Ah, ramen. That staple of every camping trip you ever went on, every broke college grocery-shopping trip you ever took, and every bad home-packed lunch your mother ever sent with you to elementary school, right? Wrong. Ramen is a thousand times more than just a packet of MSG and a brick of noodles. It’s a full meal in the right hands: great ramen is more than the sum of its parts, and guaranteed not to leave you in want of more food.
Now, ramen joints have become quite popular in the last year or two on Manhattan Island; an early favorite of mine, Momofuku, even achieved the rare honor of being feature reviewed in the NY Times as well as being on Mr. Sietsema’s Village Voice 2005 list. While I would hardly argue that it’s not tasty enough to deserve this, it IS on the more expensive side of the ramen equation, and it’s defiantly untraditional, if that matters to you. If you must go, the pork ramen will be your best bet, but stay away, if possible, from the too-expensive bottled beer.
I would argue that your $9 is better spent at Minca, though, on East 5th between A and B. Also resident on the Voice 2005 list, I’ve never seen Minca crowded, and their menu, I’m assured, is much more traditional. Tsukemen Ramen, wherein the broth and noodles arrive separately, the latter to be dipped in the former, is one of the most novel variations I’ve seen; more standard Shoyu (soy) and garlic and oil broths exist, and for a few more bucks, you can put extra slices of their divine pork in any soup. Be SURE to let it sit in the broth for a few minutes at least; the longer you wait, the better the pork gets. I add hot sauce, my roommate does not.
The undisputed heavyweight champion of the division, though, is the new-ish Hong Kong Station (Hester between Chrystie and Bowery), as listed by the NY Metro’s 2005 edition. Let me tell you, this place is both bizarre and wonderful at the same time. Obviously not accustomed to the gringo customers yet (signs are only in Cantonese, though the paper menu is also in English), the staff are friendly, if sometimes thick-accented. The décor is strictly fast food, of course, but in a twist I’ve only seen before in Europe, they have an attendant to bus your table.
As to the food, you have your choice of about seven or eight kinds of noodles made of egg or rice, mostly Chinese, though there are some similar ones to the Minca noodles and Momofuku noodles. You can choose about 25 different toppings to go with them in your broth. Now, why is this fusiony fast food shop, which also offers toast and several other items more English than Southeast Asian, the winner – particularly when some of the optional toppings (like the blood or gizzards) are unlikely to get any run in your bowl?
It all boils down (oy!) to price. The basic noodle/broth combo costs $1. Each topping additionally costs $1. So, if you get Beef Shin, a fried egg, and mushrooms, as I did on one recent jaunt, you have a $4 delicious meal. If you screw up and get Beef Stew, curried fish balls, or some other ingredient of that has polluted your bowl (the former), or that you aren’t fond of (the latter), you’re not out a whole lot of money. Experiment and be merry! Don’t miss the lemonade with Ribena (British blackberry syrup), either.
Full disclosure: Occasionally, I’ve had overcooked noodles, which is NEVER a problem at Minca (tip: avoid the egg-based thick noodles, which taste like grocery store egg noodles anyway). But, for $1? Can hardly complain. Until I find a place that serves Pho, that Vietnamese noodle soup sure to be the subject of a forthcoming article, for $4, this is about as good as it gets.