Hide-chan Ramen: Come for the Noodles, Stay for the Pork Toro
248 East 52nd Street, 2nd Floor, New York NY 10022 (map); 212-813-1800
Service: Friendly, efficient, and casual.
Setting: Refined but casual. Semi-private booths.
Must-Haves: Pork Toro, Hakata Kuro Ramen
Cost: Appetizers $3.50-6, Ramen $9.50-$15
Grade: A. Excellent ramen, better appetizers, and pleasant atmosphere.
DISCLAIMER: Since the review was published, we've heard from several sources that the menu at Hide-Chan has changed significantly and that the pork neck is no longer offered and guests can no longer specify the richness of their broth or firmness of their noodles. We have not had a chance to verify this information but until we do, can make no claims as to the current accuracy of this review.
As far as food destinations in the city go, Midtown East is a tough sell. No significant nightlife to speak of, no real ethnic enclaves, not even a bustling lunch scene, which is what makes it an odd location for one of the best ramen-ya in the city. Opened by Bobby Munekuta, the owner of a mini-empire of classy Japanese eateries (including Soba Totto, Yakitori Totto, and Totto Ramen), the space is small, and well appointed.
The nondescript entryway leads to a narrow stairwell that whisks you upstairs into a surprisingly light and open space. It's a welcome change from the narrow counter space of a traditional ramen shop (ramen is, after all, intended as a quick and dirty meal). Tables here are comfortable, semi-enclosed by wooden screens.
The chef, Hideto Kawahara, is from the Hakata district in Fukuoka, Japan, and it shows: the ramen here is all of the rich, porky, tonkotsu variety made famous by that region.
Opaque, thick and almost creamy in texture, the broth is intensely flavorful without relying on a heavy hand with salt (though yes, all ramen is salty). This isn't refined stuff. It's exuberant, in-your-face food, and extremely delicious.
The big shtick here is that you can order your broth in three intensity levels. The thinnest has a bare trace of shimmering oil on its surface, while the richest is awash with tender bits of slow-cooked pork fat. A great thing for some (like me), perhaps a turn-off for others. I'm glad they give you the option.
Similarly, the excellent fresh noodles can be ordered in varying degrees of firmness. I found "firm" to be the most pleasant. Al dente upon arrival, a little softer by the time I was stuffed. They use thin, straight noodles for most of their dishes, but also offer thicker noodles in their cold dishes and their Mega Ton (more on this beast of a dish later).
The standard Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen ($9.50) comes with pickled bamboo shoots, crunchy sliced wood ear mushrooms, bright green scallions, and a sheet of dried nori. A couple slices of chasiu made with braised pork shoulder and belly meat float on the surface. The meat is moist, tender, and very mildly sweet with a brown sugar and soy sauce marinade.
The fun really begins when you order one of their flavored ramens, the most interesting (and best) of which is the Hakata Kuro Ramen ($9.75)—their standard broth enhanced with a swirl of pitch-black charred garlic oil. The color looks frighteningly burnt, but the flavor is subtle and well balanced, adding a smoky complexity to the broth. It's one of the best soups I've ever had.
Less successful is the Hakata Spicy Ramen ($10). The heat from the slick of bright chile oil is much more mild than its fiery color would have you believe, and a bit one dimensional at that.
Portion sizes are generous, especially considering the price range (under $10 for most of the ramen). At $15, the Mega Ton might be the most generous bowl of food in the city. I calculated it. It's a full 75.4 cubic inches (that's about 1/4 the size of your head) of thick noodles, pork broth, steamed cabbage, mung bean sprouts, huge chunks of tender braised pork (a little drier than the standard sliced pork in the other bowls). A few generous dollops of extra chopped pork fat top it off.
It's enough to feed at least two people, so you'd better come really hungry, or with a partner (like a couple other ramen-ya, Hide-chan doesn't do doggie bags).
While the ramen is no doubt top-rate, the true star of the menu is the Pork Toro, easily one of the best $5 plates of food I've ever tasted. Made with flavorful and tender Berkshire pork neck, it's got the rich fattiness of pork belly, but with the stronger, porky flavor of shoulder. Marinated in a mildly sweet soy-based sauce, cooked until meltingly tender, thin-sliced, then flamed with a torch, it's smoky, sweet, and supremely savory.
The Pork Buns ($6) take same tender pork neck and sandwich it in a steamed Chinese bao with a bit of crisp lettuce and a slather of sweet Japanese Mayo. it's vaguely reminiscent of a McChicken sandwich—a porky and delicious McChicken, that is.
Other non-porcine offerings are also good. Chicken Wings ($4.50) are braised and torched, not fried, so don't expect any crispness. They make up for it with tender juiciness and a subtly sweet glaze.
The only real weak spots on the menu are salads and dessert. The Onsen Tamago Salad ($5.50) starts off promising, with a slow-cooked poached egg and crisp fried baby sardines, but the greens underneath are undressed. We left most of them untouched. The only dessert on offer is the panna cotta-esque Annin Tofu. A decent version, but a little pasty and remarkably forgettable after the stellar main meal. So forgettable that our waitress delivered the check without even thinking to offer us dessert first (we asked for it anyway).
Speaking of that check, it was incredibly cheap. I went with a party of four, ordered more than half the items on the menu, ate until all of us were bursting at the seams, and walked out for under $25 a head. I could easily picture ordering a more reasonable selection and walking out full and happy for half that amount. It's a remarkable price to pay for what's in the running as the best ramen in the city—especially considering the level of service and atmosphere offered—and a good reason to finally put Midtown East on your culinary map.