Tuesday, January 12, 2010

New York Ramen: Rai Rai Ken


Now this is a ramen shop.

New Yorkers have an odd idea of what a ramen place is supposed to be, which is not surprising I guess, in the same way that it's not surprising that the Japanese have an odd idea of what a pizzeria is supposed to be. Different cultures. But I wasn't too impressed with Ippudo or Setagaya, which are two of the trendier ramen places in the city (and also among the more expensive - surprise!), and which both serve food that's a little disappointing with an ambience that's hardly authentic. No doubt Ippudo is the most popular ramen place right now, and it's not that it's bad... but it's not like a real ramen shop.

Rai Rai Ken, which has apparently been around since before any of the trendy places opened, is like walking into Tokyo. Some people complain that it's small and cramped - which it is - but that's just part of what makes it real. It's one long wooden counter with stools, and barely enough space to sideways-walk by. One tip: do not sit at the counter to the left of the front door - there is no room to eat there! It's like eating in coach on an airplane.

Both times I've eaten at Rai Rai Ken, I've had the curry ramen. My last time there was the first time I've ever finished an entire bowl of ramen, broth and all. I'm not sure those who haven't had real ramen understand how much food this is. It's approximately like eating an entire box of spaghetti, plus the water you cook it in and about eight meatballs.

So what makes Rai Rai Ken so good? Whereas Menchanko-tei has an overall fine balance of quality ingredients, Rai Rai Ken is almost all about the broth. Most ramen aficionados will tell you that the broth is the most important part. I agree that it is the most important individual ingredient. I still think Menchanko-tei's noodles are better, and their pork and vegetables are tastier and maybe a little fresher, but Rai Rai Ken has hands down the best ramen broth I have ever tasted - in New York or Tokyo. Now, the caveat there is that I've only had the curry ramen, but it was just a beautiful broth, even to look at. Such a rich color and thickness, and you can see just the right amount of melted pork fat forming a glistening layer on top. In terms of taste, none of the individual flavors of the pork or curry are lost, and there's just the right amount of spice. Yum! I can't stop eating it.

Rai Rai Ken also has great gyoza, which is another important measure of both the quality and authenticity of a ramen shop. (Ippudo doesn't even have gyoza, which I found unforgivable.) Rai Rai Ken's are obviously homemade and have a lot of vinegar and some kind of herb that I can't quite identify. They're a taste explosion. They're also served piping hot straight out of the frying pan, so do yourself a favor and let them cool down for a minute.

Go early or go late, because this place is jam packed at rush hours. We've gone at about 9PM both times and still had to wait for a seat. It's usually a pretty short wait - most people seem to know that you don't sit and chat at a real ramen shop - but be prepared to stand outside for at least a few minutes. And don't forget to pick up a point card when you're done!

Rai Rai Ken
214 E 10th St
(between 1st Ave & 2nd Ave)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 477-7030


2 comments:

  1. That looks so good. It's unfortunate that I read this post on a fasting day...

    ReplyDelete
  2. That looks so good. It's unfortunate that I read this post on a fasting day...

    ReplyDelete

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.

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I'm married. I like to travel. I have no kids. I have a house... that I'm bad at maintaining. I used to collect classic video games. I own a lot of musical equipment that far outstrips my ability to use it. When I was younger, I was in a band. I like gadgets, and I'm an Android guy. Someday, I would like to live on a different planet.

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