132 W 31st St. NY, NY
By Lucas Wang
The ramen empire of Japan has opened its second location in the U.S., and its 76th in the world. Ichiran, originally from Hakata (a ward in Fukuoka, Kyushu), specializes in Hakata-style ramen. This style of ramen is characterized by its thin, firm, bouncy noodles, and thick pork bone soup. Ichiran was originally opened in 1960, but did not become famous until 1966 when it introduced individual booths such that patrons are shielded from anyone working at the restaurant. Their ideology is that the customer will refrain from socializing in order to enjoy the ramen in solitude, and be allowed to customize their own ramen.
As for first impressions, this new location (132 W 31st Street) is quite consistent with the others that I have been to. There were two rows of booths with around 20 seats on each side. At the front, the maitre’d, who happens to sell instant versions of the ramen to take home, would greet customers, and direct you to your booth number. Arguably, this interior is more similar to the locations in Japan, whereas in Bushwick there are communal tables, clearly in contradiction to the Ichiran philosophy.
Arriving at the booth I had flashbacks to my memorable ramen expedition in Harajuku (I had gone twice in two days because it was so good). Inside the booths are menus, lined with pictures, taped to the dividers that separate me from my fellow patrons. Directly in front of me, there is a red sign describing the history and mission of Ichiran, along with explanations concerning the individual components of the ramen.
On the ramen form, one must make many decisions — dashi (saltiness of the base), richness (oil content), amount of garlic, amount of scallion, pork (yes or no), spiciness, noodle texture, kaedama (noodle refill), extra toppings, and option for dessert. I wanted extra for every item.
After much anticipation, the bamboo screen is rolled up, and the steaming bowl of white soup, yellow noodles, and green scallions is placed in front of me. The soup is clearly the centerpiece of every bowl of ramen served. It is created with pork bone and fat, dashi, and absolutely no msg (I did not feel thirsty for the rest of the day as I would have after felt eating instant ramen). It had a subtle taste, yet incredibly strong at the same time. The noodles were firm and bouncy, but not chewy. The pork was like a stick of butter that melted in your mouth. Usually, when eating something as fatty as this, either acid (usually vinegar or lemon) or spice is required to cut through the fat. Here, Ichiran has used its Hiden no Tare pepper paste to do that exact job. The recipe is obviously a closely guarded secret; it is slightly sweet, but quite savory as well with its own distinct character, owing to the fact that it has more than 30 different spices mixed in. However, it seemed to me the mixture is far milder here than it was in Japan.
Just like other Ichiran branches, the server is only visible from the waist down, and speaks as little as possible with you. Everything is ordered with the click of a button on the table. Even though the workers have been trained to serve this way, they are not used to not looking at the customer, and tried to poke their heads under the bamboo screen.
While almost everything here is appreciated, what is not is the price tag. In Japan, a bowl would only cost around 900-1000¥ (~$9-10), but here in the U.S. the price nears $20, before adding the kaedama (noodle refill), extra toppings, or dessert (matcha pudding with grass jelly, $9.90). The only upside to this is that the portions here seem to be slightly larger than their counterparts in Japan, and tips are included.
Overall, I am impressed that my experiences here and in Japan were nearly identical. If they can maintain this quality and consistency, they will be very successful as they continue their expansion through the U.S.