food 03.6.07

Cravings: Ramen

Late-winter days are made for the distinctly trough-like experience of slurping down a great, steaming bowl of ramen. Not the dried dorm-room standby, mind you, but the real deal: chewy noodles, rich broth and beyond that, nearly endless variations on the meat-and-veg formula that's made ramen Japan's street snack of choice since the 1950s. Noodleheads may say finding truly great ramen in New York is as likely as finding a great bagel in Tokyo (read: impossible), but let's not quibble: Here are five bowls that more than scratch the itch.

Menchanko-Tei, 43-45 W. 55th [5th/6th] 212.247.1585 and 131 W. 45th [Lex/3rd] 212.986.6805
Take a cue from the tables of Japanese businessmen slurping away in this low-lit lunch spot: Once your bowl arrives, stop talking. Menchanko-Tei's hakata ramen — sometimes identified on menus as tonkotsu (literally, "pig bone," a nod to the stock used) — just might be the best version on the island. Twin slabs of tender pork nestle in pickled ginger shreds on a mound of chewy homemade noodles, the whole shebang simmering in a milky, intense, porktastic broth. A jolt of rice vinegar might be overkill, but it's easy to get carried away in the presence of food like this.

Momofuku Noodle Bar, 163 1st [10th/11th] 212.475.7899
Critics counter that Momofuku is not a ramenya (it's a heavily Japanese-inspired fusion restaurant), and sniff away the ramen served here as inauthentic. Right on both counts, and fine by us. We won't have to sweat them for a seat at this tiny East Village joint, whose eponymous ramen comes piled high with bamboo shoots, peas, seaweed sheaths and butter-soft braised Berkshire pork. A dewy poached egg pitches tastebuds — already tingling from the rich pork bone, bacon and shiitake broth — into overdrive.

Rai Rai Ken, 214 East 10th [1st/2nd] 212.477.7030
One of the tiniest noodle temples in town is also possibly the most transporting: Rai Rai Ken — all fourteen seats of it — feels closest in spirit to the down-and-dirty ramenyas that dot Tokyo, with a mini menu to match. People love the delicate seafood shio-broth (salt) ramen, piled with pork slices, bamboo shoots and the traditional half hardboiled egg. But it's the miso ramen that keeps us up at night, with feverish thoughts of its peppery broth, shredded chicken and crispy-fried nubs of garlic heaped on top. And the noodles, of course, perfectly toothy and springy. Be sure to get a frequent-slurper card stamped before you leave: Your tenth bowl is on the house.

Minca, 536 E. 5th [A/B] 212.505.8001
Picking your dish can be a crippling experience at Minca, an unassuming shop with a build-your-own-style menu of nearly 30 different spins on the all-holy noodle. So we'll make it simple for you: Order the toroniku ramen with shoyu broth. This gets you a mound of supremely fatty, slow-cooked pork belly chunks, a soy sauce-steeped egg and a mess of scallions, tender cabbage, black mushrooms and chukasoba noodles, all swimming in a smoky broth (shoyu, sometimes called Tokyo-style, is pork-based and flavored with soy sauce). Bliss.

Sapporo, 152 W. 49th [6th/7th] 212.869.8972
This joint with drugstore lighting is one of the largest ramenyas in Manhattan, but when the weekday noodle rush hits, you're still guaranteed a wait. No matter. Tables turn quickly, and you can spend those minutes taking in the kitchen blur: Dexterous hands work the bubbling cauldrons and hissing woks to assemble bowl after bowl of the good stuff — this may not be refined ramen, but it's fast, cheap and wholly satisfying. Go straight for the tantan-men, a musky sesame-paste bath packed with squiggly noodles, ground pork, spinach and scallions. Spicy undertones make getting through the huge bowl a forehead-dabbing workout.

Geren Ford
Air Power


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