Saturday, September 10, 2016

NYC Ramen Tour

Three days in New York City and I managed to squeeze in six ramen shops. A little bit crazy but so much fun. I'm sure all the walking made up for the insane amount of carbs and sodium I consumed (at least that's what I tell myself!). Here's a rundown of the six ramen shops my friend and I visited, including what we ordered + my thoughts on each (all prices in USD):

AKAMARU MODERN ($14 + $2 for soft-boiled seasoned egg)
The original silky "Tonkotsu" (pork) soup noodles topped with Ippudo's secret "Umami Dama" miso paste, pork chashu, cabbage, sesame kikurage mushrooms, scallions, and fragrant garlic oil.

A classic shoyu-broth featuring bonito fish dashi, with an incredible depth of flavor and richness. Topped with pork belly chashu, scallions, nori seaweed, seasoned egg, menma, and naruto.

- FridayWe arrived approximately five minutes before Ippudo's lunch service at 11AM. There were about five people, altogether two parties, already waiting at the door.
- Chefs and cooks in the open kitchen were all of Mexican descent and Spanish music was playing in the background. I felt like I was eating in Mexico.
- The best thing at Ippudo that day was the Ichiraku Ramen broth. The addition of bonito fish dashi to the classic Shoyu was exceptional. I hardly have fish broth based ramen so this was very memorable and a welcoming change.
- Other than the Ichiraku broth, everything else was pretty average. From the skimpy, thinly sliced chasu, the mediocre tonkotsu, to the thin and "doughy" noodles, I was pretty disappointed with this Ippudo visit overall (the seasoned egg was alright). I remembered it being a lot better a couple of years ago.
- We were not even close to feeling full after Ippudo. I guess this was a blessing in disguise since we had other ramen joints planned that day.

65 Fourth Avenue
New York, NY 10003
Phone: 212-388-0088

Light. Bright. Oceanic. Sea salts, dashi-chicken broth, pork belly, scallions, rye noodle

Deep. Dark. Rich. Soy sauce, dashi-chicken broth, pork belly, scallions, rye noodles

- Friday. After some walking and shopping, we burned off some of the Ippudo ramen (which didn't take much) and arrived at Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop, a noodle counter in Gotham West Market, around 2:30PM.
- These two bowls were, without a doubt in my mind, the worst bowls of ramen I've ever had in my life. The soup only had one flavour, salt, with the Shio being marginally less salty than the Shoyu, but not by much. Both broths were light, very diluted and salty.
- The meat was a joke, one thin slice. The soft egg (which we chose as the complimentary add-on) was fine but the springy noodles were way too light so it lacked texture and mouthfeel, and was lost in the sea of salt.
- There was literally nothing good about these bowls. The only good thing about the place was the air conditioning since we walked all over the place in the sweltering heat.
- I regretted spending $28 USD + tax (not including drinks), or $36CAD + tax, at this place. But hey, at least I know now to stay far, far away. I think I'm extra disappointed because I heard so many good things about Ivan Orkin / Ivan Ramen through very credible chefs and food shows such as Mind of a Chef, and Anthony Bourdain calling Ivan "Ramen Master" in No Reservations. Food & Wine even referred to Ivan as a "Ramen Genius". So, how can Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop miss the mark by so much? Am I missing something here? I just don't get it. Anyway, after Ippudo and Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop, we started to feel very discouraged about this whole NYC ramen tour ordeal.

25 Clinton Street
New York, NY 10002
Phone: 646-678-3859

Original straight noodles in housemade Chicken Paitan soup topped with scallions, onions, nori, pork char siu and pulled char siu.

Original wavy noodles in Chicken Paitan topped with finest Koji Miso and ground pork, half boiled egg, scallions, bean sprouts, onions & pork char chiu

- Friday. We arrived at Totto Ramen around 3:30PM. Take a look at the sheer number of signs in front of Totto Ramen. The signs either tell customers where to stand or where to line up so that they don't block the sidewalk. I guess they've had many complaints about that! Also, it's cash only here.
- The hostess suggested we sit at the bar near the entrance because it was relatively not as hot there. Once we sat down, we were asked if we had been to Totto before. We said no, and the server kindly went over the menu, letting us know what the ramen shop is famous for and what the most popular ramen bowls are.
- Boy, Totto Ramen was so good. That rich and hearty broth restored my faith in NYC ramen again. The scoop of miso, once mixed in, gave the chicken paitan even more dimension and omph in flavour. Because the char siu was sliced thick, I thought the parts that had less fat was a bit dry while the fattier parts a bit too fat (I guess the trick is to eat both parts in one bite). The egg was decent, and the noodles were thick, wavy, slightly chewy and cooked to al dente. It was then that I realized that this is my favourite type of noodles. I also realized that I generally prefer rich and thick broths. 
- I think we would've enjoyed Totto even more if we were actually hungry (damn that Ivan Ramen for taking up my precious stomach space) and not so friggin' hot. The Sapporo helped, though, and to be honest, I was just so happy to end the first day of our ramen tour on a high note.

366 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019
Phone: 212-582-0052

TANTAN ($13)
Spicy coconut curry, pork chashu, red miso, ground pork, aji-tama, cilantro

Pork chashu, aji-tama, takana, kikurage, scallion, toasted nori, garlic oil, soy tare

- Saturday. Arrived at Momosan right when they start lunch service at 11AM. Nobody was waiting out front so we got seated quickly.
- All their ramen bowls come in small or regular size. The ones we ordered were regular, and the small are all priced at $10. Momosan also have lunch combos that come with a small ramen, a small don and a small pickled cabbage for $16.
- Oh. My. God. That Tantan was incredible. Even though a part of me wanted to try the authentic styles from every ramen joint so that I can evaluate them on some what "equal" terms, the other part of me wanted a break from the usual miso, shoyu and tonkotsu...and damn, I'm so glad I followed my heart. That spicy coconut curry based broth was delish! It was just right - not too spicy, not overly coconut-y or creamy yet not watery or diluted. I would say the soy-marinated egg with the Tantan was the best yet compared to the egg at IppudoIvan Ramen Slurp Shop and Totto Ramen. All the fixins; like the scallions, the ground pork and the cilantro pulled everything together so nicely. It was one very awesome bowl of ramen. Outstanding flavours.
- As for the Tonkotsu, it was a good bowl but it really didn't wow me like how the Tantan did. It was still solid, don't get me wrong, but for us, the broth wasn't as thick or creamy as we would've liked or expected for a Tonkotsu. The pork chasiu was also really thin but fatty, kinda reminds me of think strips of bacon actually. For some reason, the egg that came with the Tonkotsu wasn't as good as the one from the Tantan.
- Still thinking about that Tantan...!

342 Lexington Ave
New York, New York 10016
Phone: 646-201-5529

I'LL SHOYU ($16 + $2 seasoned egg)
Clear duck based soup, roasted pork belly

MU RAMEN ($18 + $2 seasoned egg)
Oxtail and bone marrow based soup, corned beef

- Saturday. Mu Ramen is opened for dinner service starting at 5PM. When we got there at 4:55PM there was already a huge lineup at the door. Thankfully, a friend of mine got there early and was first in line.
- Aside from the ramen, I forgot to take photos of Mu Ramen since I was busy catching up with my friend who I don't see often.
- The space is simple. It's a rectangular shaped room with an open kitchen at the back with three big wooden tables placed in the middle of the room. It looks almost like one big communal table since the tables are placed very close together. Here's photo of Mu Ramen's interior from Timeout. I personally don't like the setup here; if I'm paying that much for a bowl of ramen, I don't want to sit at a communal style table with strangers. I also found the decor a bit too hipster, but that's just me.
- Anyway, my past two bowls of ramen had a really rich broth, so I opted for the I'll Shoyu, which the server said was their lightest ramen. Much like the Ichiraku Ramen from Ippudo, the light duck based broth at Mu Ramen packed a tremendous amount of flavour, and I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I was enjoying these light broths. The duck flavour here was very prominent; there's no mistake that it's duck, and not chicken or pork.
- Even though the I'll Shoyu was the highlight, their signature Mu Ramen was also great. Made with oxtail and bone marrow, the creamy broth was incredibly tasty and memorable.
- The seasoned eggs at Mu Ramen were the best eggs we had on this NYC ramen tour
Mu Ramen have the priciest ramen of the whole tour. It's worth it, in my opinion, to at least try them once for their unique broths. Very pricey but still, cash only.

1209 Jackson Ave
LIC. NY 11101
Phone: 917-868-8903

DELUXE RAMEN (Best Seller) ($15 + $1 nori)
Sliced pork (3pcs), boiled egg (2pcs), kikurage mushroom, scallion, onion, bean sprouts, cod roe

SPICY GARLIC RAMEN (Chef Recommendation) ($13 + $2 boiled egg)
Sliced pork (2pcs), scallion, kikurage mushroom, original spicy garlic sauce

- Sunday. Arrived at Hide-Chan just in time for their lunch service. No line-up. We were the only ones there.
Hide-Chan and Totto Ramen are owned by the same people. With one location in NYC, Hide-Chan is located directly upstairs of Totto Ramen (not the same location I went to earlier). Hide-Chan accepts credit cards while Totto Ramen is cash only.
- I went for the Deluxe Ramen because I was hella hungry. Overall, it was an average bowl of ramen. Due to the lack of fat, the pork was a bit dry and tough. The broth was one dimensional at first but once I mixed in the cod roe, it got better and it grew on me. The noodles were cooked al dente and was just the way I like it. The egg was nothing spectacular. I give extra points for presentation and for the sheer number of toppings for this Deluxe Ramen.
- I like how Hide-Chan offers the option of wavy or straight noodles, and even the firmness of noodles: very firm, firm, medium or soft. I can't imagine how frustrating it must be for the kitchen when it gets busy there but yeah, props to them! My friend and I both chose firm, wavy noodles, and we both enjoyed this combination a lot.
- My friend liked his Spicy Garlic Ramen but I did not at all. The broth was very oily and I did not taste any garlic at all, just sesame oil, a lot of it. The ramen should really be called "Sesame Oil Ramen" in my opinion since I did not detect any spice or garlic.

Hide-Chan Ramen
248 E 52nd St, 2nd FL
New York, NY 10022
Phone: 212-813-1800  

In Conclusion

Ramen in NYC is hella expensive compared to Toronto. With the current exchange rate at 1 USD = $1.3 CAD, the cheapest bowl of ramen at Totto Ramen works out to be $13 CAD, and the most expensive bowl of ramen at Mu Ramen works out to be $26 CAD. Geeeez.

If I had to rank the six ramen places, with #1 being my favourite, it would be the following:

1. Totto Ramen (best value + rich & creamy broth)
2. Mu-Ramen (unique broths but prepared to pay $$$)
3. Momosan Sake & Ramen (go for their Tantan)
4. Ippudo (average chain)
5. Hide-Chan (very mediocre)
6. Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop (worst ramen ever)

It's interesting that ramen, which is basically noodle soup with toppings, can have so many different interpretations and styles. Which is why I think I will never get bored of ramen, at least not yet, because there's always a new ramen out there that I haven't tried. Before this NYC trip, I always tend to go for rich, thick and creamy broths (which I still love), but after trying Ippudo's shoyu broth with bonito fish dashi and Mu Ramen's duck based broth, I have a whole new appreciation for lighter broths 'cause I realized that "light" does not mean "flavourless". Especially if done well, light broths can pack loads of flavour, sometimes even more than a creamy tonkotsu. As for noodles, my preference remains to be the thick and wavy kind over the thin and straight kind. But who knows? Maybe one day a thin and straight noodle will blow me away!