Union Ramen blends flavors, cultures

Sylvie Kirsch, Staff Reporter

Union Ramen, located at 1837 Magazine St. Suite B, exemplifies its namesake. Founders Jeff Gapultos and chef Nate Nguyen started their passion project out of their love for ramen noodles and a desire to bring it to New Orleans. “There’s only been a handful of ramen establishments here in New Orleans, and [we] wanted to kind of deliver a new interpretation of it,” Gapultos said. Even so, both founders had their insecurities, as Gapultos is Filipino and Nguyen is Vietnamese. Not sure if people would accept their interpretations of the popular food, paired with being in “arguably the greatest food city in the world in New Orleans, we wanted to bring certain elements to our interpretations the flavors we grew up with, the flavors from our Filipino cuisine and Vietnamese cuisine, and of course, New Orleans,” Gapultos said. “Then, we unite it with our favorite food from Japan —  ramen. And so that’s where Union Ramen came in. It’s a union of many different flavors and tastes.”

bowl of ramen
Union Ramen offers a wide array of innovative dishes. (Beebe Tran)

This conglomerate of different cuisines and flavors has led to many of Union Ramen’s popular dishes. Union Ramen also offers a variety of small plate dishes which complement the main ramen dish, can be enjoyed on their own and showcase the creativity of Nguyen. The small plate menu is seasonal, but some current favorites include the NOLA BBQ Stuffed Squid with dirty rice stuffing, New Orleans barbecue sauce and tomatillo sauce. Another popular dish is the Southern Shorty which pairs braised beef short rib, southern kimchi, potato and leek puree, Union’s barbecue sauce and fried shisho. “In the kitchen we always think of new dishes, how would it match our concept, and we play around with it,” Nguyen said about coming up with new dish ideas. “The first time may not be where we want it to be but in the kitchen; we always sit down and talk together and say how can we make this work and how can we turn this dish into something that would make sense to us.” 

Trial and error has been a part of Union Ramen’s story since before day one. The restaurant’s opening day was set for April 4, 2020 — less than a month after the beginning of lockdown. “April 4th is actually International Ramen Day and that was always part of our business plan to open up on that day,” Gapultos said. Therefore, the pandemic “put us in a position where there was true fear in both of us. We were already years in the making of this restaurant with a heavy financial investment in it plus our time and energy and then suddenly because of the pandemic we were simply not allowed to open.” 

Thankfully, Gapultos and Nguyen had the support of their family and friends and decided to adopt a takeout-only menu. Because ramen is a dish meant to be eaten at the venue it’s prepared at, “Chef actually evolved the menu to generate more items that would be more suitable for travel, which resulted in some of our most popular small plates,” Gapultos said. Further, Union Ramen’s dedicated team of staff, which remains relatively unchanged since opening day, is the kind of support system that has allowed Gapultos and Nguyen’s vision to thrive.

Innovation is part of Union Ramen’s spirit, which is why when International Ramen Day 2021 fell on Easter Sunday, the team organized an Easter egg hunt around the neighborhood where “inside the eggs, we’re doing like little giveaways and just some fun stuff like a free bowl of ramen, free cocktails, things like that,” Gapultos said. Union Ramen is about to launch their new spring menu in concurrence with their new college night menu, where students can bring any valid form of student ID to the restaurant and receive 10% off their entire meal. Part of Union Ramen’s mission is to make their food affordable in an effort to help spread their passion. “Rarely do you see anything more than $15 unless you do the add-ons which a lot of people tend to do,” Nguyen said.