Hoards of people gather on the cement steps of Totto Ramen for a taste of their authentic Japanese food. My friend, Mike and I felt out of place, being the only English speaking individuals with our names written on the sign-in board, marked by unusual Japanese characters. You cannot go inside to wait for a table, you cannot have a drink while you wait. Simply put, only those who really want to eat at this authentic Ramen Noodle Bar, will get inside. No matter the time of night, or temperature, Totto Ramen will easily boast an hour wait, if not longer.
My friend and I tempted our fate, by sitting at a near by wine bar, only to return an hour later to realize we just missed our name being called. They don’t care there. We had to be put our name back on the list and start the process over again. Finally, during the last call of seating, we were lead inside to the tiny restaurant.
One long bar, surrounding the kitchen fills most of the restaurant, with two lone tables towards the back for groups of four to five people, the maximum sized group I would recommend coming with. This is the kind of spot you can easily eat alone at, which the attractive Japanese girl sitting next to us, opted to do.
The menu is straight forward and simple; Ramen and a few Specials. One of the girls outside translated the advice given by native Japanese speaking patrons to us, recommending both the original ramen and the spicy version. While we contemplated our course of action, we each ordered a glass of sake to start. I ordered cold, Mike, hot.
They definitely do not skimp out on drink sizes, with medium sized glasses (think 1/2 pint) of the delectable Japanese rice wine. I love cold sake, which tastes smooth and fruity, while being completely refreshing. It lacks that bitter alcohol after-taste that so many dread with cheap liquor.
We ultimately decided to order one of the “sides,” Avo-Tuna, which acts more like an appetizer portion, and two bowls of Ramen. We opted for the Original, better known as Totto Chicken Paitan Ramen with Pork, while Mike went for Totto Spicy Ramen, the original dish with Chicken and spice kicked up a notch.
Fresh pieces of tuna sit on top of marinated avocado, scallions and bean sprouts. The sushi grade tuna gains a bit of smokey flavor after the chef using a blow torch to give the outside a light crust, without compromising the integrity and quality of the fish. The tuna is clearly the star, but the avocado acts as an unbelievable side, integrating serious amounts of flavor into the dish. The yuzu and garlic, combine umami and a subtle spiciness to the vegetables and tuna. The tuna-avo is a must have dish, that could easily find its’ way onto any high quality sushi restaurant menu. While I don’t normally incorporate prices into my review, this dish is only $5.50. The quality is incredible and the lightly torched tuna, alone, would be my reasoning for coming back. However, I also came for the Ramen.
The steaming bowl of noodles and intoxicating broth fills your lungs, as you pick up chopsticks in your right hand, and the specially designed spoon in your left.
Words can hardly describe the complexity and depth of flavor in this bowl of noodles. Ramen has become a Japanese art, with different variations representing different regions through the broth, thickness of the noodles, and added ingredients. At Totto Ramen, their signature consist of straight-ish egg noodles served in a soy flavored broth, topped with scallions, onion, char siu pork and a piece of nori. The style of noodles are designed for quick meals, where simplicity is key.
The broth is light, but insanely flavorful, with each bite tasting better then the last. The subtly of the chicken and soy that combine to develop such intense flavor, that I found myself neglecting the noodles to slurp up the broth. The ramen broth is prepared in large metal containers, stirred with a wooden spoon to insure slow-cooking and the development of layers of flavors.
On top, the chef slightly chars pieces of pork, using a propane tank, behind the counter before adding them to the soup. The pieces of crisp pork slices add sweet and smokiness element to the dish.
Karp ordered the spicy ramen, which he rightfully advised me not to try. I can’t really handle the heat, and this dish definitely brought it.
He loved the spicy element added to the original flavored Ramen. The girl next to us had them add the spiciness half way through, changing the dish from subtle to spicy. That’s definitely an option for those who like to walk on the wild side a little bit and can handle the heat.
We could hardly finish both of our dishes, with the gigantic bowls that never seemed to end. I requested a box to go, and was quickly told that doesn’t exist. However, the waiter with a thick Japanese accent said, you could bring your own tupperware to save the unbelievable broth and noodles for the next day.
So, if you have the patience, Totto Ramen will absolutely blow your mind, without even putting a slight dent on your wallet. I found myself calling my Dad from the bathroom to rave about this spot. He lived in Japan for over one year, and as I stated my location, he asked if there was only bar seating and two tables in the back, I said yes. He asked if the kitchen was open and I saw large metal vats and wooden spoons, I said yes. He asked if they used blow torches on the food, I said yes. He then asked when we could go.
Totto Ramen is the real deal. For those wishing a trip to Japan could happen sooner, or are equally obsessed with David Chang’s Mind of A Chef on PBS, this will fill and exceed your ramen needs. Also, be sure to get the avo-tuna. I can’t wait to go back, tupperware in tow, and try even more of the amazing food that comes out of the little Totto Ramen kitchen.
Totto Ramen – 366 West 52nd Street – New York, NY
Location: Hell’s Kitchen, NY
Perfect For: Authentic Dining, Cheap Eats, Impressing Foodies, Adventurous Eating
Reservations: Not Accepted
Favorite Dishes: Avo-Tuna, Original Ramen, Sake
Notes: Cash Only