Jin: Destination-Worthy Ramen in West Harlem
3183 Broadway, New York NY (between Tiemann Place and 125th Street; map) 646-559-2862; jinramen.com
Service: A little green, but friendly and fast
Setting: A modern-looking, clean ramen shop with high tops, bar seats, rowdy yelling whenever a customer enters or leaves, and an open kitchen
Must-Haves: Nankotsu Kara-age (fried chicken with cartilage), Shio Ramen, Spicy Tonkotsu Ramen
Cost: Appetizers $3 to $7, ramen $10 to $12, additional toppings $1 to $2
The opening of ramen shops in New York may have slowed down in the past couple of years, but it still remains one of the great ramen towns of the world. That said, when you think Ramen, Harlem is not the first neighborhood to come to mind. East Village, West Village, sure. But Harlem?
Having grown up on 125th Street and Riverside Drive in West Harlem, I've seen my share of new restaurants crop up and fade away. The thin strip between Tiemann Place and 125th Street on Broadway, despite its proximity to the 125th Street 1 station, has become notorious in my family for its inability to commit. Asides from the magazine shop and the hair salon, an ever-changing string of restaurants, cafes, bars, and other endeavors have all been housed there at some point or another.
The newest contender for the I'm-going-to-last-longer-than-six-months-club? Jin Ramen, a real-deal ramen-ya, featuring house-made broths and hand-cut noodles.
For partners Ifan Chang (36), Jenny Jo (36), Jay Huang (35), and Deepak Rajwani (32), it's a gamble, to be sure, but one that may well pay off. As of now, it's tough to see where their business will be coming from (though if walking by the restaurant on a recent Friday night to a completely packed house is any indication, they'll have no problems). But with Columbia University's aggressive Manhattanville expansion plans and the construction of a brand new campus in the area, the neighborhood is sure to see a much-needed population boost and multicultural injection over the next few years.
It makes sense—three out of four partners have ties with Columbia University and are intent on seeing the neighborhood continue to thrive. As active supporters of library-building projects both domestically and in Asia via Donors Choose, their eventual goal with the restaurant is to use Jin to help impact these social works.
The real question: A ramen shop the size of Jin can't rely on locals alone. In order to succeed, it will need destination diners. I visited Jin twice and made return visits to both Ippudo and Momofuku Noodle Bar (two of the most popular in the city, and according to our own rankings, contenders for the best ramen in NYC) in order to see how this newcomer would stack up.
So how does Harlem's first ramen shop compare to its downtown counterparts?
The short answer: Extremely favorably. Read on for the longer answer.
As far as space and atmosphere, it's got the simple wood styling and straight lines of Momofuku Noodle Bar, minus the loud music and attitude. Those used to dining in the frenetic, hip Ippudo might find Jin to be a bit boring. I find it nice to be able to sit in a well-lit space without yelling to hear my dining companion, with waitstaff that is calm enough to spend a bit of time talking about the food I'm about to eat.
The walls, made from wildly protruding blocks of wood, must be a bitch to clean every night, but they go a long way towards making the space feel fun and active, even while maintaining a relatively refined, clean, date-worthy atmosphere. Several communal high-tops occupy the front window under the looming shadow of the 125th Street elevated 1 train stop, while semi-cramped low-tops fill the rest of the space. For the best view in the house, grab a bar seat to watch the cooks busily trussing pork bellies for cha siu, dunking noodles, or stir-frying in a flaming wok through the open kitchen.
It's only been open for a few weeks, so a few service snafus were to be expected. It was refreshing to see not only the waiters and back waiters, but even manager Richard Kashida hopping in and helping out when a glass of water got knocked over mid-service—picking up glass, mopping up water, and checking in with all the customers to make sure it wasn't negatively affecting their experience.
The simple menu offers only appetizers and ramen for now, though early signage indicates plans to expand to a few other Japanese staples like donburi, curry rice, and gyoza (no ramen-ya is complete without fried dumplings).
Don't expect to find any of the whacked-out modern versions of Japanese dishes. Instead, the menu focuses on well-executed versions of ramen-shop classics. Simmered kelp in a sweet, glazy dressing topped with sesame seeds is nothing mind-blowing, but the Kelp Salad ($4) is a good, crunchy, fresh version of the appetizer.
Kara-age ($6)—Japanese starch-coated, marinated fried chicken—doesn't get much better than this. It arrives at the table piping hot with an ultra-thin and grease-free crust flavored with a bit of togarashi. The meat is a well seasoned, slightly gingery, and the blend of dark and white meat is ridiculously juicy. A far cry from the greasy, limp fried chicken I was served at Ippudo a few nights earlier.
For an extra dollar, you can upgrade to the Nankotsu Kara-age, fried chicken made with a bit of tender, crunchy cartilage included. The concept might turn off some diners, but kara-age connoisseurs enjoy the extra juiciness and flavor you get from the bits of chicken closest to the bone. A light, crunchy salad of mayo-dressed cabbage comes on the side.
When it comes to the bowls of ramen, Jin's strength lies in its incredible broths. The Shio Ramen ($10) is the lightest of the ramen offered, but the 4-hour simmered chicken-based broth is nonetheless intensely fragrant with yuzu-kosho, a Japanese pepper-citrus blend made from the rind of yuzu. A perfectly cooked nitamago (marinated egg) comes with a soft, golden yolk center and a white seasoned with soy sauce and mirin. All the ramen except the house-special miso come standard with pork belly, egg, bamboo, and fresh scallions. An extra buck or two will get you your choice of a dozen add-ins ranging from kikurage mushrooms to spicy garlic paste.
The quality of noodles can make or break a ramen-ya, and Jin takes great pride in theirs. Hand-made by noodle master Shuichi Kotani (he also makes noodles for Soba Totta), they come in two varieties, depending on the type of broth you order. The straight noodles that come with the shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), and tonkotsu (creamy pork broth) ramen are thin and slippery with a tender bounce, while the thicker, wavy noodles in the house-special miso ramen are thicker and bouncier. Are they made in-house? No, but who really cares? They're fresh, nearly perfect in texture, and their flavor does all the talking here.
The best bowl I tried was the Spicy Tonkotsu ($12) (though admittedly I didn't get to sample the shoyu version). Here the 6-hour cooked pork stock is not as thick and creamy as that at, say, Hide-chan or a couple other ramen-ya around the city, but what it lacks in thick texture, it makes up in ample flavor with a great balance of pork and aromatics. I could slurp up the broth alone by the bowlful. The spicy version comes with a slick of hot sesame oil flavored with roasted garlic paste. It's worth the upgrade.
Speaking of pork, the thin slices of cha siu that come with most of the ramen is hands down the best I've had in the city—better than Ippudo's cha siu, superior to Momofuku's shredded pork, perhaps bested only by Hide-Chan's pork toro. Made with pork belly, rolled, trussed, marinated overnight in soy sauce and mirin, then simmered the next day, it is ridiculously tender with a buttery texture that falls apart under the slightest provocation. I dare you to lay a thin slice in your mouth and not sit back with a contented sigh as the savory-sweet flavor gently washes over your tongue. At that moment, you can't help but feel like you're just a tiny bit happier than everyone else in the world.
I actually heard my neighbor lean over to his companion and whisper, "Are we in Harlem now? Because this tastes like heaven." I'm not prone to hyperbole, but at that moment, I concurred (in my head).
Though their house special is their Miso Ramen ($12), it's the most disappointing of the lot. In place of the excellent cha siu, this bowl comes with slices of stir-fried pork belly, chicken sausage, bok choy, leeks, bean sprouts, and corn. The smoky intensity the wok gives the vegetables makes for an interesting variation, and the chewy, wavy noodles are a good alternative to the thin, straight noodles featured in the other bowls, but the stir fried pork lacks the complexity and mouth-melting quality of the cha siu.
That said, one low point on the menu doesn't make or break a restaurant (if I had any tip to give to the owners, it'd be to steer customers towards that Spicy Tonkotsu Ramen), and Jin looks like it's still got plenty up its sleeve. If the quality of the ramen remains consistent, the prices stay reasonably low, and they give a raise to whoever is manning that fryer that produces that magical kara-age, it may well become the uptown destination they'd like it to be.
Fantastic broth, excellent noodles, friendly service, and prices about 1/3 lower than any of its closest competitors, not to mention the lack of an hour-long wait to get in (for now)? To me, the choice is pretty simple. Now if only a great cocktail bar would open up within walking distance, and there may never be a reason to leave Harlem again.
Check out all the food in the slideshow.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.