Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Totto Ramen: Slurps of Satisfaction
"New York City is full of crazy trends..." sarcastically remarked a man walking past me last Friday evening. This comment, while not entirely untrue, was in obvious reference to the large crowd amassed outside of Totto Ramen, the popular Japanese restaurant in Hell's Kitchen. While it seems that virtually all of New York is obsessed with Ippudo's porky Hakata-style ramen in their sheik downtown digs, count me as part of the dissenting minority who believes that Totto's chicken-based ramen is consistently serving up the better bowl.
To refer to ramen, a beloved food with a rich culinary tradition, as a "trend" is nothing short of blasphemy. In fact, I never realized how ubiquitous ramen was to Japan until having lived there. But considering the food's foreign roots, combined with New York's recent infatuation with these noodles, and one could see a bit of truth in his statement. A direct comparison between Totto Ramen and Ippudo is an apples-to-oranges scenario. While both restaurants primarily serve ramen, their styles are remarkably different.
Situated next to a nondescript sushi joint, Totto Ramen seems to always have a line. The procedure is simple: walk up to the restaurant, put your name and party size on the sign-up sheet attached to the door and wait to be called. Depending on when you arrive at the restaurant your wait will likely vary; prompting the hungriest of diners to visit during off-hours. Whatever you do, try not to miss your name being called or else you will be moved to the bottom of the list, and like almost all Manhattan restaurants, you will not be seated without your entire party present. Seeing the dozen or so names ahead of us, MW and I decided to walk down the block and grab a cocktail at Danji instead of standing on the street on the humid evening.
After finishing our drinks, we returned to an even larger mob scene. Our timing was just about perfect, and no more than five minutes after returning our names were called. Making our way through the envious crowd, we were seated at the bar. Aside from the three or four small tables towards the rear, the crowded bar comprises the majority of the restaurant's seating, evoking the spirit of a traditional Japanese ramen-ya. Seated at the bar, we witnessed a display of theatrical efficiency. Three men worked vigorously churning out bowl after bowl of the good stuff as one was solely responsible for cooking the long, homemade noodles, another tending exclusively to the soup and the third, a sort of go-between that put the finishing touches on each dish and prepped appetizers.
We picked up where we left Danji, ordering two Sapporo beers which were vital in battling the heat from the open kitchen. Wanting more than just ramen, we selected two appetizers from the restaurant's limited menu. First to arrive were our orders of Ika Yaki, or grilled squid. Two small skewers of squid were "grilled" with a blowtorch, splashed with a sweet ginger sauce and covered with shaved scallions. The dish was fine, as the ginger sauce accenting the bouncy squid and pungent scallions well, but was nothing memorable and rather small considering its price.
More satisfying was the second appetizer, Avo Tuna. Just as the previous dish had been, a slab of raw tuna had a quick date with the blowtorch, yielding a firm exterior but still rare interior, before being placed atop a bed of avocado marinated in a yuzu garlic sauce. Pairing the smooth tuna with the buttery avocado resulted in a delicious, if not a tad predictable, dish.
Not long after finishing our appetizers, our ramen was ready. Seeing how it was her virgin experience, I urged MW to order the restaurant's signature, Totto Chicken Paitan Ramen. Set in the restaurant's distinct chicken and soy sauce based soup, a mound of straight homemade noodles cooked al dente and was garnished with scallion, onion, char siu pork and a sheet of nori. Adding a seasoned boiled egg for good measure, MW really enjoyed the texture of the noodles, rich soup and fatty char siu, finishing her ramen one slurp after another.
Wanting something different, I chose the Totto Spicy Ramen. Essentially, the original Patian ramen laced with a side of rayu (a spicy sesame oil), my dish came garnished with scallion, char siu pork, bean sprouts and nori. Although I hesitate to call this ramen "spicy", the rayu imparted a pleasant peppery flavor to the already satisfying Patian soup, adding an extra layer of complexity.
Practically inhaling my noodles, I yelled "kaedama" to the cooks and was rewarded with a side of extra noodles for the nominal fee of $2.50, an extremely small price for added pleasure.
Serious Eats New York recently wrote a post on what they feel is the best ramen is New York City, with Ippudo and Totto Ramen placing second and third respectively. When it comes to iconic foods such as pizza, burgers and ramen, I feel "favorites" are often determined by individual preferences that are inherently subjective. Hell, my Chicago friends will (and have) argue(d) with me over the merits of deep dish versus thin crust pizza. But rather than argue, I say try them both for yourself and make your own judgment. With their wonderful homemade noodles, a robust soup at nearly two-thirds the price and less of a "scene" to boot, Totto Ramen is my ramon shop of choice.
366 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019
To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.