The last time I considered ramen was in the post-9/11 months and years when I stockpiled the noodles in my basement, alongside bottled water, honey and a cache of incandescent 100-watt light bulbs.
The light bulbs, of course, were a reaction to a different threat—the loss of cheap, pleasing light at the hands of government regulation. Even though I’m all for long-lasting, energy-saving CFLs, LEDs and halogens, I’ll buy them just as soon as they figure out how to manufacture them for 50 cents a bulb.
The ramen noodles, I was confident, would see me and the family through nuclear winter in style. I’ve always been impressed by how much fun and flavor—though I’m not sure about nutrition—could be packed into a cellophane bag filled with dried noodles and a packet of seasoning.
Add an egg, and maybe some chopped scallion, and eat like a king.
Thus, I was somewhat surprised when friends from Maine, visiting their college-age daughter in New York recently, told us she’d taken them to a ramen restaurant on the West Side. So popular was the place that if you arrived for dinner later than, say, 5 p.m. you’d have to wait an hour for a table, the line snaking out the door and down the block.
When I hear such stories I’m reminded of my father and one of his mantras: If it’s that popular, he used to say, I’ll stay home and make it easier for everyone else to get a table.
I’m not sure what would make me wait in line except an exit visa. But I was mildly intrigued by this culinary trend: I assumed that whatever was generating all the excitement had to be different than the $1, five-minute, just-add-boiling-water-and-stir packages sitting in my basement.
So when an opportunity arose to participate in a “Ramen Slurpfest” Thursday night at the Astor Center on Lafayette Street, with four top ramen chefs pulling out all the stops, I felt an obligation to attend. I also brought along my daughter, a devotee of Chuko Ramen, a restaurant near her apartment in Brooklyn.
“You have to wait for, like, an hour,” she explained.
There’s only so much you can teach your children. Then you have to let them live their own lives.
The drill was that we’d have 13 minutes at each station—because that’s apparently how long it takes the average person in Japan to eat a bowl of ramen. Don’t ask me how Luckyrice, which hosts Asian culinary festivals around the country, including this event, knows that. But I was willing to take their word.
There was also a bar serving Bombay Sapphire East gin. I received a tall cocktail called a “Sapphire East 15 Minute Sunrise” (why this obsession with the clock I don’t know) when I requested the strongest drink they had as a hedge against any off-the-wall ramen.
Our first station was Hide-Chan Ramen, and their Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen—porkbone ramen paired with thin Hakata noodles. The bowl also included bean sprouts, green onions, a half-cooked egg, pork shoulder and spicy garlic oil.
I was told it was the most traditional ramen we’d be eating that night, and it was certainly delicious. If I had any issue with the Slurpfest, it was that ramen is intended to be filling. I could have happily have gone home to bed after my first bowl.
Next up was Ivan Ramen’s Chicken Paitan Ramen. The restaurant is named after Ivan Orkin, who was born in Syosset, N.Y., but had the temerity to open one of Tokyo’s most popular ramen shops. He has two locations in Manhattan, and his lines said to be the longest of all.
“It tastes like a Jewish version of ramen,” my daughter observed, the ingredients including white chicken broth, chicken confit, schmaltz-fried onions, shio kombu (don’t ask me, I’m reading from a crib sheet) and rye noodle.
Gathering my chopsticks, ceramic spoon, gin cocktail and a beer chaser that I’d somehow acquired along the way, we moved on to Ramen Lab’s Miso Ramen. Layered with a foie gras espuma and alba truffle shavings, it delivered the equivalent of a TKO, with one station left to go.
Tsujita LA Artisan Noodle’s ramen was a blend of pork soup and fish stock with a twist. The noodles were served cold in a separate bowl and came with seaweed and a lime meant to be squirted on the noodles about halfway through the experience.
We were told the soup had taken 60 hours to make. So I guess I won’t be making it at home. On the other hand, the experience has forever spoiled me for $1 ramen noodles. Though I probably ought to pay a visit to the basement to see how they’re doing, given current events.