On Sunday afternoon, I took Debra, my old college roommate, out for her birthday. We've made it a little tradition of ours to celebrate birthdays and milestones with noodles, and usually, we try to change it up so we can compare new up-and-coming noodle joints with places we had eaten at together previously. This whole celebrating with noodles doesn't fall far from Chinese culture either -- my family typically celebrates any birthday with noodles as the noodles signify long life. While this is a happy coincidence, I think we both elected for ramen/noodles because we both really love it! :)
Our noodle shop of choice this time was, Jin Ramen, a recommendation from Alice, an old high school friend of mine, who had raved about how awesome everything was there. I had been dying to go ever since she mentioned it to me in passing, but the only thing that was precluding me from getting there sooner was that it is located at 125th Street and Broadway, one stop past Columbia University's. So given that I live all the way on the East Side (essentially, on the East River), trekking there would be a total hassle, but we made it work this time, and getting there took a lot quicker than I had originally anticipated (even with all of the MTA construction going on). Win!
Jin Ramen is located in a relatively large space (i.e., for a noodle shop), which includes both separate tables and a noodle counter/bar. Most places that Debra and I are used to are one aisle long, lined with stools with a counter-style set-up. We arrived around noon, but it got pretty busy shortly after that, even on a Sunday afternoon!
Jin is Japanese for "benevolence" with its root in Confucian philosophy. The character itself (仁) consists of two elements -- the left representing a person and the right depicting the numeral for two. Ultimately, this kanji character is intended "to depict the way two people should treat one another." As a result, the noodle shop selected this name "not only out of an enthusiasm for ramen, but also from a desire to grow a business that has a positive impact on the community."
Love the Japanese-inspired organic interiors.
Hakata, a city in Japan, "is famous for its style of ramen, which has a very pungent smell thanks to a pork rib broth called tonkotsu (豚骨)," and this ramen "is considered one of Japan's top three styles of ramen (along with Tokyo and Sapporo)." This tonokotsu broth is made primarily of pork bones, which are cooked for a long time over extremely high heat so that the bone marrow within the bones are released into the broth, "giving the soup its characteristic richness." Along with noodles of course, popular toppings with Hakata raomen are chashu (pork belly), kikurage (wood-ear mushrooms), and negi (small green onions). Others included benishoga (pickled red ginger), crushed/whole-roasted sesame seeds, karashi takana (spicy pickled mustard greens), and crushed garlic.
I decided to try the miso ramen topped with sautéed corn, leeks, scallions, bean sprouts, chicken sausage, bok choy, sesame seeds, nori, and pork belly, all within a base soup of blended chicken and pork stock. As promised, the broth had a "robust, tangy flavor" and totally blew my mind in the same way that the (in)famous akamaru modern from Ippudo had done several years prior. The accoutrements (noodles, toppings, pork, etc.) and portion-size reminded me a lot of my current favorite spot, Totto Ramen, which I really appreciate in a noodle joint. So with that being said, I may have very well found my new favorite spot. There was just so much depth to the broth without being too salty, and while it was a little zestier than I had expected (lots of heat from the temperature and spices mixed in), it was just the perfect amount of punch. I rarely (pretty much never) drink the broth, but at Jin Ramen, I found myself slurping a few spoonfuls, savoring every last remnant of pork bits, curls of ramen, and corn kernels swimming in the depths of swirling miso. If you're looking for something mild, this is quite the opposite, so be prepared to be wowed with flavor if you order the miso ramen.
Debra had the tonkotsu ramen -- Jin Ramen's signature dish, which is said to be the richest broth of the four main varieties as it is made by boiling pork bones over high heat for several hours, "suffusing the broth with a hearty pork flavor and a creamy consistency that rivals milk or melted butter/gravy." The ramen noodles in broth are topped with wood-ear mushrooms, shredded scallions, and chashu. Debra really enjoyed the tonkotsu ramen -- certainly worth noting, she reported -- but her favorite still lies with Totto Ramen. One thing to note is the chashu is a little fattier than she would've liked (for me, it looked perfect!), but just as my experience with the miso ramen's broth, Debra drank the tonkotsu all up. To me, it was a lot milder in taste (not in an unfavorable way, of course) than the miso ramen because it wasn't laced in spice -- it was straight broth with minor dressings, which was very velvety on the palate. It was hard for me to really savor and taste it because my mouth had already been wiped out by the intensity of the miso ramen, so I really have to go back to give this a taste before I set my teeth into something like the miso ramen.
We were so excited to try out the ramen that I forgot to look at the appetizers. So being that I still had some room left in my stomach, I ordered us the steamed pork buns which comes with two gua bao buns stuffed with chashu, iceberg lettuce, spicy mayonnaise, and a side of slaw. The choice of ingredients and presentation were great, but we felt that the chashu, though tender, was quite bland. Additionally, the gua bao buns were a bit soggy, and there was more mayonnaise than the buns needed, thereby overpowering the dish in execution. I see lots of potential for improvement with this dish, so I haven't lost all faith with them.
Findings: So while the ramen at Totto Ramen has been my most recent go-to (because of its price and portion-size), I might dare to say that Jin Ramen has singlehandedly (on my first visit!) ousted Totto as my favorite bowl of ramen noodles in the city. You may wonder if the journey to Morningside Heights is worth it, so I'll make the answer easy for you -- yes it is! For whatever tricks and techniques are flying around in the kitchen of Jin Ramen, I hope the restaurant continue pulling out the stops and wowing its patrons with intricately delicious broths that are, by no secret at all, dressed in bovine marrow as a result of cooking its bones for hours upon hours over high heat. Although I can't say much about the other dishes on Jin Ramen's menu as I only had the opportunity to try the steamed pork buns, I do know that you have to try the miso ramen and the tonkotsu if you make the trip up there (i.e., if you don't already live in the Upper West Side area :P). You will be licking every drop of broth left in your bowl, noodle soup spoon, and your chopsticks, only wish you had one more drop. So watch out noodle shops of New York, there's a new noodle kid in town, ready to blow any conception of what a solid broth should be (here in the United States) out of the water!
Thanks to Alice for the awesome recommendation!
Price point: $7 for the starter, $11-12 for each bowl of ramen noodles.
--August 19, 2012
New York, NY 10027