To dine at TabeTomo at prime time means to wait. This should not surprise any ramen aficionado. The restaurant does not take reservations. The chef is Tomotsugu Kubo, who once helmed the wildly popular Tsujita in Los Angeles. And TabeTomo is surely the only local spot to run a dedicated, this-is-what-we-do-best tsukemen program. It’s a soba-esque style of ramen that involves dipping chilly noodles in a hot broth whose strength can approach that of turkey gravy.
How long will you wait? Well, that depends! On a recent Friday night, a scrum of about 15 prospective patrons hovered near the entrance, while a host doled out the bad news on an individualized basis.
Ask: Party of two?
Quote: “An hour to 90 minutes.”
Ask: Just me
Quote: “Forty minutes, maybe shorter.”
My wait, alas, wasn’t really shorter. I watched one diner ahead of me put their name down, wait, eat, pay, and leave before my turn came up. The good news, however, is that the signature dish is good.
Tsukemen, invented in 1961 by Taishoken’s Kazuo Yamagishi, has exploded in popularity in Tokyo over the past decade, and the style is catching on in Los Angeles. Tsujita, Kubo’s old stomping grounds, can easily garner hour-plus waits, while competitor Okiboru is attracting attention with its painstakingly crafted homemade noodles.
In New York, however, tsukemen exists more under the radar, appearing on longer menus at venues typically known for other dishes. It’s not a style that serve with the frequency of, say, spicy miso or shoyu.
TabeTomo’s crowds suggest that might change. The restaurant, a sparse space with the bulk of its seating at a u-shaped bar, offers donburi rice bowls, fried chicken, and a few broth-based ramen options. But its chief draw is one of three tsukemens: with plain noodles, vegetables, and broth ($14); with a soft-boiled egg and extra slices of chashu pork ($18); or with an eye towards overindulgence, a giant “challenge” bowl for $48.
The broth is tonkotsu, a classic choice for tsukemen, and the noodles are thick and dense, approaching the texture of udon. This is by design. The added surface area should allow for more sauce to cling to the exterior during a quick dip, whereas a thinner noodle is better built for absorption through longer soaking times.
So you dip, and you slurp. The result is impressive, mostly. A few swishes with chopsticks heat up the noodles, which boast a firm al dente snap. The soup packs a vinegary tang, balancing out the heady richness. I’d argue the temperature of the broth — just a touch hotter than lukewarm — is about right. But for those who want something with more of a kick, a waiter will drop a hot stone into the bowl, free of charge, a feat that momentarily turns the soup into a bubbling cauldron of pork fat.
Two quick gripes: The tonkotsu doesn’t quite cling to the noodles as magnetically as it should. And that broth is a touch more diluted than one might expect for a tsukemen. Make no mistake; everything tastes good. It’s just that TabeTomo doesn’t yet serve tsukemen on par with, say, Ivan Ramen, with its silkier pork broth and grippier noodles, or Momosan, with a dipping sauce so dense it’s on the verge of being un-sippable by itself.
So here’s how the Suttonomics play out: At these affordable prices, TabeTomo qualifies as a BUY if there are seats available right away, which is quite possible on a Monday. But if the wait hovers around 20 to 40 minutes, I’d call it a HOLD. And if the wait shoots up over that we’re at a SELL; better to try the competition instead.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).