Ramen is kind of played out now. I mean, 4 years ago, everyone was obsessed and all the trendy places were showing us that Ramen was actually not something that came from a package by adding water. In fact, people started to realize that it came from a long history of noodle slurpin’ Japanese cuisine and was extremely culturally relevant in the East–and also extremely, 200% more delicious than whatever you ate while broke and drunk in college. Suddenly, it hit Instagram and trendy-food history was made.
Anyway, since those fateful Ramen-renaissance years, I’ve seen just about every possible Ramen scenario (including an article in Bon Appetit about some dudes in Texas who are bending traditionalist rules and making “Texas-style Ramen”). Within those scenarios, I’ve seen extremely cheap ramen (Little Tokyo LA lunch special: GIANT spicy ramen, California roll, gyoza, tempura veggies, + tea $10) and extremely expensive ramen ($25)
So that’s where this story begins… with the expensive ramen. When we moved into our little, temporary Bushwick flat last month (we’re now residing in do-or-die Bed-Stuy), our industrial neighborhood was discreetly speckled with Brooklyn’s most popular spots (Blue Bottle directly in front, Roberta’s around the block). So when Pablo recommended Ramen one afternoon, we walked half a block and stumbled upon Ichiran, boasting “best Ramen NYC” type signs outside. (*Ichiran is actually a famous chain in Japan, finally shared with American’s via Brooklyn).
As soon as we walked, we felt a hushed energy, like a church or a temple. I recognized the interior from a Buzzfeed video, in which it dubbed the restaurant as a “place designed so you don’t have to speak to anybody”, which is, in part, true.
Ichiran is set up like a traditional ramen bar, but with partitions or cubicles to separate you from others. The cubicle is filled with instructions on how to eat and enjoy stuff “the right way”. (They also ask you to refrain from talking on the phone, so others can enjoy in peace). The menu is a check list that you fill out and softly ding! the waiter to come collect it. I don’t think I ever saw his face, but he had tattoos and a heavy New Yorker accent and occasionally spoke to us in Japanese. The idea behind the “lonerness” is that so customers can savor and focus on the delicacy of their soup, which is most notable in the broth and noodle consistency.
At $18 a bowl (egg and add-ons not included!) the price is high. I was tentative by the gimmicky “eat and savor in silence”, but after getting over the face that i was going to pay $20+ for ramen, I understood it’s hype. Ichiran crafts a ramen experience so unique, you can only find it there. From a specially boiled egg to a top secret Ichiran sauce, each moment and action is new to your ramen world.
The broth: Tonkotsu, with no other option. Rich and deliciously creamy, like a tonkotsu should be. The broth is HEAVY. Like a take a nap right after heavy. You can choose how light or heavy you want it though. Go heavy. When at Ichiran, right?
The noodles: Here you can select how well-done you want your noodles (I choose medium) but you’re encouraged to eat them as fast as possible. They cook while they’re swimming in broth so chop-chop! *you can also order a 1/2 or full size kae-dama (noodle refill)
The egg: a medium boiled egg is always my favorite part of ramen. So when it’s not offered automatically in my bowl, I roll my eyes. It’s standard so why are you making me pay extra!? –> Ichiran charges you extra. $2.75 extra!? But it has a purpose! First it’s cooked in tonkotsu broth (omg yaas!) and second, it’s meant to be eaten first to prepare your palate for the flavors to come. I paid $3 extra for that egg and I don’t regret it.
The Ichiran spice: Again, you can adjust the spice to your liking. I went medium (played it safe). Here, it’s the signature ingredient and apparently only 3 people in the world know its ingredients. It’s shipped in from the original kitchen in Japan. They recommend trying the broth “from the sides” first and then slowly incorporating the sauce.
Extras: Everything here costs extra (eye roll). I usually like my ramen loaded with bamboo shoots, nori, shitake, scallions, etc. but they’re hella expensive so I only got the nori. (continue eye roll).
The combination of all those things I just mentioned is delicious! Savory, heavy, complex, a bit tiresome to eat (but you keep eating anyway). In fact, without even realizing it, the place has you practicing mindfulness and shelling out kind of a lot of money for soup. I was so incredibly full and the pork broth was so wildly heavy (in a good way) that I just about rolled all the way from Brooklyn to Manhattan like a ball.
So I tried the (probably) most expensive and most hyped ramen in America. And you know what happened after we finished our bowls? Nothing really—other than having tried the most exquisite broth ever. It was a damn delicious bowl of ramen and I would consider it one of the best I’ve ever eaten… but I wonder if my life is any better off for it? It doesn’t change the way I look at my usual ramen spot–except for that Tonkotsu egg.
And, what’s the deal with America and overpricing traditional street food!? And what’s with New York overpricing the overpricing!? (tacos from the taco truck: $3!!) Why did I willingly pay $25 for ramen (no drink)? Because: Food Trends. Food trends increase cost by at least 30%. Instagramability and Bon Appetite cover stories result in a 30% increase in cost for consumers. Ridiculous, right? That’s why it’s important to stay ahead of the masses. Devour all the deliciousness for cheap first, and once it starts getting noticed and pricey, move on and let the masses destroy it.
The issue I have is that food trends don’t feel personal. Food doesn’t feel personal anymore! It used to be a way to connect and invite others together to share and talk about ideas. Food used to be a way to teach our neighbors about history and tradition. Now, we’re eating ramen in silence just by pressing a button!
That’s the thing about food trends: they’re all hype mostly; meant for you to be seen with, not to actually change your life (ie Unicorn food). Food trends are usually delicious but it’s rare you’ll find something so special that you can’t believe it. Personally, I have tried SO MANY food trends around the world and I’m still looking for one that’s out of this world.
This could be contradictory to my work and writing, but I’m beginning to doubt the need for standing in a line that goes down the block, just to try something that makes my Instagram more colorful. If I’m waiting in line, I want it do be for something that teaches me culture, tradition, or an experience beyond anything I’ve ever had. I respect the act of savouring Ichiran’s recipe and tradition. I enjoyed the experience, but don’t ask me to go again.