Ramen Snobbing

Random Observation/Comment #280: I miss Japan. Those were some good times…

Look at that Duck Ramen

Some may call me a ramen snob, but that’s because when I lived in Japan, ramen was the only thing that kept me alive on a student budget (that and a lot of onigiri).  Since I’ve returned, I’ve looked for restaurants that can match the quality of broth, noodle, and authenticity that I had once taken for granted.  In my search for truth, I’ve tried the top-rated places in NYC and even spent the whole month of February only eating out at Ramen places.

Verdict: NYC does a great job enhancing the presentation and creating well-rounded authentic-looking restaurants with those real imported old Japanese chefs in cool hats.  They bring their broth recipes from abroad and sprinkle it with enthusiasm and a constant strive for perfection.  However, there is always something lacking when I do my comparisons.  Whether it’s the ridiculously high prices, lack of lye in the noodles, or 2-hour waits to get a little spot to enjoy a garlic-filled bowl of deliciousness, I really just miss being able to step into a train station ramen shop and having an incredible and cheap lunch.  I’d eat it alone in the corner with the other Japanese business men grabbing something to go, and engulfed with the sounds of slurping.  It’s lost a piece of its soul when restaurants feel the need to play pop music in the background and serve with everything slightly fashionable.

It was the NYC arrogance and the expected (and somewhat necessary) twist to fit a specific niche so a restaurant can survive in the concrete jungle with merciless foodies.  But, you see, business and “fusion” ways of bringing a modern pop to an old and perfectly incredible style has ruined something sacred. It has made the ojiisan shed a tear and shake his head in shame for what they’ve done to the art.

Here are the top ramen places and my honest opinions about them:

  1. Totto Ramen – If there wasn’t a 2 hour wait, Totto would be my favorite place to go. It’s kept the old school Japanese feel to it and doesn’t try too hard to make anything too fancy happen.  The broth, pork, and noodles are all excellent quality and I felt like I was in Osaka again.  The main problem here is the crowd of puppy dog looks of starving people waiting outside in that little hut.  They pierce right through you with those eyes and you can’t help but feel bad because you were out there with them only 30 minutes earlier.  Oh how the tables have turned…
  2. Ippudo NY – Again with the waiting, but I think what throws me off is the clubby/fusion/trendy type of look to the whole thing.  It will most definitely impress your date, so please feel free to come here for a $16 bowl of awesomeness.  I’ve tried almost everything on their menu and I’ve found the classic Akamaru Modern is still my favorite.  The broth is super thick and the noodles are made fresh and thin (although it’s not technically the ramen noodle type).  They also have great pork buns and other appetizers that are melt-in-your-mouth good.
  3. Hidechan – I’d like to point out here that the broth was basically pork juices mixed with something else creamy – in other words, it made my mouth water and my tastebuds party. I think the greasy part of the broth really made it taste more unhealthy and thick in my belly like it’s supposed to be.  I’m also really happy they gave the option of selecting the hardness of the noodle. I personally enjoy the extra chewy-ness to intensify slurping and absorb the most broth in every bite.
  4. Momofuku Noodle Bar – Another $16 ramen surrounded by hype, but I had to go, right? The pork buns were a little bit over fatty for my taste – it’s basically the cut of the pork my parents had always told me never to eat all condensed together and placed between a Chinese bun.  It tastes good, but I feel so naughty eating it.  The ramen itself was solid. I really loved the miso ramen where I can add my own amounts of miso, extra fresh garlic, and spicy-ness to the mix.

I think the biggest complaint with all of the places above is the impossibly long wait.  Interestingly enough, I think I’ve waited longer in Japan, but that’s because rush hour is always filled with a quick bite before going home and getting yelled at by their wife.  The expensive real estate in Japan makes everything look like Rai Rai Ken with the 10 bar seating.  I just don’t get why they need to recreate such a cramped place in NYC; maybe to add to the authenticity?  I guess limited seating with high turnover is a good business model.

One major criticism I’ve had with these places is: why are there pork buns? They don’t serve pork buns in Japan…  I’m guessing it’s because they already have the pork to place in the ramen, so they might as well add it on a bun.

Also, where’s the garlic? A real ramen place should give me a garlic presser on the side with fresh cloves for me to mash and add myself.

In conclusion, please provide more garlic and I will like your place more.

~See Lemons Love Ramen