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Is Momofuku's Meatless Ramen NYC's Best Ramen?

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Photos by Nick Solares

The kimchi jars have been more reliable over the years, with their spicy, salty kick. The shrimp buns have been a more compelling reason to visit, with the heady prawns pressed into White Castle-style squares. The cheap shochu slushies have never been anything but Grade A thirst quenchers. And the $125 platters of fried chicken have a solid track record of booking up a month out; that's how good they are.

Noodle Bar, founded in 2004, is the restaurant that would help catapult David Chang into a stratospheric level of culinary superstardom, so it's ironic that the namesake noodles, as good as they sometimes are, have never been consistently mind-blowing enough to qualify as among New York's finest.

And then earlier this year I tried something new. The broth was brown, like roasted chicken, and nearly opaque, like Thanksgiving gravy. The mouthfeel was silky, as if the fat of three medium-sized animals had been emulsified into the soup. The noodles were firm, heavy and sweet. And it was all so rich I must've spent a half hour trying to finish the $14 creation. It wasn't just good — it was spectacular.

So 10 years after Chang opened his swine-heavy, no-substitution, not terribly vegetarian-friendly East Village hangout, he and his team of cooks have finally started putting out a ramen dish that qualifies as one of the city's best. And I suppose this is when I should tell you that it doesn't contain any pork, poultry, beef, or lamb. It's called chickpea Hozon ramen and it's completely vegetarian. WTF, right?

So I tried it again. And again — three times this year so far. Talk to me in a few weeks and that number will be higher, because it has more depth of flavor than 99 percent of the meat-based varieties of ramen I've fattened myself on. The only thing keeping this soup from being out-and-out vegan is the fact that it contains butter.

Hozon, which takes it's name from the Japanese word for preserved, is an "instant-umami product that has an uncanny ability to deliver a savory roundness in meatless dishes," I wrote in my review of Chang's Má Pêche. The salty paste is produced by Kaizen Trading Company, Momofuku's culinary development lab.

Without diving too deep into all the science, Kaizen ferments nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains to make soy-like sauces (Bonji) and miso-style products (Hozon), without the use of soybeans. Chefs around New York (and the country) have been testing out these fine goods, using them to add a bit of extra oomph to whatever needs it. If you've tried the jalapeno uni poppers at Alder, the raw sea scallops at Thirty Acres, the roasted beets at Ssäm Bar or the sunflower tofu at Benu in San Francisco, you've already ingested Bonji or Hozon.

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Ramen is a particularly compelling test vehicle for this effort as it's typically a dish that contains tons of sodium and ample quantities of animal fat; if you don't believe me watch what happens when you let your take-out noodles sit at room temperature for a few hours — little globules of white pork fat start rising to the surface like larvae on old meat, a terrible image but a great reminder to indulge in such deliciousness with greater prudence. This is where Hozon can help — not only is it vegetarian but it also contains about a third the sodium of regular miso, the Kaizen people tell me.

Now pay attention to this part because this is the key to understanding why the Hozon ramen tastes so [expletive-omitted] good. Plants are great when cooked by smart folks like Christopher Kostow or David Kinch or Dominique Crenn, especially in our era where vegetables are the star of the plate and the meat is the seasoning (or completely non-existent), rather than vice versa. But that's not what Hozon ramen is about — it's not just an effort to show off seasonal produce or elevate the subtle flavors of a shio, shoyu, or mushroom dashi. Hozon ramen, I'll argue, is a meat-free tonkotsu, a vegetarian riff on the famed pork bone broth that's often so unctuous and white it can look like milk.

Or think of it this way: Hozon ramen is the soup equivalent of tofu chicken nuggets or seitan chorizo. Making it taste good is tough to do, because you expect meat and you're not getting any. But the Momofuku folks get it right — very right.

The preparation is simple. Noodle Bar chefs take a shiitake kombu dashi and add lapsong souchong (smoked black tea), chickpea Hozon, soy sauce, mirin, butter, and Canton noodles. And the flavor is out of this world.

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The earthy mushroom stock hits you first — it's fungi to the power of 10. Then the Hozon starts working its magic like a warm bath. The mouthfeel is smooth and round, like a creamy New England clam chowder but minus the cream. Fried chickpeas float about, collapsing into a sandy, salty crunch. And garlic-sauteed kale imparts a bright, tannic sting to counter the weight of the soup. We've already discussed the noodles; they're dense and al dente though soft enough to absorb the delicious broth. I'll take this over Ippudo's fatty tonkotsu any day of the week.

I'm not typically in the business of naming the best pizza or the best hamburger as such claims tend to be less useful than proper descriptions — better to celebrate variety when there are so many different styles and individual preferences. But for what it's worth, I'll state for the record that Momofuku's chickpea Hozon is the most compelling new ramen to hit New York in a long time.

· All Coverage of Momofuku Noodle Bar [~ENY~]

Momofuku Noodle Bar

171 1st Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10003 (212) 777-7773 Visit Website