Folks Are Having a Bowl in AthensDec 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
Terry Johnston, owner of Mad Hatter Cafe and Tea Garden in Athens, just celebrated her tenth anniversary. Long known for a place with healthy food options including vegan, gluten-free, keto, and locally sourced whole foods, the café has something new on the menu—homemade ramen. When Terry had health issues that caused her to stop regular hours last summer, her son Zack, who has grown up working and cooking at the Hatter, started weekly ramen events. The events did so well—people came from Scranton, Bath, Ithaca, Wellsboro—that Terry decided to reopen with ramen all the time, in addition to their fresh bowls, salads, and wraps.
Why ramen? Zack admits to eating so much instant ramen when young that his family basically staged an intervention, worried about all the sodium he was consuming. So, three years ago, when he was finishing high school, he started experimenting with making his own. It wasn’t great at first, he says, until he looked into traditional Japanese cooking methods. “The aromatics are added at the last hour, so they don’t cook off,” he explains. “The biggest thing was the tare.” Tare—the sauce—is the core of umami (savoriness) and completely changes the soup. Later he began making his own wheat noodles, using only the best semolina flour.
“It’s so much healthier,” he says. “There’s less additives and stabilizers. I use real chicken and cook the broth down rather than adding powdered stuff that’s mostly salt.” It takes a day or two to make each broth—there’s always a meat one, a vegan one, and a special. For instance, the birria special consisted of a three-pepper spice broth. The wheat noodles must be made once a week after hours. There are also gluten free rice noodles and konjac noodles that are keto. The ramen can also be ordered as a grain bowl with their own blend of brown basmati, wild rice, and quinoa.
The artistry doesn’t end there. The tares, like savory sake shio, mushroom shoyo, and three-spice kara miso, are made on site. The roasted garlic oil is homemade. The chashu pork is pork belly Zack braises, marinates, and roasts. He also prepares the ajitama, traditional soft-boiled eggs marinated for five days in soy sauce and sweet rice wine. When ordering, you choose your broth, tare, aromatic oil, noodles (or grain), two proteins, and two toppings such as cabbage, carrot, negi (scallion), pickled ginger, nori (roasted garlic), bonito, sesame seeds, togarashi, and ancho chili. All for fourteen dollars. Zack, who still eats ramen almost every day, says a large variety of soups can be made from the options provided. There is also the Easy Choice (also known as the Picky Kid Bowl) where for ten dollars you get chicken broth, noodles, and one topping.
The sunny dining room/kitchen is full of art and color, with people talking and slurping. Many are eating lunch, but some drop in for a baked good and beverage—espresso drinks, herbal teas, and the many drinks that use Bradley’s Country Creamery milks and eggnog. “You don’t get many grumpy people in a bright yellow room,” Terry says about this cheery spot to hang out. But don’t come on weekends. The Mad Hatter is open Tuesday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Find them and their menu on Facebook or call (570) 731-7183.