The Winners!#1: Hide-Chan Ramen
248 East 52nd Street, 2nd Floor, New York NY 10022 (map); 212-813-1800#2: Ippudo
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.
Ramen is to Japan what pizza is to New York: even the worst is still pretty darn good.
It's hard to argue with a huge bowl of steaming hot, salty, meaty broth with tender, slow-cooked pork belly and a pile of bouncy noodles to slurp. But there's a difference between ramen-I'd-eat-for-a-quick-and-filling-meal (any), and ramen-so-good-it's-worth-a-national-obsession (rare).
The ramen craze hit New York back in 2004, when places like David Chang's Momofuku decided to take ramen to the next level. Until then, most New Yorkers knew ramen as nothing more than a cheap late night snack. Just add boiling water! With house-made broths, high end ingredients, and the occasional cheffy touch upping the ante, Manhattan's East Village and Midtown have become true ramen destinations (imagine—travelling to Midtown to eat!)
These days, those neighborhoods that are almost as dense with ramen-ya as a Tokyo train station. Our goal: to cull the good from the great.
We awarded points for four different factors:
- The Noodles (10 points): Ramen noodles are based on Chinese-style noodles (in many parts of Japan, they are still referred to as such). They should be springy and flavorful, with a bounce rather than the bite you'd look for in an Italian pasta. They should be smooth and slick for slurping up, but never starchy or slimy.
- The Broth (10 points): Whenever available, we ordered the tonkotsu, a pork-based broth from Fukuoka in Southern Japan. When unavailable, we opted for the simpler salt-based option (shio), with extra pork flavoring if available. In all cases, the broths were judged based on the style they were trying to represent. Tonkotsu broth should be rich, creamy, and opaque with an intensely porky flavor. The top surface should glisten with droplets of pork fat.
- The Toppings (5 points): The classic version is served with thinly sliced chasiu (a Japanese take on Chinese barbecued pork), pickled bamboo shoots, slivers of wood-ear mushroom, onsen tamago (boiled egg simmered in a soy-based broth), plenty of scallions, and often a spoonful of hot pickled red ginger. We ranked toppings based on the flavor of the pork, the freshness and quality of the ingredients, and their contribution to the broth.
- Overall Satisfaction (10 points): Is the atmosphere nice? Is the waitstaff friendly and the service efficient? Does the ramen have any special features that just push it over the top?
We chose 11 ramen-ya based on popularity and overall public opinion. In the end, none of them were really bad—we'd still gladly hit up the lowest ranked shop on our list any day of the week. The quality of the ramen was not related to the price either. We found bowls for $9 that were as good (and often better!) than $14 bowls.
In the end, the overriding factor came down to the broth. Just like with classic French cuisine, it's what defines the flavor of the final dish. If we saw gigantic kettles of pork bones bubbling way on a back burner, chances are we were in for a treat.
Here's our lineup (In alphabetical order)
- Hide-Chan Ramen's Hakata Ramen ($9)
- Ippudo's Shriomaru Hakata Classic Ramen ($14)
- Kuidouraku's Shio Ramen ($8.50)
- Menchanko Tei's Hakata Ramen ($8.50)
- Menkui Tei's Tonkotsu Ramen ($7.50)
- Minca's Basic Pork Broth Ramen ($9.50)
- Momofuku Noodle Bar's Momofuku Bowl ($14)
- Rai Rai Ken's Shio Ramen ($8.50)
- Setagaya's Gyulou Ramen ($11)
- Totto Ramen's Chicken Paitan Ramen ($9.25)
- Zen Restaurant's Tonkotsu Ramen ($8.50)
The Winner: Hide-Chan Ramen
At this relative newcomer (which we reviewed a couple weeks ago), the freshly made thin noodles come cooked to order, and the slow-cooked pork belly is mildly flavored, and moist. The real star is the broth, which is offered in three intensity levels. The richest is the best, and comes with bits of flavorful and tender pork fat floating on the surface. It's a really joyful bowl of food that'll have even the most restrained diners hunkering down with their over-sized bowls.
For an even better experience, order the kuro version (pictured above), which has a swirl of charred garlic oil mixed into it, adding a layer of smoky complexity to the already excellent soup. And don't miss out on the fantastic grilled pork neck (one of the best $5 dishes I've had in the city period), and their equally good pork neck steamed buns.
For a full breakdown of the lineup, click through the slideshow above.