It’s 1:15 a.m. on a Saturday night, and I am standing in the entryway of Takashi. I’ve only been here for three minutes and the smell of the place—smoky meat-funk and pungent roasted garlic—has already embedded itself into my hair and clothes and esophagus. I may smell like this place forever.
Lucky Peach photographer Gabriele Stabile is with me. Over the next twenty-four hours, we will hit ten ramen shops. If all goes according to plan, we will see and eat and photograph and know the True State of Ramen in New York City.
At the moment, we are both one dinner and a few drinks into our respective evenings, and we’re getting nervous about the amount of overeating ahead of us. It’s still possible to turn back.
But then the hostess calls us in for ramen, and away we go.
Takashi, 456 Hudson Street, 1:15 a.m.
Takashi is a Korean-Japanese offal-focused tabletop barbecue place that serves ramen after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays to people who have had the foresight to reserve a spot a week in advance. It is a bizarrely urban type-A thing to do: to make a plan to eat something that you should probably be stumbling into spontaneously and drunkenly. I thought this late-night ramen death march was a good option for us—we’d get a few bowls out of the way, sleep them off, and wake up refreshed the next morning. Rookie mistake.
Our fellow diners are the kinds of people you’d expect to find at a reservations-only late-night ramen spot in the West Village on a Saturday night: birthday parties of beautiful people, girls with white-blonde hairdos and expensive clothing, banker bros. It’s loud and crowded and dark, and surprisingly fun.
Takashi offers two kinds of ramen: Original and Grandma’s Spicy. Both broths are made from the bones of all the beef that they sell during normal hours, and are dark brown, shiny, and studded with slightly chewy-crunchy bits of deep-fried small intestine. The spicy ramen comes with a big blob of dark red paste (some kind of gochujang, I suspect) plopped into the center. Mix it in and you get an entirely new, spicy, more intense soup. The spice makes everything else in the broth—the scallion, ginger, garlic, beef—snap into focus.
The broth is delicious. The rest of the stuff in the bowl, though, is lackluster: thin, lifeless noodles, tough, stringy “beef belly,” an egg cooked too hard to surrender its yolk to the broth. We eat the soup part and get the check, which comes with two sticks of Doublemint gum. Pointless—every follicle inside and out reeked deeply of garlic—but a nice gesture.
We go our separate ways, bloated and sleepy, with plans to meet for breakfast ramen the following morning.
No question: we aren’t making it to 10 a.m. ramen.
Ippudo, 65 Fourth Avenue, 10:50 a.m.
New York’s East Village branch of the Japanese chain Ippudo is notorious for its long wait. We get there ten minutes before they open, and there is already a line. By 11 a.m. there are at least twenty people behind us.
At ramen shops in Japan, it is typical for the cooks to shout “irasshaimase” when customers walk in—it means “welcome.” At Ippudo, they very enthusiastically engage in this tradition—not just the cooks, but the entire army of servers as well—for each and every customer. If you’re coming in with the initial wave of customers, this means that for the first fifteen minutes of your meal, the entire restaurant is quaking with the sound of “irasshaimase” over and over and over and over, a chorus that drowns out the thump-untzing of the electronic music over the sound system.
We order the Shiromaru Hakata Classic and the Akamaru Modern. Both are made with the same tonkotsu broth—tonkotsu being a fatty, milky-white soup made by cooking pig bones so hard that they soften and give up their marrow. The Modern one has miso added to it, too, as well as a puddle of inky-black garlic oil.
The broth is good. Of course it’s good: it’s a bowl of fat! The miso ramen is better than the original. Though it has more stuff in it, it tastes more delicate, more nuanced. But both are good eating.
The noodles though, like Takashi’s, are thin, limp, boring. After a few bites of each ramen, the charm of the porky fattiness wanes. If we finish these bowls, we’re goners, so we pay our check and amble on.
Misoya, 129 Second Avenue, 12:02 p.m.
Around the corner from Ippudo is Misoya. (It’s a difficult place to miss, thanks to the garish sign outside on Second Avenue done up in weird fonts.)
It opens at noon, and we walk in on schedule. It’s empty. There is harp/lute music playing softly over the speakers. It feels more like a massage parlor than a ramen shop.
We get menus that are consistent with the signage aesthetics: the first page says, “Welcome to the World of MISO, The Power of MISO, ‘MISO’ IS JAPAN’S TREASURE!!!!” Misoya is also a chain in Japan that specializes in ramen made with different kinds of MISO from around the country.
We end up going with a kome miso with pork—described as the “standard miso”—and a mame miso (“made of beans, dark-colored miso”) with vegetables. The kome miso is filled with porchetta-y pork rounds, corn, bean sprouts, scallions; the mame has a giant salad’s worth of vegetables plunked on top along with beautiful white cubes of fried tofu. We taste them both and are shocked: these are way, way better than the ramen at our first two stops. The broths are rich and round—they’re all made with a base of pork, chicken, and mushrooms—but they’re balanced, with enough acidity to make you forget you’re eating a bowl of fat. When I get to the picking-out-all-of-the-vegetables stage of ramen consumption, I’m delighted to find that each—cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, and others—has been cooked or seasoned deliberately and separately, not just tossed in a kettle and boiled helter-skelter. The noodles—curly in the vegetable one, straighter in the pork one—feel like they have a purpose. It’s difficult to stop eating.
When we get up to leave, the place is still empty. What a shame.
Rai Rai Ken, 218 East 10th Street, 12:45 p.m.
Rai Rai Ken made the list because Gabriele, who now lives in Rome, holds the place very dear in his heart; he lived around the corner for ten years, and he is sentimental. It is a block and a half from Misoya, so denying him this visit would have been cruel. Rai Rai Ken is also the oldest ramen shop in downtown Manhattan, so eating there has some significance.
I’ll spare the joint on Gabriele’s account and just say this: the ramen is reminiscent of wonton soup at a bad suburban Chinese restaurant. (Priya Krishna, Lucky Peach’s cheerful marketing manager, joined us here, and says that the broth is “okay” when doctored up with soy sauce, spicy mustard, and chili oil. You can take her word for it.) Preserve your cherished memories of Rai Rai Ken by not eating there.
Bassanova Ramen, 76 Mott Street, 1:40 p.m.
The first note I write down about Bassanova Ramen, another New York outpost of another Japanese chain, is: “Dirty as fuck.”
The space is a few steps down from the street, and it’s simultaneously freezing and sauna-like with broth steam. The kitchen is completely open, so you can see the guys in hoodies (with the hoods up!) sloshing broth and tare all over the floor. As if on cue, a girl with a nice manicure walks in, sits down at the table next to us, looks at the menu, and gets up to leave. (We ask her why; she says they have nothing for vegetarians.)
This is the first place we’ve been with tsukemen on the menu, and so we order yuzu tsukemen and a green-curry ramen. And then we wait. And we wait. The food takes more than an hour to get to us, and we entertain ourselves by singing along to the decidedly awesome nineties hip-hop they’re playing. Bob Marley comes on, and Gabri is singing along in his Italian accent, and I’m thinking that this place might not suck as much as I’d like it to.
Finally the food arrives. The green curry is both deeply spiced and spicy; the noodles are good; the little charred shrimp are tasty and cute. It works. (The only weird thing is a small pile of mesclun on top. That gets put to the side.) The yuzu broth is spicy and citrusy; the noodles are thick and chewy. In both cases, there’s real, distinct, deliberate flavor.
It’s slow and dirty and I spend far too long listening to an Italian man sing along to Lauryn Hill, but the ramen is not without sparkly oddball charm. I’d go again.
Ganso, 25 Bond Street, Brooklyn, 3:15 p.m.
In the middle of the afternoon, Ganso, in downtown Brooklyn, is half-empty and the temperature is pleasant and you can hear each other and it’s clean—a relief after Bassanova. The room feels like a Brooklynized Momofuku Noodle Bar: wooden bars and tables and clean, straight lines, without the noise and bustle of the East Village.
They have what they call a classic Tokyo-style ramen and a miso ramen, but we go for the weirder stuff: a braised-short-rib ramen and the triple-shrimp ramen. (Yes, I acknowledge that it would’ve been nice to have a controlled variable in this experiment, but we are mere mortals.)We also order sake, which makes our sixth(Twelfth, if we’re counting me and Gabri together.) bowl of ramen of the day go down a little easier.
The triple-shrimp ramen has a Southeast Asian vibe: it’s dark red and shrimp paste-y, herbal and bright and citrusy, with frilly noodles and tons of herbs for garnish. It’s unlike anything else I’ve eaten today, and I love it for being not-ramen ramen. Ditto the short-rib ramen. Gabri keeps calling it an Italian stew, and he’s right; you taste the braising and the drippings and that savory meatiness of an Italian roast, all made richer and savorier with miso. Both ramen feel new; both are delicious. Purists might deny that these are ramen; they are noodle soups that taste very good. But who cares! This is Brooklyn. We are being served by a cute blond boy in plaid. I don’t care about authenticity.
Lauryn Hill is back on the stereo, and we’re not ready to leave, so we get mochi for dessert. I eat it all by myself. It’s time to head back to Manhattan.
Totto Ramen, 464 West 51st Street, 5:20 p.m.
We try going to the original Totto Ramen, on Fifty-Second and Ninth, but the wait is forty minutes long. The original spot is a lot cooler and grungier and grumpier and more like a Tokyo ramen shop than its little sister, but it’s cold outside and we’re on a tight schedule—so we head an avenue west to the second location.
The vibe here is nonexistent. It’s swankier than the original place; it feels new and not worn in, with bad lighting and acoustics. There are guys next to us talking about David Chang, which I find funny until I realize that this entire place is filled with food nerds. I am one of them.
We get the paitan, which is Totto’s classic—it’s a super simple ramen made with chicken fat. It’s even thicker and more opaque than the Ippudo broth and the takeaway is the same: it tastes good, but after each bite, it tastes less good. I keep eating kimchi to try to balance out the milky-fattiness, and then I eat the scallion garnish because it is a vegetable, and then I eat the chicken breast slices that are dry and not at all delicious, just to get a taste of some sort of leanness.
It might be that I’ve drunk too much fat today.
Hide-Chan, 248 East 52nd Street, 7:10 p.m.
We decide, walking up the stairs to Hide-Chan, that this is our last stop. We are both swollen and puffy and unrecognizable, and we can barely look at each other, and my rings and bracelets are now melded into my swollen paws.
Hide-Chan is a little less soulless than Totto—it’s broken up into a few different rooms, so the whole sad, cavernous space thing isn’t as apparent—but it’s loud and we can barely hear each other. The menu comes and we instantly order the spicy vegetable ramen, because the photo of it looks like a gigantic salad. (We also order the “Original since 1963” ramen, because I’m trying to keep up the façade that I still have any interest in noodle soup today.)
The vegetarian ramen tastes like a spa. The original ramen has globules of pork fat suspended in it. I become preoccupied with the grossness of the fat globules and start hunting for the biggest ones. I then eat all the garnishes out of the vegetable one. The noodles in both are fantastic—skinny in the tonkotsu, yellow and wavy in the vegetarian—and I eat a lot of them. Gabri gets a second wind and chats with the group of Taiwanese video game programmers next to us.
I go to the bathroom and scream at the amount that my face has swollen over the past twenty hours. The time has come. We pack up and leave.
I set out on this expedition hoping that I’d come out on the other end with bettered knowledge, an idea of what kind of ramen worked for me, and a more expansive view of what ramen is, at least within the confines of NYC. To some extent it worked: I learned that despite its popularity, milky-fatty tonkotsu broth is not for me—I’ll take a clearer, cleaner soup any day. I learned that pedigree means little, and that the Japanese-ness of a place is no guarantee that the soup is going to be good. I wanted to leave the day in love with one place, the place I could take my friends (Misoya is that place), but in all honesty, I woke up the next day never wanting to eat ramen again. Maybe the takeaway is this: if you want to immerse yourself in ramen, do not immerse yourself in ramen. Step into the river one bowl at a time and let it gradually carry you out to sea.