Vendor Spotlight – Ichicoro Imoto
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Ichicoro profile – Conversation with Noel Cruz – written by Alex English.

I don’t want to overstate this, but I felt a sort of visceral magnetism while I sat across from Noel Cruz, discussing his food stall at Heights Public Market and the broader Ichicoro brand.

He is a compact but sturdy guy with tattoos up and down his tanned arm, a sharp haircut, and a kind, knowing smile. Like someone who regularly practices meditation or yoga, he conveys zen calm alongside a focused work ethic—for stylish, thoughtful hospitality with a clear point of view.

Perhaps that’s because he has well over a decade of food experience in New York, after attending the Culinary Institute of America. There, he learned the principles of fine French cooking, and over time, saw what worked and what didn’t in America’s toughest food market.

When the idea of an authentic ramen-ya presented itself, Cruz jumped.

During a five-week pop-up location in Manhattan, testing out a Tampa-style ramen menu, Tampa Bay Times’ food critic Laura Reiley ate at the stand and encouraged him to return to his roots.

A native of Tampa, Cruz created Ichicoro under “the perfect storm” of circumstances. In a short period, he connected with investors, an operating partner, and was able to convince a team to come from New York to help launch the brand and operate its first location.

Preparing real ramen (i.e. not from a package) required Cruz, actually of Filipino descent, to relearn many things the Japanese do differently in cuisine, which in many ways mirrors Japan’s wider culture of less is more.

He also had to overcome a perception that ramen is for college students on a budget.

Ramen is all about the broth, some varieties of which take fifteen hours to perfect. Springy, chewy noodles are key too, and unlike other types of noodle or pasta, must be sturdy enough to hold up to very hot liquid.

The specific combination of broth, noodles, and various garnishes was brought from China to Japan about 400 years ago, and is one of the few Japanese cultural staples that is traditionally nontraditional; each region has its own style. Reinterpreting the dish for Tampa was easier than you might expect.

The first Ichicoro location opened in fall 2015, and its popularity with eaters hasn’t wavered since, despite our warm climate and ramen’s core of hot broth. A well-rounded menu provides non-liquid options, like the CuBaoNo™ pressed bun, a direct nod to Tampa’s history, as well as rice bowls and Karaage Chicken, an elevated fried chicken tender.

Cruz thought through all the details, and brought with him some elements of New York dining. Like, not taking reservations, and entering through the bar to get to the seating area, which is compact and close to the kitchen. He kept his footprint small, with tables packed tightly.

In other words, not a typical Tampa restaurant.

For some vendors, Heights Public Market is their first big “go” with their own brand; for Noel, it’s his fourth location (Seminole Heights, Birmingham (AL), St. Pete, and Armature Works). In a few short years, with ramen trending upward, Ichicoro has grown, but been careful not to be repetitive.

With each iteration, Cruz puts a unique spin on the concept, with the addition of small plates, snacks, and other Japanese influences, culinary or otherwise.

I’d already been to Ichicoro Ane in St. Pete (at Station House) and been 110% impressed—from the spatial layout to the menu and DJ’s playlist.

I told Cruz about how I’d used Shazam multiple times that evening, which doesn’t happen often when I’m out in Tampa or St. Pete.

But times are changing.

Just like the first glance of Armature Works often elicits something akin to “is this really in Tampa?”, hanging around Ichicoro Imoto (colloquially translated, “Ane” means “big sister” and “imoto” means “little sister”), you could be in Manhattan or Miami as easily as Tampa Heights.

Ichicoro’s stall is one of the most spacious, and has a dedicated bar for seated service, which is how many ramen-yas operate in large cities.

Though I’d mentioned that I’m not the biggest ramen fanatic, so I’d eaten more of the small plates at Ichicoro Ane, I found that Cruz and I were also aligned philosophically.

Cruz offered a principle that guides him, and which stuck with me after our meeting: don’t be everything to everyone; do a few things really well.

In other words, know yourself, and come from a distinctive point of view.

I have long struggled to focus myself and commit to being masterful at what really matters to me, rather than being infinitely malleable.

Cruz is quick to point out that he is passionate about hospitality and food service, and in the spirit of compromise, has had to temper his New York “no” response to patron requests for forks and high-chairs. But he has to draw the line somewhere.

For that reason, you won’t find gluten-free ramen at Ichicoro…yet.

Coming to Tampa to launch his brand, trying to market hot ramen to already over-heated Floridians, may have been an odd decision to some. For Cruz, it allowed him to be more creative, take bigger risks, and keep his costs in check. Now, the brand has infinite possibilities for future expansions and growth.

Certainly, the food scene here is less developed than in many places, but it is just that vacuum that provides an opportunity for chefs like Cruze to marry their hometown love with the training and expertise they gleaned in higher-pressure settings elsewhere.

All I want to do is hang out at Ichicoro, and hang out with Noel Cruze. He is a dynamic guy, and  it will be thrilling to see where he and Ichicoro go next.