Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ramen Wars

Okay, so I realize that Serious Eats discussed their Top 10 Ramen in NYC about 3 1/2 months ago. "Wow, Victoria... took you long enough to get with the program."  Yeah, I know, people, but it actually took me this long to get to try the top two picks on their list (I'm not even about to attempt to try them all, I'm a poor busy girl).  First of all, shortly after the article was posted, Serious Eats' #1 choice Hide-Chan Ramen changed their menu, and no longer offered options on the richness of the broth and the firmness of the noodles.  This was a big selling point in the review, and since then a disclaimer has been posted in the article.  When I went to Hide-Chan, a mere week after the article was released, this change had already taken place, and I had what is now the only option, medium-rich broth with al dente noodles.  I recently finally got to try #2 on the list (which is actually #1 to most people I know), Ippudo NY.  Here is my side by side comparison, and my thoughts on which is better overall.

Hide-Chan Ramen                                                        Ippudo NY
248 E 52nd St                                                                       65 4th Ave
(between 3rd Ave & 2nd Ave)            vs.                     (between 9th St & 10th St)
New York, NY 10022                                                        New York, NY 10003
(212) 813-1800                                                                   (212) 388-0088

Appetizer: Steamed Pork Buns

I know the original article was for the best ramen in NYC, but I ordered steamed pork buns at both locations and figured I would compare these as well, to get a better general sense of the restaurants.  I'm not limiting my analysis to one dish.  This is Mission: Food, and we play by different rules :)

The pork buns at Hide-Chan were "okay" but not really a highlight whatsoever.  The buns themselves were somewhat thin and soft, with well-cooked, tender pork neck inside, along with iceberg lettuce and mayonnaise.  While the pork was moist, overall the buns were pretty dry, and reminded me of a Japanese BLT (hold the tomato).  There was nothing really outstanding, and the pork was cut too thin for the application.  The price is cheaper than the ones at Ippudo, and rightfully so... they aren't as good.

Steamed Pork Buns $6

Ippudo's steamed pork buns (Hirata buns) win this match hands down.  The bun itself is thick, warm, soft, fluffy, and chewy, filled with thick-cut perfectly tender and juicy pork belly, Ippudo's special sauce (a mix of tangy and spicy), iceberg lettuce and mayo.  In this case, nothing about this pork bun reminded me of a BLT.  This was a pork bun, perfectly executed, but costing a couple bucks more than its counterpart at Hide-Chan.  I think it's worth the extra $2.  These are killer!  If you go to Ippudo, you need to get the pork buns.  Just sayin'... *drool...*

Hirata Buns $8

Ramen: The Main Event

These are ramen restaurants, so let's talk about the ramen.  For those of you who aren't in the know, ramen is a traditional Japanese noodle soup.  Yes, you can buy "ramen" at the supermarket super cheap, but this isn't that kind of ramen.  This is the good stuff.  The real deal.  This is the ramen that people wait in line outside in the cold for... first up, Hide-Chan.

Like I said before, between the time the review was posted on Serious Eats and the time I (and the rest of the Serious Eats-reading world) got to try it, they had changed their menu (don't they read the news?).  I had the Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen, which is their basic variation, boasting a rich pork broth with a good unctuous mouthfeel and intense porky flavor, tender slices of pork, perfectly al dente house-made noodles, scallions, and mushrooms.  Even though this wasn't the richest broth they originally offered (the original one had bits of pork fat floating in it), I honestly really enjoyed this ramen, just as it was.  It was simple, but satisfying.  For $9.50, it's a really good deal.

Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen $9.50

Moving on to Ippudo NY.  I should preface my discussion of the actual ramen by sharing Ippudo's tremendous popularity.  People have been known to wait for hours (PLURAL) to get a seat at Ippudo.  When I got there 15 minutes before it even opened for dinner, there was already a line forming outside.  By the time the doors opened, I felt like I was at Disneyland waiting to ride Space Mountain (well, maybe not so much, but I rarely wait in line to get into a restaurant before it even opens).  So anyway, the ramen.  I ordered the one my waiter said was the most popular, the Akamaru Modern.  It's their traditional soup, but basically the toppings are a little different, less traditional.  It comes with Ippudo's special sauce, pork belly chashu, cabbage, kikurage (mushrooms), scallions, miso paste and fragrant garlic oil.  Oh. Em. Gee.  This really is awesome ramen.  The noodles are excellent and keep their al dente bite down until the last slurp.  The broth was rich and almost seemed creamy, and with the addition of the special sauce, miso paste, and garlic oil, it really puts this broth over the top, so incredibly intense and flavorful.  You've got the slight crunch of the mushrooms, and then add the tender pork belly (basically reminds me of meat butter... oh yeah!) and you have a truly exceptional bowl of ramen.  At the truly exceptional price of $14... for soup.

Akamaru Modern - 'The original tonkotsu' soup noodle with Ippudo's special sauce, pork belly chashu, cabbage, kikurage, scallions, miso paste & fragrant garlic oil $14

All mixed up!

Ambiance and Service: These matter too :)

Of course, they do!  So first up is Hide-Chan.  The restaurant itself is fairly small, and located on the second floor, at the top of a narrow flight of stairs (similar to Yakitori Totto).  There are several tables, and a long bar area, which is where we sat.  The decor is pretty simple, classic.  Service is efficient and polite, but not memorable.  The prices overall are cheaper at Hide-Chan, and the ambiance lives up to that simplicity.  It's not in your face, and that's just fine.  With the exception of the pork buns, which were just "okay," there was nothing negative about my experience at Hide-Chan worth mentioning.  If in the neighborhood, I would happily eat their ramen in the future.

As far as ambiance and service is concerned, Ippudo is a whole other story... in a good way.  First of all, I mentioned above that people actually wait in crazy lines to eat here.  The decor is trendier and funkier, with a wall of soup bowls hanging over the bar, large wooden communal tables, and a vast open kitchen area that is completely visible to diners.  All of the cooks wear Japanese-inspired attire, kind of kitschy.

When the hostess enters the dining room to seat a party, she loudly announces the table number in Japanese to the cooks, who shout back "Irashaimase" or "Welcome" in Japanese (I asked my waiter).  They do this every single time someone is seated in the dining room.  I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that most of the staff is not Japanese.  As part of their requirements to work there, the staff must learn certain Japanese phrases, as well as all the numbers so they can translate table numbers that are shouted to them in Japanese.  When food is ready, the cooks shout in Japanese for it to get picked up.  Sitting at the bar, directly in front of some of the cooks, was a really fun experience!  I thought the environment of the restaurant was energetic and fun.  Apparently this shouting in Japanese is a traditional part of the ramen experience.  They don't have it at Hide-Chan, and I'm not sure about other spots in the city, but I'm pretty sure Ippudo is known for this aspect of their service.  And speaking of service, overall it was really great, friendly, and personal.  Having the entire kitchen welcome you into the restaurant doesn't hurt!  The entire experience was smooth and turnover is pretty fast, no waiting around for your food with a growling stomach.  And as a final thank you, a complimentary cup of tea.  It's like they know me personally :) Arigato!

My final thoughts are these... both restaurants have something good to offer.  Hide-Chan has better prices, a more modest setting, and good ramen, even though they no longer offer the same options as before.  The pork buns are a pass for me, although other people seem to like them.  At Ippudo, you have the energetic vibe, the screaming in Japanese, and of course the exponentially better pork buns, and the really awesome ramen.  The prices are higher, but I think you expect that walking in and noticing the differences in decor, service, food, and plating (I watched the cooks in front of me meticulously saucing plates of mouthwatering food).  I think when all is said and done, even with higher prices, I truly prefer Ippudo both for the experience and the delectable food.  It's not even a contest really!  I would eat at Hide-Chan again if in the area and craving ramen, but I would go out of my way for Ippudo.  Ippudo wins hands down.  And that's all folks!


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