I remember being somewhere around seven years old when ramen became a thing in my world. My mom and aunt would buy it for quick meals. Always the Sapporo Ichiban brand. Always the chicken flavour in the green package. By this age, I had decided that I did not like soup, so I really have no idea what it tasted like. But I can tell you that I loved eating the plain dry noodles, carb fiend that I am. Kids at school would even bring ramen packages for lunch to eat dry with the seasoning sprinkled over top—the era when the only cup noodles were from Lipton. And my mother can’t be the only one who had a go-to entertaining salad that consisted of crushed dry ramen, iceberg lettuce, shredded chicken, and an “Asian” dressing. I miss the 80s.
My avoidance of true ramen continued well into my 30s and well into living in the great ramen city of Vancouver. To be blamed on fear of dirty water broth and of the unknown. I gained confidence on a trip to DC and a visit to Daikaya. Again, like with pho, maybe I needed to be on my own, away from all things known, to get my feet wet. Whatever the case, experiencing the chew of fresh ramen noodles helped me get to the other side, and I definitely chastised myself for going without for so long. Salty broth also helped. If there is one thing that defines my aging, it is definitely my switch from having a sweet tooth to having a salty one. I always have room for dessert, but it is my use of salt on everything that defines my palate right now. So salty ramen broth is right up my alley.
The first place I had ramen in New York was Totto. It remains my favourite for a consistent, flavourful bowl at a good price. I also like that it’s paitan ramen, which is made with a rich chicken broth. Although I do like the milky tonkotsu pork broth of popular Ippudo, I’m generally shy of super fatty pork broths and the common fatty char siu pork topping. I’m a girl who orders her bacon extra crispy and isn’t all over creamy pork belly because the visual ribbon of fat and subsequent chew are just too rich for me. So thus I also like that I can substitute char siu chicken for the pork at Totto. The chicken is tender enough, but giving it time to soak up some broth while you slurp up the noodles is a good idea. I always get the spicy version, and while I might touch my nose a few times with a tissue, it’s not a level of heat to fear. I find that it just amplifies the restorative power of a big bowl of hot broth.
There are now three Totto Ramen locations in the city. The original is the most fun, as the tight basement quarters, loud music, and proximity to the open kitchen makes you imagine that you could be in Japan. But the wait can be horrendous. Walking less than five minutes to the much more spacious, but admittedly less charming, second location on the West side has never failed to reward me with a much shorter or no wait. I could always stay home and doctor up packaged noodles to remove any possibility of a wait, but I don’t miss the 80s that much.