For nearly a decade, ramen bars have been thriving in places like New York City and Los Angeles. Hungry patrons sometimes wait for hours to enjoy an oversized bowl of Japanese noodle soup topped with an assortment of fresh vegetables and meats. In a few weeks, you can add St. Pete to the list of cities swept up in the ramen craze.
Opening in the up-and-coming EDGE District, Buya Ramen (pronounced boo-yah!) will provide an izakaya, or Japanese gastropub, atmosphere that focuses on much more than just a bowl of Japanese comfort food. In addition to ramen, owner/operator Michael Sponaugle says, “We will have the largest selection of Japanese whiskey in the Tampa Bay area, if not Florida. By the time we are done, we hope to have the largest selection on the east coast.”
Buya Ramen is a 104-seat eatery decorated with a modern industrial interior that includes 12 foot long community tables made from salvaged American elm, a 32 foot seamless concrete bar top, distressed concrete walls, and St. Pete’s iconic hexagonal floor. Perhaps the most eye-catching though is the mural work of local artist Michael Vahl. At the back of the restaurant is a charging longhorn bull with a Japanese fighting bantam rooster on it’s back and the Japanese sun in the background. “I’m originally from Texas and my partners grew up in the midwest as well. We thought what better representation than that of a longhorn bull. Merging the cultures with Japan, we have an audacious-looking Japanese bantam rooster on its back,” explains Michael Sponaugle.
The food menu at Buya Ramen will offer up various types of gyoza, kamameshi, and of course, ramen. There will be several different bowls of ramen available, each garnished with a different topping such as crispy duck, pork belly, braised oxtail, and mushroom. A creamy tonkotsu broth (pork-based) will be made in-house, as well as a vegetarian miso-based broth. Even the noodles will be made from scratch using a top-of-the-line ramen machine being shipped to St. Pete straight from Japan. The ramen machine, Michael tells me, is the only way to get a noodle that is dense enough. If made by hand, the noodles would soak up broth too quickly and get soggy. The price per bowl will vary, but most will fit in the $16 to $18 range.
As with the ramen, the gyoza, or Japanese dumplings, are also crafted with the help of a gyoza machine from Japan. Buya will grind their own meat and the machine will perfectly assemble the house-made dumplings. There will be an assortment of gyoza available filled with pork, chicken, seafood or vegetables. The third section of the menu is kamameshi, which is a traditional Japanese rice dish cooked in an iron pot with a variety of meats, seafood and vegetables. Additionally, there will be small plates available such as chargrilled bok choy, seaweed salad, and edamame.
Yet another unique facet of Buya Ramen will be its unparalleled selection of Japanese whiskey. Most are unaware that Japanese whiskey has been around since the late 1800’s, however only recently has it become popular in the United States. Typically, Japanese whiskeys are very scotch-driven. They are not the sweeter corn mash bourbon style that we are familiar with. Buya will have around 8 Japanese whiskeys available on opening day from popular distillers such as Suntory and Nika. Michael hopes to grow the whiskey list to around 30 and is already working with importers and distillers overseas to bring some Japanese whiskeys to Buya that are not currently represented anywhere in the U.S. The whiskeys will start at $10 to $12 for a rocks pour.
For owner Michael Sponaugle, Buya Ramen will be a long-lived dream finally realized when the doors open to the public in early July. Michael lived in St. Pete for 12 years before moving his outdoor furniture company to Miami in 2008. Already having an extensive background in the hospitality industry, his furniture company quickly drew him back into restaurant operations and ownership with the Brickell Bier Garden. From there, Michael opened up Prost: Wurstgrill and Bierhouse, and finally Momi with noodle mentor Jeffrey Chen, which has been named one of the best ramen shops in America.
After 8 years in Miami, Michael decided it was time to move back home to St. Petersburg with his wife and 2 year old daughter. However, unable to leave the restaurant world behind, he has partnered with long-time friends Kevin and Brian Wojtowicz to open Buya. Another long-time friend Executive Chef Sean Squires, who trained under the iconic Tom Pritchard at Salt Rock Grill and has orchestrated several of Frank Chivas' establishments, has signed on to helm the kitchen.
Buya Ramen is located at 911 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg, FL 33705. The soft opening is scheduled for the second week of July. When fully open, hours will be from 11am to midnight on weekdays and 11am to 4am on weekends (7 days a week). Stay up to date by liking Buya Ramen on Facebook and Instagram.