By Lingzi Yang
If you are a fan of ramen and are living in New York, you have probably heard of Totto Ramen, a hot small Japanese-style ramen place located in midtown Manhattan. Unlike the sake bar Decibel (which, like a speakeasy that is hard to find), this place is very conspicuous. There is often a long line waiting outside as you pass by. It makes me wonder what kind of magic it has that makes this small spot such a popular place; is it really worth such a long wait? In order to find out, we decided to interview the chef of Totto Ramen, Teppei Nakaie.
Teppei has been working here for almost four years, and told us that Totto Ramen opened because his boss owns another Japanese restaurant and often found himself with a surplus of chicken bones. No one expected that it would be such a huge success. As opposed to Hagi, the secret to Totto is that they never change the menu— especially the first four ramen flavors that are the most popular ones. These classic tastes have become the signature style of the restaurant.
Teppei Nakaie also introduced the Japanese ramen culture to us. Ramen is an important element of Japanese food culture; they have ramen at least three times a week. As important as it is, the flavors of different ramen places are quite different because each restaurant has its own unique recipes. At Totto Ramen, the noodles are cooked in-house, and they only last five days after production. We also noticed that they put a bag of rice in the soup, in order to add both texture and sweetness.
We tried one of the most popular ramen-Totto chicken paitan ramen, which is cooked with straight homemade al dente noodles in a whole chicken and premium soy sauce-based soup topped with scallion, onion, char siu pork and a nori. At first sight it seems simple, but after a taste we were pleasantly surprised by the homemade noodles, which are neither too soft nor too hard but have a great chewy texture. The soup is spicy but not overly so; it’s so tasty that we finished every single drop!
It’s common knowledge that some religions abstain from pork or beef; Totto soup is made of chicken in order to conquer the needs of New Yorkers of all different religions. With only 20 seats, the atmosphere here is really easy and casual. Because it’s located in a tight-knit neighborhood, it’s convenient to those who live nearby and sports a friendly price, which means many people stop by 2 or 3 times a week.
This is not generally a place to come in and lounge around. You get in, order your food, eat and leave. Perhaps it’s not the most relaxing environment in New York City. But as more and more customers are coming to the little restaurant, the owner is considering opening another store in July, between 9th and 10th Avenue on 51st street. There will be more appetizers, more sake and– most importantly– more seating. Customers won’t have to wait so long and will have more time to enjoy their meals in a more comfortable setting.
After the interview, there were still about 20 minutes before the restaurant would open… but we saw there was already a long line forming outside, despite the heavy rain.