I visited New York City once 15 years ago before I moved here. My brother was living in the East Village and I drove down to stay a weekend. We both collect records and he wanted to play me a Freddie Hubbard album he had just bought. There were two problems though. His turntable was broke and it was 1 o'clock in the morning. So I was confused when he walked to the door and started to lace his shoes.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"We're going to fix my turntable."
"It's 1 a.m.," I reminded him.
"I know. But it's 1 a.m. in New York," he said, "and you can get anything anytime."
We walked to a strange 24-hour electronics store near Union Square that's no longer there. Clutter and small packages were everywhere; my brother dug through it all until he found what he needed and we walked back to 6th Street as if we hadn't just gone shopping for electronics at 1 in the morning.
That was the flashback that hit me recently in the West Village. It was 1 a.m. again, but this time I was at a restaurant—Takashi—and my face was engulfed in fragrant steam that rose from a deeply flavored bowl of ramen.
Takashi opened on Hudson Street in 2010 and quickly established itself as one of the city's best yakiniku (Japanese barbecue) restaurants. Takashi Inoue, the restaurant's chef, was born in Osaka, Japan to third generation Korean immigrants. The restaurant is rooted in this duality and thrives on the chef's commitment to quality, which, until the launch of late-night ramen a few weeks ago, was exercised only through barbecue.
"I've been developing this ramen for more than a year," Takashi told me. "I almost launched our late-night ramen in October, but I wasn't happy with a couple of things, including the bowls," he said. "I asked my family in Osaka to send me bowls and spoons that I like better than the ones I could find here." Now 40 diners a night can see what he came up with.
Takashi's Original Ramen ($16) and Grandma's Spicy Ramen ($17) are available Friday and Saturday nights starting around midnight and by reservation only (email firstname.lastname@example.org). Both are 100% beef broth, which synchs with the beef-centric menu, and makes Takashi the only place in town to get all-beef broth ramen. "I wanted to focus on one animal," Takashi said of the menu's inspiration, "and there are so many delicious, unappreciated cuts of beef that it seemed like a good choice."
Those unappreciated cuts come in two guises. Kobe beef belly spends hours braising and does all but melt into the broth when it's placed there. Crispy small intestines (called "kasu" in Osaka) fortify the ramen's uniqueness. They simmer at low temperature until they render most of their liquid and tighten up to a delicate crunch that's softened so slightly by the piping-hot broth, which can't be more than ten degrees from boiling, a.k.a., righteous ramen temperature. For that stock, beef bones simmer with garlic, ginger, and a bounty of herbs for 24 hours. There's a whisper of bone marrow, but natural collagen is added as a thickener and it takes the broth from lipsmacking to opulent.
Like most of the city's best ramen shops, Takashi uses custom-made noodles from Sun Noodle; they're especially thin to entwine the soup's toppings. The ubiquitous soft-boiled egg in Takashi's ramen is tender and delicate, floating alongside a handful of scallions. Grandma's red paste (Takashi's grandma's recipe, a thick amalgam of chilies, spices, and shrimp paste) is what gives the spicy ramen its kick and soulful, brick-red sheen.
I looked around the small room and wondered who the 20 lucky diners were around me slurping beef ramen just after 1 a.m.. The need for reservations allows the restaurant control, but also invites ambitious eaters willing to win a late meal via electronic mail. "A good amount of customers who have come in for ramen have also dined with us at least once during regular service," Reece Barakat told me. Barakat, Takashi's manager, has been with the restaurant since May 2010. "We have also seen a lot of faces, most of whom seem to be diehard ramen fans that love to compare their most recent bowls while eating ours."
Despite the quickly growing demand for Takashi's late-night ramen, don't expect it a la carte anytime soon. "We have limited space in the restaurant," Takashi says, "and we have to transform the front and back kitchens into a ramen operation on Friday and Saturday nights. So we have to be entirely dedicated to ramen to make it happen."
The dedication shows. So much so I had to bring up the "E" word. "In Japan," Takashi began, "it's considered wise to wait at least three years after you open a business to then expand. I think it's a sustainable approach, and since Takashi has been open a little longer than that, I am hoping to expand," he said. I don't know when that will happen and I also don't know when I'll flashback to Takashi's ramen. But I look forward to both.
About the Author: Craig Cavallo is a writer with an addiction to New York City's food and drink. Learn more about his problem at digestny.com.