It’s infrequent that I’ll go so far as to do research in order to write a restaurant review, especially in New York. Tell you the history of the burger? Heck if I know, but I’ve eaten a metric ton of them in my day. Steaks? Brunch items? Stew? Stroganoff? (Ok I’ll probably research stroganoff…) But when I encounter an item whose history is so bound up in the experience of eating it, especially an item so completely foreign to me, it’s worth it to do a little boning up.
“To the Wikipedia, Robin!”
Such was the case with ramen, a dish that’s the subject of a burgeoning love affair; a dish I knew, until very recently, only in its instant form.
Even instant ramen, it turns out, is bound intricately into the narrative thread that shaped modern ramen. Momofuku Ando, its inventor, was both Japanese and Taiwanese, and Japanese people, in one poll, called it the greatest Japanese invention of the 20th century. (1) Well, it sure got me through college.
Real ramen is a different beast altogether, of course, and most everybody agrees it came from China. Its earliest form, appearing around 1900, was probably a simple pork bone broth with cut – rather than pulled – noodles. Fast forward to today, and ramen is vanguard, with multiple chefs innovating and developing their own unique spins. It’s complicated, but today most ramen is a variation on one of several recurring themes. I won’t bore you by listing them, and luckily I don’t have to, because Minca, the subject of this review, does it for me on their menu.
Point being, ramen is deep. It’s not the type of thing you expect to get your head around in a single trip to a restaurant, and any attempt to would only be scratching the surface.
Minca, situated far enough away from the subway in the East Village to keep most of the tourists away (as if the first thing they’d seek out in the East Village would be authentic ramen), does as fair a job of representing Japanese ramen as any US restaurant I’ve seen. I’ve been on multiple occasions, but for purposes of this review I want to recommend two dishes.
First is Tsukemen, which literally means “dipping noodles”. It’s reputed to be the invention of one Kazuo Yamagishi, now a bit of a “celebrity chef” in Japan, in the mid-90s. Most traditional ramen is served in soup stock, but tsukemen comes with every item served separately. Instead of diffuse noodle broth, there’s a viscous cocktail of dashi powder, seafood broth, and reduced pork stock. Noodles are thick, wavy, and yellow (cooked in alkaline “kansui”, which helps them hold their shape in the broth).
Minca advertises this dish as “Tokyo Style” and it’s fitting, as Tokyo became know for its tsukemen. To the best of my knowledge, you won’t find this too many other places in New York.
Minca also does a number of great variations of Shio broth, the earliest and simplest form of ramen, adding two options to the traditional pork broth – a mixture of pork and chicken, or chicken alone. This is excellent with thin noodles, which are more robust and less chewy than the tsukemen noodles.
Ramen at Minca is a notch more expensive than at competitors, and if it’s busy you might have to wait (though not as long as at some more centrally located – and lower quality – joints), but I recommend you persevere, and experience something truly unique.
Sources – 1