Well, I finally made it back to Ippudo a few weeks ago. And I only had to wait 10 minutes! That’s because my friend, Angela, and I decided to have dinner at 6PM like a couple of old blue-hairs. Actually, Ippudo was senior citizen-free as 20 and 30-somethings all over NYC are willing to leave work early to try and beat the hour or more wait for a taste of Ippudo goodness.
I’ve tried several times to make it to Ippudo since I started writing this blog a few months ago, but every time I went, the hostess smiled as she informed me that I would need to wait about 90-minutes for a table. During those months, I’ve had a lot of ramen and my resentment for not being able to get a table at Ippudo almost made me forget how much I love a bowl of Akamaru Modern. Almost…
Once we sat down in our do-it-yourself-loveseat, which can be pushed together or spaced out depending on who you’re ramening with, I started to remember why I enjoy the Ippudo experience so much. Ippudo is like swanky ramen – dark interior with giant booths or communal tables circling a driftwood centerpiece. While I appreciate the ambience, I’m usually too pissed off by the wait to enjoy it when I sit down and usually curse the giant, red, sprouting wood sculpture and spacious booths filled with all of two people. This time around, since there was no wait, I thoroughly appreciated the air-conditioning and elbow room so often compromised in a good ramen joint.
As I sipped my favorite Ippudo go-to beer, Ginga Kogen (a crisp, refreshing wheat beer that apparently means “Plateau of the Universe” in Japanese), I perused the menu pretending like I didn’t know EXACTLY what I wanted to order: flavorful chicken buns (which I actually prefer to the pork – go figure!), savory & tangy agedashi tofu, and a steaming bowl of Akamaru Modern – rich, porky goodness with a dollop of chili miso paste with an added marinated egg. Oh, and I’d like my house-made noodles firm.
If you know me or are starting to understand me, you know that ordering chicken over pork is a rarity for me, especially when that pork comes in the form of pork belly. I’ve loved pork belly long before it became a fad. It’s bacon in its purest form. So know that when I say that the chicken bun is better than the pork bun at Ippudo, it means that this chicken is damn delicious. The problem with chicken normally is that it’s flavorless. At Ippudo, the chicken is marinated and then pan-seared to salty, spicy, umami happiness before being tucked into a marshmallowy soft and squishy white, steamed bun and garnished with crisp iceburg (no nutrients, but it adds good crunch and lightness) and Kewpie mayo (God’s answer to mayo right next to your everyday Hellmann’s).
Agedashi tofu is basically tofu that’s been very, delicately battered in a light, watery tempura batter before being quickly deep-friend until the outside is just crisp but still pale (Asians like pale). It sits in umami-full dashi broth and is topped with grated daikon, ginger, and thin slices of radish and scallion. It’s so light, yet tasty, that if you were someone other than me, it would make the perfect light meal on a humid summer day.
With my second Ginga Kogen came my hot bowl of hakata broth ramen, its steam wafting up and spiraling around my face like a pork fat facial. I quickly grated a small blizzard of sesame seeds on top and gave it a gentle stir to mix the miso paste into the broth. Then I tasted just a small spoonful of the broth. Damn. Damn, damn, damn. Damn you, Ippudo. Damn you and your stupid hour-long waits for perfect hakata broth. If you were a single person, Ippudo, I would kick you. The broth is so rich, so flavorful, yet so perfectly balanced so that it’s not overly porky to that point where it almost gets fishy. It’s not just about flavor, it’s about mouthfeel – Ippudo’s broth coats your mouth in a pleasing way that doesn’t leave a fat slick that prevents you from tasting anything else. You enjoy its richness and then wish for more as it begins to fade and dissipates. It coats, it scores.
The house-made noodles are my favorite ramen noodles yet. They aren’t mushy, curly, springy noodles. They’re made in the basement of Ippudo and each, thin, chewy, square-width noodle has its own almost-meatiness to it. When slurped, or pinched with chopsticks, they fall into a perfect waterfall. Ramen noodles are made with an alkaline mineral water (according to Wiki-doodalah) which probably accounts for the depth of flavor in the noodles. It may also contribute to a mildly unpleasant smell in the basement right outside the noodle room. Bleh. Luckily, unless you’re curious like me, you’re probably not snooping around the noodle room anyway, so order your noodles a little firm and then enjoy the mildly sweet, nutty taste and chewy texture combo of the noodles.
The sliced pork belly in Ippudo’s ramen is also pretty well-executed. It’s sliced just thin enough and braised carefully to ensure that it’s as tender as it is flavorful. The only drawback to the entire Akamaru Modern bowl is the sulfur yolk inside the marinated egg. It’s so unfortunate. The marinated “whites” of the egg (stained coffee-colored by the soy-based marinade) are the most flavorful of any egg that I’ve tasted, but without a delicious custard yolk, the egg disappoints me time after time. Of course, I keep ordering the egg because I’d rather have the delicious whites and slightly sulfur-smelling egg (complete with green ring) than no egg at all. <sigh>
So in the end, Ippudo strengthened its hold on my belly while its repulsive wait times continues to anger my heart. Ippudo is the bad boy of ramen joints: he’s slick; when he pays you attention, you feel like gold; but he sometimes leaves you waiting for hours or just stands you up entirely. But you keep coming back… By the time we left, the almost empty lobby that greeted us at 6PM was now PACKED with hungry and anxious ramen addicts who stared longingly at us as we stumbled towards the door, bellies painfully full of delicious ramen.