Note: This is part one of a series highlighting restaurants recognized by Michelin during its first time rating Tampa in 2022. Michelin is in a three-year process of reviewing Tampa’s dining establishments.
Few dishes are more comforting than a steaming bowl of ramen with its springy noodles, savory broth and flavorful toppings. Noel Cruz fell in love with ramen early on, raised in a food-focused Filipino family. Now he is serving up some of Tampa Bay’s best ramen at his Seminole Heights joint, Ichicoro Ramen — so says the Michelin Guide.
The famed French publication recognized Ichicoro with a Bib Gourmand award in June after completing its first reviews in Tampa. Ichicoro was one of three restaurants in the city and 3,309 restaurants worldwide since 1997 to receive this Michelin award for good quality, good value cooking. (Tampa’s other winners, Rooster & The Till and Rocca, will be featured in future stories.)
Michelin’s writeup on Ichicoro reads in part, “Expect finely tuned bowls with enticingly springy noodles; savory, full-bodied broths based on chicken or pork (or both); and accoutrements that show a bit of personality, as in pork belly chasyu asado or grilled Gulf shrimp,”
So how did Cruz go from a ramen-loving kid to a ramen-cooking king recognized by perhaps the world’s most prestigious restaurant rater? It’s a process that has marinated over several decades. Growing up in Chicago, he watched as many cooking shows as cartoons when he wasn’t helping in the kitchen. Cruz’s family moved to Tampa in the early 1980s and he landed his first cooking job at Saddlebrook Resort. Soon after he moved to New York, where he lived for 20 years attending the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, working at Michelin-starred restaurants and opening a few of his own concepts. In 2015, Cruz gravitated back to family in Tampa and launched Ichicoro Ramen.
“The idea was to open a focused restaurant that specializes in ramen, which didn’t yet exist in Tampa,” Cruz says. “Everyone has some connection to ramen, whether it’s a 25-cent pack that got them through college or traditional ramen.”
The name Ichicoro is a play on a few Japanese words that translate loosely to “getting it right for the first time.” With lines out the door from the start and now in its eighth year, it seems that Cruz has indeed gotten it right. For his secrets to success, simply look inside one of his ramen bowls: custom, high-quality noodles by Sun Noodle, a traditional-style, long-simmered broth and the freshest ingredients.
But Cruz is always evolving. He has expanded Ichicoro’s menu, added to-go and delivery options, upped the sake program and focused on employee care and retention. Soon, he’ll expand to a larger (not yet announced) location in Tampa to accommodate 100-plus seats and a full bar, also adding creative new shareable dishes.
With a no-reservations policy and a loyal fan base, Cruz is used to a packed house at Ichicoro, but he has seen an uptick and a new wave of clientele since receiving Michelin’s award.
“Tampa hasn’t been on the map until recently and I think the Bib Gourmand has pushed it real fast onto the radar of the rest of the U.S.,” Cruz notes. “It’s good for business and I appreciate it to the fullest.”
Cruz also owns c.1949 Florida Beer Garden and Ganchu Chicken & Beer in Tampa and Super Duper Spot in Lakeland. Plus, he’s bringing 3 Corners Pizza to Water Street Tampa. He says he has plenty more ideas — and Tampa Bay is hungry to see what the ramen king comes up with next.
Learn about the other Tampa spots that Michelin recommended here.