David Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village in 2004. That same year Toshiaki Kondo flung the doors open on Rockmeisha, an obscurely located West Village izakaya on Barrow Street southeast of Sheridan Square. With its opening, New York City’s ramen race was on. Rockmeisha rocked on for 16 years until it closed as the pandemic loomed. Miraculously, it reopened a few weeks ago at 351 East 14th Street, just west of First Avenue.
Kondo grew up in Hakata on Japan’s southernmost Kyushu, where he had operated a food stall; in New York, his tiny new restaurant mirrored that stall, with dark blue flap curtains, a noodle bar, and a handful of makeshift raised tables in a rustic interior. It had twin themes: One referenced the introduction of American wrestling into Japan in the 1960s, and the other was American rock from the same era, hence the name.
Among a fleet of inventive multicultural dishes, the ramen replicated the street food version from his hometown, so much simpler than the confusion of broths and optional add-ins identified with Hakata ramen today: thin firm wheat noodles actually imported from Hakata, a couple of slices of fatty pork, and an unforgettable beige broth made from pork bones — dense and flavorful.
The new place is twice the size of the previous incarnation, with a front porch and corrugated roof like a rough shack, a narrow upholstered dining room in the back, and a noodle counter in the middle with the same flapping curtains, where Kondo himself presides with a winsome presence as chef and owner. A modest amount of the decor from the old place remains, including a jukebox stocked with singles from the ’50s and ’60s, and a world-champion wrestling belt.
With the reopening of his restaurant, one of the city’s best ramens in the Hakata style persists ($18), elegant in its simplicity and unspeakably rich. I shared it with two friends who’d never visited Rockmeisha before, and they were wowed. Thankfully, the restaurant had kept other of its less common menu selections — always calculated to go with a box of sake or its humongous liter mugs of draft Sapporo beer ($15) — this is a Japanese pub, after all.
The menu is mainly small plates, including Brussels sprouts ($14) cut in half, painted with miso, and broiled. A lovely dish featuring a vegetable rarely found in Japan. There’s an American potato salad, too, creamy in the way it’s served in Texas barbecues, but here the whipped spuds are pink, spicy, and ramified with cod caviar ($9), and potato chips stick out the top. Then there’s fried chicken, crisp and smothered in tartar sauce. It’s embarrassingly messy, such that you’ll hesitate to pick it up with your fingers until you’ve downed at least half of that humongous beer.
As evidence of the rock theme of the place, the grilled trotter, gooey and unctuous and one of the best things on the menu, is called “I Want to Hold Your Hand” ($11). The chicken offal known as “Pinball Gizzards” had run out when we tried to order it. A chalkboard special of pork ribs that evening was scrawled as “All You Need Is Rib.” Dishes are divided into two categories: 45s (small) and 33s (large), which represent the revolutions per minute of vinyl records — but you knew that already.
This being an izakaya, one might be well-advised to take the needle off the 33s and drop it down on the 45s, figuratively speaking. But then you’d miss not only the Hakata ramen, but a pork katsu sando served with fries, a shrimp or chicken curry with cheese, and a so-called Hakata cheesesteak that had no cheese, but some nice thick slices of warmed-over roast beef slathered with mayo and gravy on white bread. The fries alongside are great, also, twice fried and not too squishy.
Rockmeisha is a great place to drink with friends, especially if you like beer and sake, and prefer to eat your dinner as small dishes taken sequentially.