When E.A.K. Ramen opened in the West Village in May 2017, it stood out in this ramen-crazed city by serving iekei-style ramen. That style of soup — which submerges thick noodles in a creamy tonkotsu-shoyu broth blend, topped with spinach, seaweed, and chashu (roast pork belly) — was difficult, if not impossible, to previously find, and E.A.K.’s excellent version scored the Japanese chain the distinction of NYC’s best imported restaurant chain of 2017 in the annual Eater Awards.
Iekei ramen originated in Yokohama, a bayside city outside Tokyo, and the signature style can now be found in shops throughout Japan. Most purveyors are indie, one-off spots, (many of which were opened by former employees of renowned shop Yoshimura, which is credited for creating the style), but Iekei Ramen is the biggest chain serving the distinctive soup style, with 40 outposts in Japan, locations in Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and hundreds more shops that franchise their recipe. The name was changed to E.A.K. here so an American audience would phonetically know how to pronounce the dish.
E.A.K. also employs a cheeky, social media-ready slogan (“But First, Ramen”) and equally Instagrammable bits of branding, like glossy logo-laden bowls and colorful ramen-themed stickers to grab on the way out. Playing right into that social media savvy is the Zebra bowl, created a year and a half ago as a last-minute invention the day before the company opened its first location outside Japan, in Singapore, explains Kiyoyuki Miyashita, manager of E.A.K. Ramen in New York.
In Singapore, the Zebra bowl simply goes by garlic shio ramen. It got its more whimsical moniker in the U.S. because of the black-and-white contrast between the white bowl and the nearly black garlic oil, drizzled on as a final flourish. Plus, it “just sounded more playful,” Miyashita says.
“Shio ramen is often a category in Japan, but it can be boring. It’s too plain, so it needed a stronger flavor,” Miyashita says. “We wanted to really differentiate our shio ramen option from the shoyu signature, since the differences are so subtle.”
The team landed on the addition of butter and garlic oil, with an added aesthetic bonus of the stark broth-to-oil contrast for a “cute” visual, he says.
In NYC, the ramen shop sells around 40 Zebra bowls each weekday and roughly 80 per weekend day. (For every 10 bowls of its signature offering, called The E.A.K., ordered daily, three Zebra bowls are ordered.) It only takes four minutes to assemble a bowl at E.A.K., but days of work go into creating the ingredients.
Below, the elements of the Zebra ramen at E.A.K. Ramen:
The creamy broth, a tonkotsu-shoyu blend combining pork and chicken bones with soy, is usually cooked for around 24 hours. Three massive, three-feet-tall pots are used in the broth-making process. There’s a pre-cook pot, where pork bones, including from the pig’s head and joints — parts that are selected “for the most creaminess,” Miyashita says — are simmered in water for seven hours, to take out “the porkiness and an unwanted aroma.”
In Japan, the “super-pungent” broth produced from that first soak is desirable, but it’s too intense for American diners, according to Miyashita, so at E.A.K. Ramen, that water is thrown out and the bones are moved to another vat of water to make a “more pure, clean” broth.
The body parts of a chicken (but not the wings) are added into this second-step broth pot, which also includes some previously made, fully finished broth from the day prior, kind of like the mother or starter used to make bread.
“It’s not a one-generation thing. It needs to ‘inherit’ older broth, to really change the flavor,” Miyashita says. This second, main vat of broth then cooks for about 24 hours.
There’s also a third “sub-pot,” so when the main vat of broth gets too concentrated, some of this more-diluted broth can be poured in, typically every 30 minutes to an hour. “The broth really needs to be taken care of, almost like a baby,” says Miyashita.
Next, the thick noodles cook for three minutes in individual boiling baskets with handles, and Miyashita stirs them occasionally to avoid clumping. That’s substantially longer than the cooking time at places that serve ramen styles birthed in Fukuoka (like Ippudo) which use thin, straight strands, boiled for just five to 20 seconds.
E.A.K.’s strands, which are straight with a slight waviness, are an exclusive type made by the prolific Sun Noodles — which also supplies Momofuku Noodle Bar, Ivan Ramen, and more — using a mix of wheat flours that most closely replicates the type served at Iekei Ramen in Japan, where the noodles are made in-house. It’s not the same exact flour mix, due to difficulties of importing wheat flour from Japan to the U.S., but owners brought Iekei Ramen’s recipe and some of the actual noodles to Sun Noodles in order to most closely clone them stateside.
When the noodles are nearly done cooking, the bowl is heated by pouring hot water in briefly and then throwing it out.
The Zebra is served in a white bowl, to contrast the inky hue of the garlic oil, making for a stripe-y, zebra-like look. (The E.A.K. is served in a black bowl, and the Oh So Hot! comes, fittingly, in a red bowl; at Iekei Ramen in Japan, only black bowls are used.) As the noodles cool, a saucepan of broth gets warmed up.
The next step is adding a dollop of tare, a concentrated seasoning sauce and crucial flavor component of ramen. The type of tare used is what differentiates the Zebra bowl, which has a shio, or salt-based, tare, from The E.A.K.’s more-traditional shoyu tare. Shio tare uses soy sauce as well, but a type that’s lighter in color and flavor than what’s used to make the shoyu tare. E.A.K. uses a secret recipe for its tare, comprised of four ingredients that are cooked for around two hours.
“It’s actually not the ingredients that are the secret, but how you cook the tare. It’s basically like a soup that gets cooked down to make it really concentrated, and each ramen restaurant has its own secret way, because the concentration really changes the flavor of the ramen,” Miyashita says. The tare is then poured into the bowl, followed by the broth.
Around seven ounces of noodles arrive next. They’re twirled into an oval, skinny football-like shape, simply for presentation’s sake. Then, the toppings are added, prepared ahead of time and stored in metal bins.
First up for toppings is an aji-tama (marinated, soft boiled) egg. Miyashita boils 200 eggs at a time for seven minutes to get that perfectly gummy yolk consistency. They’re then peeled and soaked for a day and a half in a giant, waist-high vat in the walk-in refrigerator, containing a “secret,” four-ingredient marinade, which is first cooked on the stove before it’s cooled and turned into a dark brown egg bath.
Two tender hunks of chashu, sliced up in advance, are the next additions. E.A.K. Ramen makes its chashu each morning, with pork belly that’s rolled up, tied with string, and cooked in the ramen broth for four hours. It’s a symbiotic relationship between porcine liquid and solid: “The broth gets umami from the chashu, and the chashu gets umami from the broth,” Miyashita explains.
After it’s taken out of its broth bath, the chashu has to cool overnight before it’s cut, to keep the round-ish crosscut shape intact.
Next up, a mound of cooked spinach is piled on. The spinach is simply boiled each morning for just five seconds or so without any flavoring added, and then cooled. “It absorbs the soup very quickly, so it doesn’t need anything,” Miyashita says.
A spoonful of black garlic oil is then drizzled around the outer edges of the bowl. It’s made with sliced garlic fried in vegetable oil, which then gets ground up and mixed with more vegetable oil. Miyashita prefers peanut oil for additional umami, but doesn’t use it in the U.S. because of how common peanut allergies are here. Other ramen shop will also use onions in their garlic oil, he notes, but E.A.K. prefers a simpler, purer take on the aromatic topping.
The addictive, aromatic stuff has actually proved dangerous for Miyashita: He proudly shows off a massive scar on his hand, the result of a bad burn a year ago that he got from cooking garlic oil that “exploded.” He spent a month in the hospital, and had skin grafted from his leg to his hand — the injury delayed his arrival in the U.S.
Next, Miyashita places a slice of dried seaweed that’s customized with a white design, printed in calcium; some seaweed pieces have E.A.K.’s name in Japanese characters, while others say it in English along with its logo (of a steaming bowl of ramen, naturally) or are wordless, with just a heart and its logo.
The final touch is a pat of unsalted butter, which dissolves into a luscious, glossy sheen, mingling with the collagen-rich fats from the pork and chicken bones.
When E.A.K. first arrived stateside, it ambitiously plotted 1,000 shops all across the U.S. in the next decade; currently, they’re planning a second location in NYC this year, and shops in other cities nationally to follow soon, with recent research visits to markets like Boston and Denver. There’s also talk of launching a second ramen shop brand, with two NYC outposts to start, which will serve iekei-style soup, but without chashu and with a chicken-based broth, since pork-averse diners are perhaps more common here than in Japan.