There’s a Blade Runner vibe as you depart the 7 train at Queensboro Plaza, cross over an arching walkway, then plunge into a nest of modernistic condos, all funny angles and jutting balconies. In a neighborhood that looks like the NYC of the future, the Instant Noodle Factory at 24-11 41st Avenue near Crescent Street, looms into view, with little in the way of signage other than a window decal of a dog and cat bobbing eagerly in a tub among waves of noodles.
Inside the restaurant that opened around two weeks ago, bright white walls seem more like an art gallery than a factory; no employees were visible when I first arrived. A mural shows playful cartoons of ramen being assembled into soups. Other art reminiscent of Joseph Cornell feature ramen packages arrayed in a wall-mounted matrix. A row of solitary customers sit along a counter, working on their bowls of noodles, fishing with chopsticks, and quietly slurping. A couple of tables accommodate larger parties.
At the end of the room an order screen flickers across from four computerized stations, each centered on an induction burner. Each station also has a nozzle through which a measured quantity of boiling water squirts, depending on which numbered button is pushed. The button also controls the length of the boil. After you order a certain type of noodles along with free and paid add-ins, 35 in number, you wait for your meal to be delivered in deconstructed form. It comes on a tray that fits precisely into a mortise in the counter in front of each boiling station.
Whether this is a participatory art gallery, automated restaurant, or even a grocery store (you can buy all noodles in six packs and take them home) is up to you. When you enter, you are advised to study the ramen matrix, which consists of 85 packages of dried noodles, mainly from Japan, China, and Korea, though a few originate in Thailand, Singapore, and other locations.
Yet, this is a factory and you are the worker responsible for preparing your own meal. I was entirely bewildered when I first walked in, wondering how to approach the place. But this bewilderment was delightful — because perplexed is not a bad way to feel at the start of a meal. My advice is to select one of the preset noodle combinations, eight in number, which include type of ramen; added objects like sausages, herbs, fish balls, and boiled eggs; and condiments. If you don’t pick a preset combo, you could spend hours considering your million or so options.
I ordered duck duck noods ($9), which consisted of a pair of packets of Mama noodles from Thailand, which includes a pulled duck leg, a gooey soft-boiled egg, and scallions. At the touch screen, I was offered all sorts of add-ins from which I (perhaps foolishly) selected an extra dose of duck ($6) and a pair of Japanese kurobata sausages ($2.50). I thought their smoky flavor might go well with the duck, and they did. From the free selection of add-ins, I picked kimchi. Are we crossing too many cultural barriers here? Instant Noodle Factory knows no borders, and even traipses out of Asia by offering Parmesan, birria, and ghost peppers.
My order ferried by a human attendant appeared almost instantly through a door covered with a white sheet. The server placed my neatly arranged tray of two empty packets of Mama noodles, and multiple other ingredients, some already in the paper bowl, others not. She took my bowl and placed it under a nozzle and pushed button number one. A stream of boiling water cascaded into the bowl and then the timer counted down the minutes till my ramen would be ready.
Once it was bubbling, I removed the bowl to the counter and began working on the noodles. The broth was rich, brown, and silky and intensely duck flavored in a way that was almost artificial. Really, every bite was a pleasure. And much of the pleasure came from knowing I’d customized my ramen exactly as I’d wanted it at that moment.