Editor's note: In "Fast Food International," Krista Garcia will take us around New York to the many international fast food chains that have landed in the five boroughs. She blogs at goodiesfirst.com.
Country of origin: Japan
Locations worldwide: Eleven in Japan and the U.S.
NYC locations: One in the East Village
And then there was one. Ramen Setagaya's American evolution follows a familiar pattern: arrival, expansion... then breaking from the franchise, the same confusing-to-consumers path taken by Bon Chon Chicken. At one point there were three locations in Manhattan and one in Flushing. This year, the Queens location closed while the branch on University Place became Ramen Takumi and the First Avenue spot morphed into Ramen Kuidouraku.
Despite the glut of Japanese noodles in the East Village, the remaining St. Marks storefront still attracts a following, including a healthy amount of tourists. (Somehow this seems less egregious than Americans at a Tokyo McDonald's, though I won't judge--I've eaten at Pizza Hut in Shanghai and Sizzler in Bangkok.)
While other shops like the always-mobbed Ipuddo specialize in particularly porky tonkotsu broth, Setagaya focuses on two lighter, gentler bases: shio (salt) and syo-yu (soy sauce). The latter ($8.50) is amber, a little salty and more of a backdrop for the springy wheat noodles and toppings. The default components include two thin slices of pork belly striated with fat, half of a boiled egg with slightly wobbly yolk, seaweed, pickled bamboo shoots and chopped green onion. Nearly basic as can be without being boring.
The spicy miso ramen ($11) is less orthodox and a zingy change of pace if you're not a purist about ramen. The savory soybean paste is enhanced by just enough chile oil to create a warming throat tickle. The pork, bamboo shoots and egg are the same as in the standard ramens. Instead of scallions and nori, a handful of corn and bean sprouts are scattered on top and big chunks of cabbage hide beneath the surface, adding heft.
Setagaya also offers a handful of tsuke-men, cold noodles that are dipped into broth on the side, but I find it hard to stray from the big steamy bowls, especially now that there's a chill in the air.
There's not really a need for appetizers; the choice is limited and the servings of ramen are filling on their own. Shumai ($5) aren't anything special, though a trio of pickled vegetables ($3.50) featuring neon cucumbers, daikon and eggplant, is a tart and crunchy diversion between slurps.