By Megan Volpert
In case you spent 2016 in a cave, Atlanta is in the midst of a ramen boom. From Jinya in Sandy Springs to Taiyo in Decatur, hot noodle soups are proliferating in time to warm us up all winter long.
For those not so broth-inclined, there is also an increasing interest in Asian grilling techniques that go beyond the hibachi style of places like Nakato, perhaps most visible so far at Craft Izayaka in Krog Street Market and Brush Izakaya in Decatur. So for starters, Nexto’s menu sits at the intersection of two major waves of attention to Japanese cuisine.
Nexto will get foot traffic from the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, cross-traffic and spillover from its sister restaurant, Two Urban Licks, and delivery service coming soon will make the food available to everyone else. And the food is on-trend. But Chef Mihoku Obunai doesn’t care much about being trendy; she’s just cooking the stuff her family used to make in Japan. It’s already carried her to celebrity chef status in competition on Food Network’s Chopped and winning the first ramen battle – as the only woman to compete – at the annual StarChefs International Chefs Congress in New York.
Chef Obunai knows her stuff in the deeply intuitive way that comes from having learned to appreciate food in childhood. The huge ramen bowls are priced from $12-14 (and you’ll be bringing home leftovers), with the grilled menu just a buck or two more. The best hot buns are the “unagi and chips,” an inventive and crispy riff on the English classic. Be sure to also order an okonomiyaki. Yes, there is technically squid in there somewhere, but between the fluffy pancake crust and the salty one-two punch of bacon and smoked bonito flake, this is a savory flatbread that even less adventurous diners will enjoy.
From the grill, order scallops because they’ve got perfect char but mainly for the addictive surprise of their bed of curried spaghetti squash that would make a great salad on its own. As for the ramen, you can’t go wrong on any of their half dozen choices whether you’re looking to cure a drippy nose with 24-hour broth, or clear your head with the supremely spicy, or you’re just hunting for a satisfying vegetarian option.
We went on a Friday night at sunset when there was no wait. They usually have red bean or green tea ice cream for dessert, but had run out of it by the time we inquired. Right on cue, our serve happily suggested Two Urban Licks, a place with great coffee and desserts, just next door.
Nexto is located at 828 Ralph McGill Boulevard. For more information, visit nextoatl.com.