Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ramen Showdown: New York vs. Tokyo!

I spent a post a while back talking about how New York's East Village is now akin to a "Little Tokyo" (or maybe more appropriately, a "Little Harajuku"). You can really find almost anything there now that you can find in Japan, albeit usually not the best quality. (Hey, it is really New York and not Tokyo, after all.) On our trip to Japan last month, we'd had some truly great ramen at a place called "Yo! Teko-ya" on Odaiba, and we were missing the experience a little bit. So we decided to try one of the ramen shops that have now sprung up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, including the East Village and Alphabet City.

We settled on Minca both because it's fairly well known among the Japanese community (though not universally liked) and because it got a really good writeup in the New York Times, who I do actually trust. (It does drive me crazy how they consider Avenue A and B the "East Village", though.)

Now, I will be the first to admit that I am no expert in ramen. My wife comes a lot closer than I do, though - she's been eating at ramen-ya (ramen shops) all her life, and is a native of the Tokyo area. So I trust her opinions on this, and I will say that I at least know what I like. I'm also experienced in a lot of different kinds of authentic ethnic food, including Japanese - I'm not the kind of guy that eats at Olive Garden and thinks he's eating Italian.

That said, Minca does look the part. It's small, somewhat dingy and filled with mostly counter space around the kitchen - it looks like a proper ramen shop. The waitresses (who were oddly fashionable for a ramen shop) were Japanese. The atmosphere is mostly genuine, with the one nod to New York being the exposed brick walls on either side - not a common look in Japanese interior design.

That's the Minca exterior. One of the two fashionable waitresses is cleaning up after us in the right side window - she's even wearing a hat. The exterior of the ramen shop we visited in Tokyo is at the top of this post for comparison.

I ordered the "Minca ramen" while my wife ordered the "basic ramen" - the main difference being the broth. Hers was thicker and with a pork stock base ("tonkotsu" ramen), mine "lighter" and with more of a soy sauce base ("shoyu" ramen). Her noodles were also a little different, but I'll get to that in a second. We also ordered a plate of gyoza - Japanese dumplings - as an appetizer. These were actually pretty good, and tasted like homemade. Gyoza are one thing I do know pretty well by now.

That's my ramen. Compare to this, from our visit to Tokyo:

There are probably a couple things you immediately notice. The first is that the Tokyo ramen just has a lot more stuff. More meat, more vegetables, more everything. It's literally piled over the top of the broth. And if it all looks fresher in the photo from Tokyo, that's because it was.

The second thing, though a bit less obvious, is the beer. I'm gonna digress just a little bit to talk about that for a minute. Here's a better view of the beer from Tokyo:

That's Kirin on tap, and a big glass of it, ice cold. Minca, like most American restaurants, just gives you a 12oz. bottle, and it's the Canadian stuff. I'm always surprised by this at Japanese restaurants in the US, because beer is such a big deal at any Japanese restaurant in Japan. They drink a lot of it, and they demand that it be on draft and practically frozen cold. Beer there is cheap, plentiful and good. Canadian Sapporo is not the same as real Sapporo. It tastes almost nothing like the real thing. After having real Sapporo straight from the Sapporo brewery at the Yebisu Beer Garden, I now have a real baseline for comparison. Canadian Sapporo just doesn't cut it.

See here for a look at what a real can or bottle of Sapporo looks like. If you can't find one of those anywhere, you may be able to find a silver 22oz. can like the one in front here:

Even that's not quite the same, but it is brewed in a proper Sapporo factory, and it's currently the only size can still commonly available in the US that's brewed in Japan by Sapporo.

Anyway, back to the ramen. One thing that kind of jumped out at me in the New York Times article was this:
Mr. Kamada uses dried, portioned noodles delivered from Japan. Though crucial to ramen, the noodles are the easy part.
Whoa, warning sign! Even I know that you can't take the noodles for granted in ramen - otherwise we may as well all be eating instant, and Mr. Kamada may as well just be importing Top Ramen. In fact, for all I know, that's exactly what he's doing.

The ramen at Yo! Teko-ya in Tokyo was absolutely fantastic - that includes the spicy broth, the noodles, and the meat and vegetables. At Minca, the noodles clearly had a different texture, and one that I associate with dried pasta. I'm not sure if Yo! Teko-ya uses fresh noodles or not, but the texture of their noodles was definitely closer to fresh than dried - much "springier" without being hard, or on the other hand mushy. The noodles at Minca were hard, even after sitting in the hot broth for five extra minutes.

The broth, on the other hand, was good, but given the fact that Minca basically ignores the noodles in favor of creating the best broth possible, I had expected better. Mine tasted mainly like soy sauce. My wife's was probably better if your tastes are native Japanese, but I couldn't really eat it - it was too rich from pork bone marrow. Even the broth was not at the level of Yo! Teko-ya. Neither was the meat, which was too fatty - though I did eat all of it.

My wife actually said afterwards, "this is one of the biggest disappointments in my life." She wasn't joking!

The sad thing is the customers we saw were mostly westerners, all universally praising their ramen. I guess if they don't know any better, then it's no skin off their backs, but I wish they could know what really good ramen tastes like. It can be so much better than Minca. The New York Times is full of crap.

My advice to Mr. Kamada: work on your noodles. Use less fatty meat. The broth is probably okay, but I wouldn't mind a few tweaks - something in between my salty soy sauce and my wife's fatty, rich pork broth would be nice. And please, import some proper Japanese beer.

There are other ramen shops both on the Lower East Side as well as up in midtown near where I work. We're going to try some more, and I'll let you all know if any of them compare to Yo! Teko-ya. Minca needs to stop taking everything but the broth for granted.

UPDATE: The New York ramen quest continues. See Part 2!


  1. I went to the Ramen Museum near Shin-Yokohama station, and it does appear that the Japanese do distinguish their ramen dishes mainly by the stock. Not to say that the noodles themselves are "easy", but mostly they are not the crucial factor.

    The fatty pork I believe is particularly associated with Kyushu, which may have affected your wife's evaluation somewhat. Although I did eat one that was cooked with lard, which was a specialty of one particular place in Hokkaido, which is otherwise known for its miso stock...

    On the other hand, shoyu (soy sauce) stock is particularly associated with Toyko, but usually I don't find it *that* salty. Shio (salt) stock isn't normally even that salty either - I suppose it's kind of the "Default" setting.

    Oh well...

  2. The point is the stock just didn't taste all that good - if they're going to put *all* their energy into the stock, it had better be some of the best stock I've ever had. And the stock at Yo! Teko-ya was better, to both myself and my wife. I guess it's possible that that particular place really just has the best ramen in all of Tokyo, but I kinda doubt it. My wife did say it was uncommonly good, but she didn't really single out the stock so much.

    I'll put it this way... after we finished our noodles and vegetables, we left the stock. We didn't drink it; neither of us. It just wasn't really all that enticing.

    The noodles may not be the most important part but I really don't think they can be taken for granted, any more than the pastry on a beef wellington can be taken for granted. Bad pastry can really ruin that dish, even though the beef is the main point of it.

    Trust me, you'd have the same reaction if you tried this place. It's just overrated, and I guarantee it gets trumped by almost any ramen shop in Tokyo.

  3. It's not just New York, ramen shops outside of Japan generally cut corners when it comes to all the basic components of ramen. I was lucky; I spent a single month in Japan with my gf, who's also a Tokyo native, and tried ramen in every place we went, from Hokkaido (we went to Ajisai, which was NOT as good as everyone makes it out to be) all the way to Osaka. Some were good, some not so much, but all were better than the offerings in other countries.

    I do want to try that Yo!Teko-ya you mentioned; we went to Odaiba, but only had crepes there. However, next time you go you might want to check out Higamons, just outside Shinagawa Station. The brother of one of my friends works there, and the place was fantastic. They have their own special way of cooking pork, probably similar to Hakata style (but I'm a novice so I'm not really sure?); nice fatty pork boiled for hours, so it nearly melts in your mouth, and lots of fresh ingredients, with a fairly rich pork bone broth. Place is great, staff are really cool, definitely check it out. After we ate, we just wanted to sit and rest for a while, we were so stuffed. (the fact that the meal was on the house definitely didn't influence my endorsement!)

    Oh by the way, great blog, I'm planning a trip again soon so I'll definitely keep an eye on this for tips.

  4. The thing that surprises me about places like Minca is that it's run by Japanese people, so you'd think they'd get it right. But I guess that's a kind of false logic; there are probably plenty of mediocre ramen shops in Tokyo too, it's just that there aren't enough shops here for any real standouts to develop. With so little competition, there's not much incentive for the few places that do exist to improve. Already, it seems like they can't satisfy demand... and they get great writeups in the clueless local papers anyway.

    I will keep that Higamons place in mind. We didn't make it over to Shinagawa on our last trip, but we've stayed at the Shinagawa Prince hotel before and we might again sometime.

  5. Anonymous6:50 PM

    I second Raj's comment about Higamons. I went to a number of places in Tokyo (as well as the six or so places in the Ramen Musuem in Yokohama), and Higamons was by far the best.

    The one thing I will say is that the descriptions of the Minca broth that I've read--heavy pork taste, garlicky--seem similar to the broth that I had at Higamons. So, if you weren't a big fan of Minca, then maybe you won't like Higamons (although I haven't tried Minca so take my word with a grain of salt).


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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