Fear and Loathing in New York's Ten Best Ramen Shops
Eating a bowl of pork fat and noodles for ten meals in a row is less satisfying than it sounds—even when it means visiting all of New York's most obsessed-over ramen shops, from Momofuku to Ivan.
Photo via Flickr user Robyn Lee
There are things that one does early in a relationship that one will not do later on, when the bloom is off the rose and one's paramour is leaving his or her toothpaste runoff to dry in hard little lozenges in your sink. Things like feigning utter absorption in the minute recounting of intra-office politics. Things like anal sex. Things like traveling to New York, and eating nothing but ramen for three days straight.
Soon after I met David, he confessed to a deep, abiding love for ramen. So deep was this love that he harbored dreams of one day opening his own ramen shop. But first, he needed to do more research. David had already spent long stints in Japan and now, as an American-born Norwegian living in Denmark, what he really wanted to learn was how to successfully adapt that most quotidian of Japanese dishes to places geographically and metaphorically far from Tokyo. Hence New York, where the Japan Society estimates there are over 100 ramen shops, and where the locals have been known to do some decidedly unorthodox things to their noodles. And so, because we are still close enough to the first flush of romance that this sounds like a fun idea: A transatlantic trip to eat at a sound sampling of ten of them. In, as I believe I've mentioned, three days.
We board the plane buoyed by high expectations and a folder full of Top Ten lists. So thoroughly has the ramen craze penetrated New York that nearly every media outlet based there, from the august New York Times to any number of random foodie blogs, has felt compelled to put together its own compendium of the best ones. By counting numbers of mentions, adjusting for relative ranking, and weighting for the medium's reputation and any intriguing idiosyncrasies, we narrow down the reputed 100 to ten. We call our list The Matrix, and I try to hide my nervousness about eating my way through it.
Bowl One: Momofuku Noodle Bar, Saturday, December 6, 12:30 AM
For reasons best known to Norwegian Airlines, our plane is delayed, getting us to New York alarmingly far past dinner time. We drop our bags, jump in a cab, and make it to Momofuku Noodle Bar with fifteen minutes to spare before closing. We've chosen Momofuku for our ramen debut in part for its historic significance—it was the first place to bring modern ramen to New York—but also, to be honest, because it is still open. This late at night, there is only one ramen option: the signature bowl of chicken and pork broth, wiry noodles, slow-poached egg, and double pork toppings. Is it our hunger talking? The jetlag? Because this bowl of soup may well be the best thing either of us has ever eaten. The broth is rich but not cloying, the noodles appropriately springy, the whole egg—poached in its shell before being gently released into the broth like a sprightly dolphin freed from a trawler's net—famously luxurious. But it is the pork shoulder, pulled into crisp-edged but tender strands and deliciously smoky-tasting, that really stands out. Before the kitchen takes last call, we have slurped down every drop. I am momentarily reassured about the remaining nine bowls that lie ahead of us. In what I can now recognize as umami-induced folly, we allow ourselves to believe this will be easy.
Bowl Two: Totto, Saturday, Dec 6, 12:05 PM
Arriving five minutes past the restaurant's opening on a cold and rainy afternoon, we find an already-sizable line of people. The wait adds to our sense of expectation—Totto scored high on The Matrix. After about twenty minutes, a clipboard-wielding martinet ushers us into the basement dining room, where house music thumps with deafening loudness. I order the Spicy Paitan ramen, a chile-inflected take on the house specialty—paitan, a milky-colored broth. It arrives with disconcerting speed. I can tell by looking at it that the egg is overcooked; the chicken, too. The straight noodles are unpleasantly slippery, and taste of flour. We leave quickly, crushed by existential doubt. How could The Matrix have been so wrong?
Bowl Three: Ippudo, Saturday, Dec 6, 5 PM
We arrive twenty minutes before opening to find a line stretching around the block, in rain that is now coming down quite hard. Who are these people? Luckily, the restaurant, one of two New York outposts of a renowned Japanese chain, turns out to be large, and we make it in on the first seating. As she leads us to the counter, the hostess announces our arrival with a welcoming shout that is echoed by the cooks behind the line. I am charmed. We order the Akamaru Modern ramen, made with a Tonkatsu pork broth and thin, wavy noodles. The bowl—the most visually attractive we will see—comes topped with an unremarkable pork chashu, thin slices of kikurage mushrooms, a fragrant garlic oil, and the restaurant's secret and funky umami dama miso paste. The broth is velvety, the noodles springy. It is perfectly good ramen, but the famously fatty tonkatsu broth settles uneasily in my stomach. I can't finish the bowl. I feel the first inklings of panic.
Bowl Four: Bassanova Ramen, Saturday, Dec 6, 9:00 PM
We are staying at The Standard in the East Village. When we checked in to our 17th-floor room, I was thrilled by the view of lower Manhattan that spread below us, but now—my stomach in full revolt against all that pork fat—I can only see more ramen shops, lurking with steamy malevolence on every block. We decide on Bassanova for its unorthodox interpretations; the green curry ramen that ranks high on The Matrix will be a welcome change of taste. We arrive in Chinatown to find a decidedly un-Asian place: all-white décor, and a speaker system blaring gospel. It's charming, but disorienting. And the ramen is plainly bad: the green curry sharp and thin, the noodles overcooked, the broth gritty with shrimp paste. We find ourselves contemplating one of history's great philosophical dilemmas: Was this innovation or abomination? We go back to the hotel and collapse into a sweaty heap of disillusionment. That night, I dream I am being chased by an angry pasta machine.
Bowl Five: Ivan Ramen, Sunday, Dec 7, 12 PM
Hope springs eternal. The day dawns sunny, and I am once again hungry. We are the first to arrive, take seats at the counter beneath an anime mural, and order up two bowls of shio ramen, made from a double broth flavored with salt rather than the more common shoyu, or soy. We have read about Ivan Orkin's fastidious—if highly personal—approach to ramen, and I think I can taste the obsession in the bowl's thin rye noodles and perfectly cooked egg. The chashu, however, is flaccid, and the haystack of green onions a little overwhelming.
When we're done, we go talk with Dave Chang. More than any other person, Chang is responsible for igniting ramen in New York. When he opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004 he had recently returned from working in Japan, and there were only a handful of shops in the city, all of them traditional and catering to Japanese expats. He says that Ivan is one of the few ramens in the city that he actually likes because it has its own personality. "Every place else, they're all making tonkotsu—they've lost their sense of regionality, their own voice. I'm not saying tonkotsu isn't delicious—of course it's delicious, it's fat and salt." He pauses to take a sip of soda; he's fighting off a cold, and his voice is rough and hoarse. "But they just go online and see what everyone else is doing. The internet has made everything taste the same."
Chang should know. The pork bun—a "weird fetish" that he put on the menu at the original Momofuku so they'd have something to do with all the restaurant's leftover pork—now appears at almost every ramen shop in the city. Yet he's convinced that, as a trend, ramen will soon begin its decline. "It's a fad, like disco," he says. "And at a certain point, there's no place else to take it. When you get to ramen burgers, you are literally at the end."
I am relieved. For the sake of comprehensiveness, I had thought we might have to try one of those patties stuffed between two noodle "buns." Or one of those ramen burritos being served up by a tea shop in the West Village. Now, I'm off the hook. No less an authority than David Chang prohibits me from eating them.
Bowl Six: Minca, Sunday, Dec 7, 4 PM
Another afternoon, another line. With its vaguely tarot-inspired art, Minca looks like it may have done time as a vegetarian restaurant (circa 1984) that got all its recipes from the Moosewood Cookbook. And once we're finally inside, the sight of cooks frantically dumping handfuls of noodles from the Sun Noodle boxes stacked near the counter into pots of boiling water does little to stir our waning appetites. But the miso-based broth—our first—is deeply layered, and the corn and chicken on top are tasty. An all-around contender, we are both surprised to find.
Bowl Seven: Yuji Ramen, Sunday, Dec 7, 8 PM
Back when we were in the planning stages of this expedition, I serendipitously came across a Facebook page for a potential Matrix entry that noted that last-minute seats had opened for their ramen omakase dinner. A tasting menu comprised of nothing but ramen? In my innocence, I jumped at the chance, and roped my gourmand friend Howard into joining us as well. Yet now that the three of us are face to face with the prospect of eight courses of noodles, I am deeply regretting my youthful insouciance. Luckily, Yuji's tiny, cozy room is made all the cozier by our charming waiter, George, and chefs Yuji Haraguchi and Tara Norvell, who we would soon learn, interpret "ramen" broadly. A brothless mazeman came to the table swathed in a shirako—that's fish semen—that acted like a funky cream sauce; a nori-flavored ramen noodle became the pasta in a frankly delicious agnolotti stuffed with creamy monkfish liver. The last savory course was a traditional ramen soup done well enough that it revived my interest in ramen soup. We sailed out into the frigid Brooklyn night with our faith in humankind restored.
Bowl Eight: Chuko Ramen, Monday, Dec 8, 1 PM
Only to have it crushed the very next day. Chuko topped a bunch of lists, and thus ranked high on The Matrix. But the miso-based ramen we order—David's topped with pork, mine vegetarian with squash and, of all the lame ideas, arugula—was as uninspired as the standard-issue Brooklyn, vaguely industrial room. I thought longingly of the eight-hour flight we had ahead of us that evening.
Bowl Nine: Ganso, Monday, Dec 8, 3 PM
By now, our friend Anya had joined us, so despite my unspeakably profound desire to bail, we soldiered on. And just walking into brightly-colored, high-energy Ganso proved restorative, despite the glassed-off kitchen that made us pity the cooks in their fishbowl-like existence. Our ramens—Anya's Sapporo style with thick noodles and ground pork; David's shio with sprouts and an ajitama egg; and mine with three kinds of shrimp in a fiery broth—were each distinctive and well-executed. We drank tea and chatted animatedly. Was it the ramen? Or was it the knowledge, hard-won and exhilarating, that we had only one more bowl ahead of us?
Bowl Ten: Rai Rai Kan, Dec 8, 6 PM
As any adept will tell you, it is in these moments, with the goal so close at hand, that the devil reveals himself. In our case, temptation came in the form of a pastrami sandwich. So overpowering was the desire that we walked to the Second Avenue Deli, and went so far as to approach the counter, telling ourselves with an intensity that bordered on hysteria that nine was practically as good as ten. It's true that all that meat and bread looked sadly flabby and excessive after a steady diet of broth and noodles. But I have to confess: I would have eaten the damn sandwich. Happily, David is made of stronger stuff than I, and he managed to get us out of there with our vows intact. By now it was too late to head uptown to the next place on The Matrix, so we settled for a nearby contender, Rai Rai Ken. It was the most Tokyo-esque of the places we tried, complete with one of those Toto toilets in the bathroom that shoots water into your netherparts. The same went for the ramen, made from a tasty shio broth, and topped with pork chashu, bamboo shoots and a slice of that fish cake. It was nothing remarkable, but it was good, filling, and cheap.
We walked out feeling smug. We had done what we set out to do: Eat ten ramens in three days. If we had nearly made ourselves sick in the process, if we had withstood crowds and freezing rain and enough pork fat to keep whole country fairs in business, then we had also learned how different each bowl can be. But as we passed by Momofuku Noodle Bar for the second time that weekend, we realized what is so often the truth in these kinds of situations: Your first is usually the best.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2014.