For some serious eaters both here and especially in Japan, ramen noodles are a religion. They worship at the altar of firm noodles made in-house, intensely flavorful broth, and the porkiest of pork slices. I, on the other hand, am a ramen noodle agnostic. At least until now. Until this weekend, my favorite ramen noodles in New York have been the mighty tasty made-in-Chinatown noodles served with tender, delicious pork and wonderful broth at Momofuku. Ramen purists have scoffed at Momofuku's noodle preparations because the restaurant's chef-owner, David Chang, did not train as a legitimate ramen chef (though he did work briefly in a ramen shop in Tokyo).
Because I know it's not politically or culinarily correct to anoint ramen noodles not made in the restaurant they're served in, I decided to go ramen-hunting this weekend. What I found was surprising and delightful. I finally found ramen noodles made in-house served with killer broth and fantastically porky pork. In other words, I found ramen noodles worthy of worship and worth waiting for.
My first stop was Ramen Setagaya on First Avenue in the East Village, a block and a half south of Momofuku. To prepare I had read this terrific review on Chowhound. A few of the highlights:
Ramen Setagaya has got it all—young scowling, diligent chef, tested taste success in the home market, and a unique recipe. Chef Tsukasa Maejima's home shop is in the posh Setagaya Ward of Tokyo, where he has set up a mini chain and gained nationwide notoriety for his televised cooking battles on the acclaimed (by me at least) Japanese television show "Dotchi no Ryouri." "Dotchi" pits two items and thus two chefs, against one another in a contest that meticulously follows the origin of nearly every ingredient and every technique. You can in fact follow Maejima's exploits on the flat screen TV in the shop, which loops his appearance on a program where he took on a rival shop. Setagaya's specialty is shio-ramen, which means "salt" broth—i.e. using actual salt instead of shoyu to season.
Another Chowhounder also posted photos of the restaurant.
I ordered the shio ramen. Here's how the New Yorker's Andrea Thompson described the ramen at Setagaya:
The broth: pork bone, chicken, chicken bone, Raus seaweed, Kishin seaweed, dried mushrooms, dried scallops, dried anchovies, garlic, ginger, cabbage, red pepper. The salt in the broth: Khanh Hoa salt, a "naturally sun-dried crystallized sea salt—more than salt, bitter, sour, and even a little sweet." The bamboo shoots are soaked in the broth, to “harmonize better”; the noodles are topped with dried scallop, “fried and grinded to a flake."
According to Thompson, "shio means 'salt,' and refers to the base of the soup—thin noodles swim in a light, fresh broth, accompanied by a gelatinous pickled egg, fatty, tender slices of grilled pork, bamboo shoots, and seaweed."
The broth in the shio ramen was cloudy, not clear, more than a little greasy, and crazy salty (and I love salt). It was intensely flavored, maybe a little too intensely flavored for me. The dried scallops and anchovies threatened to take over the broth. The ramen noodles weren't quite as firm as I thought they would be. They weren't limp, but they weren't al dente either. I liked the ramen here quite a bit, but I didn't feel these were life-changing noodles. Pretty damn good, but not life-changing.
Hakata Ippudo NY
In search of a royal and religious ramen experience, I walked over to Ippudo, an even more acclaimed Japanese ramen emporium, which opened its first U.S. branch a week ago (there are 34 in Japan. According to the restaurant's website, Ippudo founder Shigemi Kawahara is the "King of Ramen." He was crowned on a televised ramen cooking competition in Japan in 2005. Did he beat Ramen Setagaya's Tsukasa Meijima? I don't know. There certainly couldn't be two ramen kings in Japan, could there?
At 1:45 p.m., there was a half-hour wait at Ippudo. The place was teeming with young Japanese couples and families. I wandered around the Union Square Greenmarket and came back at the appointed time. I was seated immediately and ordered the Shiromaru NY, the original recipe tonkotsu soup with stewed pork cabbage and scallions." Five minutes later, a steaming bowl of ramen arrived. I read on the menu that the ramen here is served extra hot, "so please use caution when indulging in our signature dish."
I looked around trying to figure out how you're supposed to eat these noodles. At every place on the table, there's chopsticks and an oversized ceramic spoon with a long handle. I watched the Japanese gentleman next to me pluck some noodles out of the bowl with his chopsticks while placing the oversized spoon under the noodles.
The light-brown broth was a revelation. It was nutty, complex, and deeply satisfying, its flavor enhanced by the slices of tender, porky Berkshire pig. The noodles were firm but not quite chewy, perfectly al dente. My incredibly friendly server brought over a red plastic grinder containing toasted sesame seeds. She showed me how to grind them on top of my soup. This condiment exponentially raised the nuttiness of my bowl of ramen. It was now perhaps the greatest bowl of noodles in broth I have ever had. Shigemi Kawahara really is the King of Ramen, and I am now his humble and loyal subject.
As far as I am concerned, he bested Tsukasa Meijima in my own ramen battle. By the way, there is no way to taste these two ramens side by side. Neither ramen palace will allow you to take out an order of ramen, or even take leftovers home. This is not in the spirit of ramen eating. So the only way to compare the two is to do what I did. Try it. It's big fun.
Anyway, long live King Kawahara, the serious eaters' ramen king.
Hakata Ippudo NY
Address: 65 Fourth Avenue, New York NY 10003 (9th/10th streets)