Totto Ramen Is the Closest Thing We’ve Got to the East Village

Lunch’er “Chris” is on fire! Yesterday he gave us a rundown of all the decent options at Taste of Summer in Rock Center (today is the last day, btw.) Today he files this pretty amazing report on Ramen Totto, which is now open for lunch. I think it might be time to make this guy official. Please welcome the newest contributor to the fold… Chris H.

Few would consider ramen to be good hot weather food. Even fewer would consider a restaurant located on 52nd btw. 8+9th to be within midtown lunch bounds. However, with Totto Ramen’s recent announcement that they would start serving lunch I felt compelled to schlep (schvitzing all the way) to the outer regions of Midtown to check out Ryuichi “Bobby” Munekata’s latest offering. Was the journey worth it? We noodle over the answer after the jump…

The famously discreet Munekata is doing his best impression of a Japanese Danny Meyer, recently adding Totto Ramen to his already impressive portfolio of upscale Japanese eateries, Yakitori Totto, Soba Totto, Aburiya Kinnosuke, and Hide-Chan ramen.

At Totto Ramen, Mr. Muneketa has called upon the services of Chef Hideto Kawahara, who is allegedly a ramen legend in the Fukuoka prefecture of Japan. Here, Kawahara plies his skills in the form of chicken paitain ramen, miso ramen, vegetarian ramen, each with iteratively spicier doppelgangers available for additional cost. Unfortunately, at $9.50, only the non-spicy chicken paitain ramen fits within the $10 Midtown Lunch constraint.

If you’re lucky enough to score a seat at the bar, you’ll be treated to dinner (or lunch) and a show. Before you, a trio of resolute looking cooks churn through service in the open air kitchen. Watch as a small portion of ‘tare’, or ramen seasoning is ladled into a fresh bowl. Tare is the secret sauce behind all interpretations of ramen, thus jealously guarded by ramen Chefs; it can easily make or break a restaurant.

Collagen is a beautiful thing. Rich people pay a lot of money to have it injected into their faces, and at Totto Ramen, chicken collagen is gleaned to form a rich, gelatinous, hearty broth. The velvety texture of the soup was on par with what I consider to be the New York ramen all-stars (both in the East Village) – Ippudo and Minca.

Watch as the cook manning the noodle station plucks noodles from a vat of water with an expert snap of his wrist, flourishing and flicking the noodles to expel excess moisture. The noodles were evocative of an ideal ramen noodle – thoroughly cooked, yet ‘ha gotai’ or al dente, springy, tender, satisfying.

Totto Chicken Paitan Ramen

On goes the char siu pork shoulder which is slowly braised, rendering the normally tough cut of meat into an unbelievably tender bite. The bits of pork are blowtorched à la minute, giving the exterior of the pork a crispy charred contrast, while the interior remains ethereally moist and delicate.

Charring the pork

The ramen is completed with the obligatory strip of nori, crunchy scallions, and discretionary toppings such as bean sprouts, mushrooms, boiled eggs. Unfortunately the extra accouterments, including the addition of their spicy sesame oil, will send you over the $10 threshold.

On my visit, the combination of the unseasonably muggy New York summer day, steaming hot soup, and the woefully underpowered A/C left us furiously wiping our brows; a small mountain of spent napkins grew steadily aside our bowls of ramen. If sweating away your lunch hour doesn’t sound appealing, then there’s much goodness to be found in the side menu. During a subsequent visit, I assembled a serviceable meal of char siu mayo don ($4.50) and an order of shinachiku mayo ($4).

Char Siu Pork Over Rice

The char siu mayo don is composed of three generous pieces of the aforementioned roast pork, perched on a bed of tender white rice. A handful of crunchy scallions contributes textural contrast and a generous squirt of kewpie mayo provides the necessary spike of acidity and sweetness to cut through the heaviness of the pork and rice.

Shinachiku Mayo

The side of shinachiku mayo, pleasantly plump young bamboo shoots lightly dressed in mayonnaise was refreshing, and lighter than the sum of its parts.

Service at Totto Ramen is remarkably prompt. On my visits, I noted with satisfaction that I was able to clock a sub 30 minute lunch. This efficiency, combined with the hot weather, is likely the reason for the absence of the lines that plagued Ramen Totto during the first few weeks of its inception.

I’ve always thought that the East Village held the uncontested edge in ramen domination. However, Totto Ramen deserves honorable mention in the hall of ramen fame.

The + (What somebody who likes this would say)

  • I want to be embalmed in this chicken broth. Oishii!
  • East Village quality ramen in Midtown? Nice!
  • The side items are a great value. I can get filled up on quality Japanese food for less than $9.
  • < 30 minute sit-down lunch? Perfect for a relaxing lunch away from the desk.

The – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)

  • Hot soup on a hot day? Weak A/C? I’ll pass.
  • Most of the menu is above $10
  • The dining room is really small and cramped… and will there be a wait?
  • No way I’m walking all the way to 9th ave for ramen.

Totto Ramen, 366 West 52nd Street (btw. 8+9th), 212-582-0052

Post and photos by Chris H.


Leave a Reply

You must log in or register to post a comment.