I realized recently there were several restaurants on/near Cumberland Avenue that I wasn’t familiar with. That was no surprise; I usually don’t prioritize eateries along The Strip because parking/accessibility issues abound, especially during the school year.
But that doesn’t mean there can’t be some real gems in the UT neighborhood, so in the interest of due diligence, I launched a Cumberland catch-up campaign recently by visiting Zen Ramen House & Sushi Bar. For logistical reasons, I had to meet The Grub Spouse there on a recent weeknight.
We were pleased to find that it was a full-service eatery instead of counter service. We took our seats and dove into a menu that lays out a respectable array of donburi (rice bowl), ramen, pho and sushi dishes.
The Spouse is not a sushi fan, so I was left to conquer that realm. Although Zen offers some two-dozen special rolls and a number of sushi/sashimi-based entrees, I decided to treat this sushi order as an appetizer. So I focused instead on their selection of 27 basic sushi-roll recipes. My choice: the six-piece spicy salmon roll ($5.50), featuring the eponymous fish mixed with spicy mayo, masago and scallion.
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As for the rest of Zen’s fare, The Spouse and I agreed that one of us would get either a pho (Vietnamese rice-noodle soup) or ramen bowl while the other would get a donburi dish. The Spouse volunteered for the latter, choosing teriyaki beef over rice for $10.95. Other featured donburi proteins include roast duck, roast pork, chicken and unagi. I opted for pho over ramen and got the shrimp bowl ($10.95) instead of pork or beef.
The sushi indeed came out first as a warm-up. It was a straightforward, no-frills roll that I had difficulty biting into halves. I was also surprised that it wasn’t automatically served with wasabi; I had to request some from our server.
My pho arrived next, and several minutes passed before The Spouse’s rice bowl appeared. All of Zen’s pho dishes are prepared with onion and scallion and served with a side dish of lime, bean sprouts and cilantro. I added a little of everything to the steamy broth, but nothing about this bowl — even the generously plump shrimp — managed to elevate it above average. Honestly, it all tasted rather bland to my palate.
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I did have better feelings about the teriyaki flavor of The Spouse’s beef, which was prepared mixed with broccoli and plated next to a scoop of rice (as opposed to atop rice in a bowl, as the menu suggested). Overall, I found this particular recipe more satisfying than my own, despite the abundance of rice noodles swimming in my pho bowl.
Neither of our meals had a distinctive edge when comparing them to similar dishes I’ve experienced with other vendors. Also, the service was slow, most notably in terms of ordering and paying for our meal. There was nothing about Zen that would cause me to flat-out steer diners away from it; I’m sure there are other dishes on the menu that might have suited me better that night. But based on this particular outing, I can’t bring myself to rave about it.
That being said, I acknowledge that this restaurant is a convenient option for UT students and employees who want quick and easy access to handcrafted sushi as well as pho and ramen dishes. There are other Asian-food restaurants in the neighborhood, but none that meet all of these specific niches. So if you’re jonesing for a caterpillar roll or a hot bowl of soup to warm you up on a cold winter day, Zen Ramen House & Sushi Bar may be right up your alley.
Zen Ramen House & Sushi Bar
Address: 1909 Cumberland Ave.
No alcohol service
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays; 12 to 9 p.m. Sundays
This Cumberland Strip eatery serves a wide array of ramen, pho, rice-bowl and sushi dishes in the UT neighborhood.
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Zen Ramen House & Sushi Bar in Cumberland Avenue, near UT Knoxville