Back when I was spending a semester in Japan, I had a friend named Taro. Taro was not a ramen fan. He was not a ramen enthusiast. Taro was a ramen fanatic. No matter what the occasion, no matter what the circumstance, ramen would be his choice for any meal. I was lucky enough to have Taro take me under his wing, and take me to what seemed, at the time, like an endless procession of noodle houses. Some were very traditional, serving up steaming bowls of cloudy tonkotsu (pork bone) broth with rich slabs of roast belly meat and soft boiled eggs with runny yolks on top. Others, not so traditional, finding innovation within the world of ramen, made light, herbaceous shio (salt) broths with thin slices of seared tuna and tender greens, or the distinctly addictive rich tsukumen (ramen not in broth, but dipped in a richer, thickened sauce) that was flourishing in Tokyo during my stay, or even the fabulously strange pineapple and shrimp ramen of PaPaPaPine (all of which may be stories for another day.) Taro had very exacting standards. Only the best Ramen would suffice. I would point out store after store that he would reject out of hand. “Too much on top. They’re ignoring the broth. The pork’s all wrong.”
I was excited ascending the steps of Toki Underground (a peculiar and ironic name for a second story restaurant.) The shop is decorated with tidbits and trinkets of Japanese ephemera (including an incredibly fun collage of “Attack on Titan” prints,) and lit with shocking lanterns. The whole restaurant pulses with a fun urban beat, and the soundtrack of modern rap provides it with a distinctive flair. Slurping my noodles, however, I felt Taro’s glowering disapproval like a ghost over my shoulder, and it hit me: I was converted to ramenism, and Toki Underground was sacrilege.
Ramen houses are typically only judged on one dish. While many offer dumplings, or alternate noodle selections, the house bowl makes or breaks a shop. As such, it is fair to judge the merits of Toki Underground based on its signature dish.
The base of any good ramen is its broth. For its signature broth, Toki Underound uses a tonkotsu broth. Typically tonkotsu has a rich purity to it, the pork flavor from the bone marrow overwhelming you. That purity is nowhere to be found at Toki Underground. While the broth doesn’t taste bad, it doesn’t taste like much of anything, salt and a vague meatiness being the only real flavors. When I asked what was in the broth, I was informed to the culprit: the broth had beef and fish added to it. While certainly palatable, the flavor was muddy and indistinct, and ultimately unmemorable.
Once the base, the broth, is set, a ramen needs to have superb noodles. If the broth is the body of the ramen, the noodles are its soul. Once again I was left grasping. The noodles were cooked well, having a pleasant springiness to them. However, they had the unmistakable texture of dried ramen. The crinkles felt like I was slurping up an (admittedly well cooked) bowl of dorm room Maruchan. They would be well served by either finding a new noodle provider, or simply making their own.
As I illustrated in my introduction, ramen can be many things. Innovation is entirely possible. And yet every deviation at Toki Underground is stunning in its pointlessness. The swap from thick slices of roast pork to a scoop of shredded pork is merely odd, and doesn’t add anything, and lacks some of the richness and purity of the traditional slab. The vegetable component, two giant fronds of bok choy, are impossible to manage with chopsticks, and cumbersome in the bowl. A strange black oil floated on top of the broth, a clear addition, yet had no clear flavor, and was not listed as an ingredient. The egg was a tremendous disappointment. Ramen often comes with a soft boiled egg, cooked in the broth. The egg has it’s own distinct flavor that when infused with the broth creates a creamy rich flavor, the yolk luxuriously coating your mouth. Toki Underground merely cracks the egg into the broth. While this perfectly poaches the egg, when surrounded by broth, the egg is quick to dissolve and the yolk mix into the broth, giving you none of the glorious texture and losing all flavor under the heavy muddy broth. Most baffling of all the innovations, however, was the giant scoop of cherry red matchsticks of pickled ginger. Typically served with fried food to cut the grease, the ginger didn’t meld in the slightest with the ramen, distracting and masking the other flavors in the ramen. The one-dimensional “endorphin sauce” (a homemade Sriracha clone) serves only to confuse flavors further. And lastly, where a spoon for Western diners (or sipping from the bowl, for those used to traditional presentation,) would suffice, the presence of a ladle is baffling and difficult to use.
When you eat ramen, you’re seeking a very specific experience. All good ramen I have ever eaten gives you a rich feeling of comfort. It’s marked by a sort of strange populism. It’s a distinctly working class dish. By attempting to gussy it up, Toki Underground created a sort of obnoxious yuppie pseudo-ramen. Suddenly, after a bowl, the bright young things at the bar seem like (and almost undoubtedly are) irritating poseurs, eager to check out a local hot spot, and mostly disinterested in their noodles. The prices certainly match, the twelve dollar bowl (and 15 dollar appetizers) a far cry from the seven dollar students dinners I enjoyed in tiny Tokyo backstreets.
While the restaurant is lively and hip, the staff friendly, the cocktails creative, and the clientele attractive for a certain type, ultimately, Toki Underground has failed it’s central mission. While certainly edible, it fails to capture what makes ramen special, or even really desirable. I’m sorry it wasn’t better, Taro. May this review be my penitence.
1 1/2 out of 4 stars