As a child, I existed almost entirely on pasta and noodles – lunch, dinner, sometimes even breakfast (don’t judge, I was young). A couple of decades later and my tastes have certainly evolved and expanded, but noodles still have a firm place in my heart (read: stomach). That’s probably why the first time I visited Domu in Jacksonville, I fell completely in love. Tucked away in one of the many storefronts on the expansive grounds of the St. Johns Town Center, this quirky and colorful little restaurant is home to some of the best ramen in the state.
Domu was actually born in November of 2016 down in Orlando, where the original store still operates in the East End Market. Chef and owner Sean “Sonny” Nguyen decided to expand into Jacksonville only a little over a year ago when he and his team saw a void in the area for craft ramen and wanted to bring their own experienced touch to the Bold City.
Making their food the right way is important to the team. Sonny studied with a Japanese noodle master who made noodles in Tokyo for 18 years, and the restaurant sticks to authentic techniques. “We are using true Japanese techniques,” says Sonny, “from simmering our bone broths for hours to making our own noodles on a machine we imported from Japan.”
Though their methods of preparation stick to tradition, the space is anything but. Walking through the doors, you’re greeted by a glowing neon “Domu” sign on the wall, a sleek black and white bar lined with shimmering bottles, and a colorful mural of swimming koi on the far wall of the main room. The open kitchen to one side is a hustle and bustle of culinary activity matched only by the liveliness of the always-busy dining room.
The food, though, is the reason this restaurant is always busy. We started our Domu experience with the most popular dish on the menu – the Richie Rich Ramen. Braised pork belly, a brûléed-seasoned soft boiled egg, wood ear mushrooms, scallions, fried garlic, and black garlic oil all swim in a miso-shoyu pork bone broth. Like the name implies, the flavors are rich and decadent. With every ingredient cooked to perfection, it isn’t hard to see why this dish tops the charts.
And though not quite as popular, the Tokyo Ramen is still a serious crowd pleaser. It starts with shoyu chicken broth then a fried chicken thigh, a brûléed-seasoned soft boiled egg, wood ear mushroom, seared garlic chives, infused duck fat, and a garlic-scallion confit. Forget chicken noodle soup. This is my new comfort food.
You can’t go to Domu and just ignore the ramen (especially if it’s your first time there), but they aren’t the only culinary creations that the chefs are slinging in the kitchen. You also can’t miss out on the Domu Wings – another of the most popular dishes on the menu. These wings are slathered in Domu’s own extra crispy batter then coated in kimchi butter sauce, and, as an added bonus, they happen to be gluten free.
I’ve always been a sucker for blistered shishito peppers, those odd little peppers where 1 in 10 are spicy. And Domu makes them just perfectly. Served with brown butter, soy tare, and crispy quinoa, they have just the right amount of crunch and a whole lot of flavor. And if more apps are up your alley and you’re looking to satisfy cheese cravings, then Cheezus might be the way to go. This unusually delightful dish consists of corn off the cob, kewpie mayo (a mayo made with rice vinegar), mozzarella, scallions, Japanese spices, and just a squeeze of lime.
Sonny and his team at Domu are just out to make some seriously good food and have a good time while they do it. “We just try to be ‘us’ and people seem to be attracted towards it,” says Sonny. “The music we play is 90s hip-hop, so you’ll hear Biggie and 2Pac. We allow our staff to have no uniforms so they can express freely how they want to dress. We don’t take reservations to keep an equal opportunity of dining, and we don’t do take out so the food isn’t compromised. We want to bring a unique experience to the customers that they may not be accustomed to, but at the same time not trying to follow suit of what our identity is. We just want to serve good food and cocktails to the people who are willing to take a chance on a new experience.”