Ippudo

>>  Saturday, July 28, 2012

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This is the fourth post in the Eating the Big Apple series. Other posts include Soba KohSylvia's Restaurant (Gospel Brunch), and Torrisi Italian Specialties

There's one ramen place in New York that I keep hearing about over and over again.

That's right -  the Japanese export, Ippudo.

We knew friends who made it a point to eat there every single time they visited the Big City. In a New York Times article, top New York chefs listed it as a favorite go-to spot to visit during their off nights. Plus, we'd heard about the insane line and long waits.

What is it about ramen that causes such craziness to ensue?

And has it always been this way?
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Surprise surprise - ramen traces its origins back to China. In the late 19th century when Japan finally opened its doors to outsiders, Chinese immigrants gravitated to Yokohama and started opening noodles shops. Furthermore, Japanese soldiers returning after the second Sino-Japanese War brought back knowledge about Chinese noodles, many set up Chinese restaurants in Japan.
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As time went by, the Japanese incorporated their own flavors into noodle soups, such as miso, tonkotsu broth, and nori (seaweed), thus creating "ramen", their own unique version of this noodle soup. The invention of the instant noodle in 1958 (from a Taiwanese-Japanese guy named Momofuku Ando who eventually founded Nissin) made ramen accessible to all at home. After "Top Ramen" was introduced to the US in 1970, ramen even became an American staple for fast food.
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In recent years, however, a new obsession around handmade, dare-I-say "artisanal" ramen  has been on the rise. People are keenly interested in ramen made with intensely flavored broths (cooked for 10-20 hours!), special pork of particular heritage breeds, and fresh, handmade noodles.

New York was one of the first cities to fuel this obsession, partly due to the entrance of Ippudo in 2008.  Ever since Ippudo opened in New York, it has been consistently crowded, always harboring long lines and hour-long waits. Even though there are two locations in New York now, we still had to wait 45 minutes on a random Thursday night at 10PM for a seat at the original East Village location.

Maybe there's something about ramen that makes it more and more appealing the closer you get to midnight?
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Hirata Buns (2 pieces - Pork or Chicken $9 / Vegetable $8)

In any event, we finally scored a seat around 11PM after waiting seemingly forever in the crowded bar area of the hip, trendy restaurant.

We began with Hirata Buns, steamed buns filled with pork and cabbage served with Ippudo's original spicy buns sauce. The buns were decently soft and the pork was flavorful. Bryan still much prefers the pork belly buns from Momofuku, but these were fine as a starter snack. For those who don't like pork, you can also choose chicken or eggplant & eringi mushrooms.
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Akamaru Modern $15

Bryan ordered the Akamaru Modern, which consists of their thick and creamy "Tonkotsu" (pork) broth topped with their secret "Umami Dama" miso paste, pork chashu, cabbage, sesame kikurage, mushrooms, scallions, and garlic oil. The menu suggested topping the soup with nitamago (seasoned salted boiled egg) and kakuni (braised pork belly). Bryan opted for both (of course).

The broth was absolutely beautiful - full of umami and deep, creamy, intense flavors.  It was rich, but not overwhelmingly so. Just about perfect. The noodles, on the other hand, were a bit on the soft side, and we wished for something just a bit more al dente.
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I believe my ramen was a special and thus not on the normal menu (arghh - which means I can't tell you exactly what it was because I did not write it down!!). Alas, I do remember that I got it topped with an onsen egg (poached egg), which was awesome.  Though the overall dish was quite tasty and enjoyable, I similarly thought the noodles were a bit too soft.
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Bryan was thrilled when he read about "Kae dama", described as "a way to get extra noodles." Bryan thinks the noodle to broth ratio is wrong in virtually every noodle dish under the sun. Yes, there's never enough noodles and always too much sauce or broth (I'm the exact opposite, by the way).

According to the menu, when you have almost finished your first serving of noodles, order by saying, "Kae-dama, please". In a few minutes the server will bring you another 'ball of noodles', and put it in the soup.

Bryan was so excited he made sure to leave plenty of broth behind so that he could order another set of noodles. Even though we were both stuffed by this point (after all, we had just snacked on all sorts of goodies at the Saveur Food Blog Awards Celebration earlier that night), he still finished all his "Kae-dama" noodles.

General Thoughts
Overall, Ippudo is a fun place and definitely worth visiting. The menu alone is full of so many different kinds of cool Izakaya-type dishes (not just ramen) that I'd love to return just to try some of the other things (think fried lotus root chips, shishito peppers, and Japanese cucumber salad). 

The ramen is also very good. True, we were a bit disappointed by the texture of the noodles. However,  I think most people won't care as much as we do. Clearly, the place is mobbed, and many, many people are perfectly happy with the noodles. 

In any event, the broths are still excellent, and overall the noodle dishes are still very, very satisfying to slurp.

Ippudo New York 
65 4th Ave New York
NY 10003
Ippudo on Urbanspoon

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