint of heart. Deep in color and flavor, the mala broth will warm both your belly and tongue.
For my BYOB, I selected the creamy garlic broth with traditional ramen noodles, marinated chicken, and additional topping of shiitake mushrooms. I was told that creamy garlic and traditional ramen noodles are some of the most popular items available. For protein, the fan favorite seems to be the pork chashu, or seared pork belly.
It took everything within me to refrain from adding every single available extra topping. Often less is more. Other outstanding optional add-ons include kimchi, crispy shallots, curry, and bean sprouts, with more items constantly being added to the menu.
There are vegetarian, gluten free, vegan, and kid-friendly options, as well as the tomato broth, kale ramen, and veggie protein option. Each ingredient is so yummy, meat will not be missed. No matter the version of ramen order, all bowls are topped with a soft-boiled egg, naruto fish cake, bok choy, green onions, sesame seasoning, and nori. Because all of the optional add-ons are stellar, I will be paying the extra coin to make my next bowl vegetable focused.
Let’s not forget about the yakitori side of the menu, considering it is also part of the restaurant’s name. Yakitori is traditionally skewered seasoned and grilled Japanese-style chicken. There is more than just chicken available at Yatai. For the restaurant’s version, they top each skewer with their own sweet glaze. Steak, shrimp, and fried tofu are just of the few types of yakitori available to order.
The final only-for-Savannah specialty is Yatai’s Spicy Ramen Challenge. Customers can sign their taste buds away with Yatai’s spice waiver and attempt to get into the Hall Of Flame. The challenge is to finish an entire bowl of mala base ramen, with additions of your choice, that includes a secret special pepper concentrate. The secret pepper is appropriate for this Ghost City. If you complete the challenge you get your picture added to the Hall of Flame and a free bowl on your next visit. You must be over 18 to participate. In the short period Yatai has been open, the Hall of Flame has quickly filled.
Maybe a painful amount of heat is not ideal; instead each customer has the option to eat a normal spicy bowl of ramen with a bowl of mala base. The heat can be individually tailored with a spoonful or two of the spicy stir-ins available at each table. Keeping with the flavor of my creamy garlic base, I added two spoonfuls of the house spicy garlic oil.
Happy hour happens Monday through Friday. It features house-price sake and a dollar off all the yakitori. The restaurant itself is anime, making it a perfect spot to take your kids to eat a well-rounded meal.