Now don't get me wrong; I have nothing against hot soup in the warmer months. But there has to be a limit, and tonkotsu, depending on how it's made, can evoke a fettuccine alfredo over cream of mushroom soup. Lucky for us, Ivan Ramen's founder has these problems solved, and he's put tonkotsu on his July menu to prove it.
"Tonkotsu has always made my stomach do a little bit of a flip flop," Ivan Orkin tells me via phone from Tokyo. He's the Long Island guy who rose to fame selling ramen in Japan before taking New York by storm in late 2013. The Orkin style of ramen is largely clean and clear; the chef is known for his double soups that are half-dashi, half-chicken broth. And he's largely steered clear of pure tonkotsu. "It always made me a little bit sleepy. It was always a little too heavy for me as a regular style."
Orkin does, however, use tonkotsu as a base for his mazamen dishes, a style of broth-light ramen where the ratio of liquid to noodle is closer to an sauced Italian pasta than a Japanese soup. But he's really never sold tonkotsu, on its own, at his flagship until now*. His key to keeping things reasonable is by serving it in the tsukemen-style, where the broth comes in a smaller bowl, with the whole wheat noodles presented on the side for dipping (like soba). A trio of condiments accompany the ramen: chopped scallions, burnt spicy oil, and katsuobushi powder.
Like at the excellent Mu Ramen in Long Island City, Orkin makes a conscious effort to keep the richness in check. "I'm really careful about how much fat I use, and not because I'm concerned about health necessarily," Orkin says. "I've always felt that as a chef, once you leave you're my responsibility for the rest of the day. I want you to feel great. I want you to feel energized...you shouldn't feel like you should have to go home and have a nap. I've eaten a lot of ramen and i've watched others make tonkotsu; sometimes they're putting like 100ml of fat into the bowl. I don't think the body is prepared to digest that much." But for those who want to amp up the richness, the dish comes with three cubes of fried pork belly and half an egg.
So how's the product? Good. Real good. Take a sip of the broth before dipping in your noodles – you want to try good caviar by itself before messing around with the blini, know what I'm sayin'? The viscosity is marked; some might compare it to Thanksgiving gravy, but the better point of reference is a decades-old Madeira. The liquid looks and feels like syrup for a split second — and then it magically dissolves into ether. The flavor is gently porky and intensely salty, but the salinity dissipates once you start DUNKING. And the finish is clean, without any of that unpleasant grittiness one might encounter at Ippudo.
The noodles, incidentally, are al dente and served chilled, all the better to take the edge off our city's sweltering weather. And the nice thing about this tsukemen is that it lets you savor the noodles over a longer period of time. With a traditional broth, by contrast, the ramen is best consumed quickly as the noodles soften and break down in the hot liquid.
So there you go. Tonkotsu tsukemen. Cost: $16, available at dinner only. I finished a full portion in the early evening, shamefully drank all the leftover broth, then Citibiked over to the Whitney. I was none the worse off. STRONG BUY.
*While Orkin hasn't sold a solo tonkotsu dish at Ivan Ramen on Clinton Street until recently, he did serve a hot, traditional version of the dish after 8 p.m. at his Gotham West Market Slurp Shop from March until mid-July. That location now only carries the tsukemen tonkotsu as well.