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Just in Time for Winter, Three New Ramen-Yas Appear Downtown

Eater's senior critic visits three new ramen restaurants below 14th Street

With over 50 ramen restaurants to choose from between the Battery and Central Park South, you’d have thought the market was totally saturated. And maybe you’ve even gotten a bit tired of the wiggly wheat noodles after close to 10 years of wildfire popularity. Well, that hasn’t stopped restaurateurs from throwing the dice a few more times in hopes of launching successful ramen joints, especially in such peak neighborhoods as the East Village and the Lower East Side, where the greatest concentration already lies. Some of the new hopefuls are actually Japanese chains that have slowly sprung into action, while others are motivated by some balky bankers, who’ve just figured out that cheap-to-produce noodles that can fetch $15 or $16 a bowl are a good bet, financially speaking.

However it has happened, and in spite of other cheap food fads like fried chicken sandwiches, these places keep opening. Recently, three new ones appeared on the LES and the EV, and Eater NY figured you’d like to know whether they represent any sort of progress in the world of ramen, and if it’s worth your while to check them out. The timing is certainly right, as winter arrives and the temps finally begin to drop.

Ramen Zundo-Ya

ramen zundo-ya
ramen zundo-ya ramen

[Bottom photos: the fried garlic and the zebunose ramen.]

Founded in 2002, Ramen Zundo-Ya is a chain with 18 stores and four noodle factories in Japan, seeking to penetrate the American market for the first time here rather than in L.A. The walk-down dining room on East 10th is located underneath a real estate office, and, even more suspiciously, right around the corner from the original Ippudo, which is still the city’s most popular ramen parlor. Is there overflow potential? You bet! Inside find whitewashed walls with a few calligraphic ideograms, a red rising sun, and not much else. The place seats perhaps 30 at round and rectangular tables, with a little extra seating at a sake bar and prep counter with a stylized American flag behind it.

Like many of the Japanese chains arriving here, Zundo-Ya specializes in tonkotsu broth to the point of obsession. This soup is made from long-boiled pork bones, and each new ramen place that serves it tries to make its version thicker and greasier than any of its predecessors — neglecting the fact that New Yorkers, as slender urbanites, might prefer the lighter shiro or shoyu broths, or might find miso more to their liking. The menu offers seven bowls ($13 to $18) based on the pork bone broth, nearly identical except for the addition of gooey boiled eggs and chile peppers. Indeed, chiles are very prominent on Zundo-Ya’s bill of fare, highlighting the increasing importance of lip-burn in the city’s ramen offerings.

An alternative, though not much of one, is wafu ramen, which is made with a combo pork-and-fish broth that is nearly as heavy. Then there’s one tsukemen, and a pair of bowls with soy milk and vegetarian broths, respectively. The pictures of those options are far smaller on the menu, as if discouraging you from ordering them. If you can afford it, the zebunose ramen ($18) is particularly recommended, a fully loaded bowl with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in: seaweed, pickled greens, eggs, scallions, seaweed, nori, two half-eggs, and your choice of noodles, one slender and somewhat curly, the other thin and straight (pick the fatties).

Another feature of Zundo-Ya is the proportion of fat in the pork planks offered, with four gradations from Light to Super-Rich, your choice. The usual apps are tendered, including some nice fried chicken, fried gyoza, a couple of bun choices, and, most uniquely, ninniku-ball ($3.50), two deep-fried garlic heads. Weird, but wonderful. 84 East 10th St, 917-639-3549.

Mr. Taka

[Clockwise from the to left: Mr. Taka exterir, sweet potato tempura, shoyu ramen, eel over rice. ]

Located next door to Bluestockings bookstore, meaning you can bone up on Marx and Engels before slurping your noodles, Mr. Taka was founded by two friends from Japan, including one guy who’d operated a popular ramen-ya in Japan. The place has big windows and a glass door, making it shine like a beacon on Allen, and you can see all the fancy woodwork inside, providing seating for perhaps 25 along two counters and at tables. A hearty welcome is offered as you enter, and the menu once again showcases a very heavy tonkotsu broth, in plain and spicy permutations. Also provided are miso and a range of flavored shoyu (soy-based) broths, ranging from plain to ginger to yuzu, plus a pair of vegetarian ramens, one spicy, one not. Many of these broths are based on chicken rather than pork, with a choice of chicken or pork belly as the added meat. Bowls of ramen run from $12.50 to $16.00.

The ramen here has an artisanal bent, with a variety of fairly unusual add-ins. The yuzu-flavored soy bowl was particularly excellent, with its tinge of citrus and addition of bamboo shoots and radish sprouts, while the so-called white soy broth was dull as dishwater. Choose carefully. The spicy tonkotsu formulation features kikurage mushrooms and fried garlic, adding a nice touch of sweetness. The spicy miso ramen provided an unusual hint of cilantro. Many strange things are going on at Mr. Taka.

Apps are also way above average for a ramen-ya. Standouts include purple sweet potato tempura with three dipping sauces, spicy fried shrimp, and good homemade gyoza. Three rice bowls are furnished, each in two sizes; the grilled eel rice ($10/$17) is filling and a great deal. Cash only. 170 Allen St, (212) 254-1508.

Gen Ramen House

[Bottom: vegetarian noodles and paitan ramen]

It was inevitable that ramen parlors run by Chinese proprietors would begin opening in Chinatown. After all, ramen was inspired by la mian, and it’s natural that its originators should want to seize the noodle back and transform it yet again, turning it back upon itself like a farinaceous serpent. There have been several already, but Gen Ramen House, just down the street from Vanessa’s Dumplings, is the latest. The symbol is a cartoon chicken wielding chopsticks, blowing the lid off the gravitas that accompanies most ramen shops. The prices are notably cheaper, too, with bowls of noodles running a shocking $6.50 each. Take that, Ippudo!

These bowls are a bit smaller than usual, too, and the noodles resemble those you used to shake out of a plastic bag in the college dorm. This is not a bad thing. There are three choices: two made with chicken broth, and one vegetarian. The paitan ramen has a nice thick piece of notably unfatty pork, a half gooey egg, and sheet of laver. Not much more other than a very nice emulsified broth made from bird and not hog. The vegetarian ramen is particularly wild, with a selection of vegetables such as you might find in an odd stir fry, including baby corn, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts (!).

Also available is a bargain $7 eel-over-rice bowl, some super cheap Taiwanese-looking gyoza (four for $1.50), a mayo-smeared pork bun, and a fresh-tasting cucumber salad dressed with sesame oil. For the non-connoisseur who just wants a decent bowl of noodles, Gen Ramen is your place. 112 Eldridge St, 212-966-9696.

Top photo: The interior of Ramen Zunda-Ya

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