Before our lunch at Ippudo, the only ramen I had ever tasted was Oodles of Noodles, those cellophane-wrapped instant ramen soup packages whose block of dried noodles expand when you douse them with boiling water. Admittedly, those lunches were memorable for their novelty and for a student on a tight budget, their affordability.
More recently, however, we had been reading about the trendy ramen shops opening up in New York City and were eager to try the real deal. Our son who lives in the city suggested Ippudo Westside (located in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan), part of an international chain.
The first Ippudo popped up in Fukuoka Japan in 1985 and now, in addition to the two branches open in New York (this one and one in the East Village) there are three in China and others in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia.
We heard about the legendary multiple hour waits at the East Village location so opted to try our luck at this newer location, which only opened this year. While the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, they have a highly efficient seating system. You walk in, give the hostess your cell phone number and she texts you as soon as your table is ready. Our wait on a Saturday afternoon was only about a half hour (a couple of laps around the block) that allowed us to gin up an appetite.
As you enter the restaurant, which is below street level, there’s a contemporary bar at the front that’s perfect for cocktails before being seated. Although there are no windows in the rear, the two large dining rooms are bright and cheery. One is a traditional ramen bar where everyone sits around a U-shaped table. The other is a more conventional dining room with booths.
When it’s your turn to be seated, you’re welcomed with a chorus from servers on both sides of the room. Since the chant was in Japanese, we weren’t quite sure what they were saying but recognized the tones as warm and welcoming. With people coming and going, the ambiance is bustling.
The menu is fairly simple. There is one section with a variety of interesting appetizers and then a more limited list of ramen dishes with optional toppings. The most memorable part of our meal was the Hirata pork bun appetizer (two large buns for $9). Two light floury round buns (folded in half) were filled with succulent pork slices and smothered in an addictive tangy sauce. We also enjoyed the Kani Cream (crab) croquettes ($10).
Since there were three of us, we were able to order three different ramen dishes, served in three different colored bowls, all made with tonkotsu (pork broth), slices of pork loin, miso paste and thin, straight noodles. (The noodles at Ippudo are made from scratch and boiled for 26 hours.)
The Shiromaru Hakata Classic had the blandest soup base. Our son’s dish of Akamaru Modern was kicked up a notch with garlic oil. My husband opted for the Karaka-Men, considered the “boldest.” He enjoyed it but I thought it was damn spicy! The ramen dishes are about $15 each, with additional toppings available for $2 each. We ordered two of the dishes with poached eggs. Noodle lovers with leftover broth can also order a noodle refill for $2.
The service was efficient, friendly and attentive. We were probably done in less than an hour and the food arrived hot and beautifully plated.
I later learned that there are many regional variations of this iconic Japanese dish. Depending on where you eat them, ramen noodles can be thicker or curlier; broths vary as well. Ippudo was such an interesting experience close to home that we’re ready to explore the rest of the city’s immensely popular ramen shops.
IF YOU GO
Ippudo Westside, 321 W. 51 St. (between 8th and 9th Avenues), New York City
Check out the Ippudo menu.