Totto Ramen: Episode 1

As a mortal, one of my biggest vices is ramen. “Ramen” meaning well-crafted noodles, bathed with glorious broth, armed with delicious slices of meat, garnish and an irresistible aroma. There are no two ways about this; if I were a train, the fastest way to stop me is to put a bowl of ramen in the midst my tracks. True enough, on a sunny afternoon, on my way to Hell’s Kitchen of New York City, fate halted me with the discovery of Totto Ramen.

Being a fan of Tonkotsu Ramen, Totto Ramen’s display intrigued me. Besides having a well-designed logo, the display clearly prided itself that Totto Ramen specializes in chicken-based broth ramen. I wondered how it’d compare to a pork-bone-based broth, which by default, should have a stronger and thicker taste. Another thought that raced in my head was, “Would this taste more like traditional chinese noodles that favors mostly chicken-broth over pork?” and then the child in me that grew up on delicious Chinese noodles was all kinds of excited.

I have firm beliefs in trying out a ramen shop’s touted signature dish on my first visit. I picked their specialty, Totto Chicken Paitan Ramen over the other options (even their tonkotsu-paitan mix, as much of a Tonkotsu fan that I am). The description on their menu reads as, “These straight homemade noodles are cooked al dente style in a whole chicken and premium soy sauce based soup topped with scallion, onion, char siu pork, and a nori“. I must admit, I still bore some doubts. However, as I seat myself, the next sight appeased them.

The interior of Totto Ramen is very relaxed and reminiscent of ramen shops I’ve visited in Japan and most others around the country. Bar seating overlooking a busy kitchen, aromas of the broth gently permeating, the soundtrack of boiling broths, bowls being stacked and ingredients being chopped. My first of many more visits to Totto Ramen was during lunch hours. Two ramen chefs were quickly mixing up the broths with the noodles and the garnish. The menu’s listing of additional topping caught my interest with “Seasoned Avocado” and I ordered one.

As I watched my order being mixed, one of the two ramen chefs asked where I was from. We introduced ourselves, his name is Hico. I told him I was from Indonesia and one of the very first questions he asked me was, “What is your favorite Japanese TV show as a kid?”, I told him, “Kamen Rider Black” and he exclaimed in return, “Kotaro Minami!”. Turns out his best friend and former roommate was an Indonesian and had the same favorite show as well. We had an extended conversation about art, comics and our favorite parts of ramen. He then asked to be excused, he had something cool to do.

I’ll be damned if it wasn’t actually one of the coolest things to see in a ramen shop. He picked up a blowtorch and torched the stack of pork slices!

The staff of Totto Ramen then had to calm me down with my order of seasoned avocado. Hico suggested having it separately first as it might mix in too strongly with the paitan broth. He said it’s better suited with the spicy broth options.

This thing was delicious! If I were to make guesses, I recalled a hint of miso and chicken broth among the other flavors. The slices held themselves well but will melt in your mouth. This means you have the option of mixing it in with your broth or to go all out and chew it along with your noodles and pork slices. I grew even more anxious to have my bowl.

My order then arrived and I recomposed myself to taste what Totto’s Chicken Paitan Ramen had to offer.

The very first thing I always taste of any ramen bowl is the broth itself. Quite probably the most important thing out of the whole equation, to me the broth holds the taste, binds itself to the noodles and decides what flavor the garnish will support. Totto’s chicken-based broth is great! As expected, it is lighter than a tonkotsu broth despite being creamy too. The savory taste of a chicken broth compared to a pork-bone one is noticeable. It tastes sharper and lighter than its pork counterpart, very delicious in a different but equally wondrous ways. The noodles were of the thinner variety to support the momentum of the broth and texture was just right. Refreshing and comforting were the first two words I thought of.

The cauldron full of boiling chickens is definitely not there just for show. Totto’s claim that they used no MSG is easily believed because of the way this broth tasted; layered strongly with what is unmistakably chicken essence. Be sure to dip the nori and eat it before it turns to mush! It’s a joy to have the chicken broth light up the different flavors and textures of the garnishes.

Let us move to the highlight of the garnishes, beautifully torched pork slices.

Perfectly torched and crisp on the outside, tender and just the right amount of chewy everywhere else. This is a pork-lover’s dream come true. Dipped in the paitan broth, this is a formidably delicious thing to put in your mouth. I was then dazzled by the sharp, salty parts of the chicken broth mixed with the sweetness of the pork’s fat. I then asked Hico to torch his next batch of pork slices so I can document it.

I told him this was probably my favorite bowl of ramen I’ve ever had in New York City (yes, over Ippudo’s). The way the parts came together and surprised me were just great. Indulgent in so many ways yet deliciously balanced, this is what I’d love to get with every order of ramen I make.

If you are ever in New York City and have only time for one ramen spot, consider Totto Ramen as one of your primary choices. The prices are right, the atmosphere light & fun and most importantly, the ramen is top-notch.

P.S. If you enjoyed this post, you have episodes 2 and 3 to look forward to as I chronicle even more delicious offerings from Totto Ramen.

Sincerely,

Posted Sunday, January 2nd, 2011 under Food, Travel.

7 comments

  1. Nice review. I tried Totto Ramen for the first time tonight. This place is putting out some incredible ramen. I thought it was great. Though even getting there a bit before opening on a Sunday still required an hour’s wait to get in (its quite small, and only holds 19-20). But I must say, I like this type of homey, relaxed, ‘authentic’ ramen-ya over the gussied-up, deluxe decor of Ippudo. Though I think Ippudo is very good (but overpriced) I preferred the noodles at Totto over those Ippudo. They were cooked perfectly, ‘al dente’. Totto’s signature ‘Paitan’ chicken soup was unbelievably tasty, with a rich, deep intense chicken flavor. I drained every drop.

  2. Yeah, the wait varies. I’ve had to sit through an hour and on some days, as crowded as it is, I’ve only had to wait for 15 min max. It seems like it depends on the crowd and how long they take to finish their bowls. The crowd during lunch hours move the fastest, as expected.

    I share the same sentiments about the famed Ippudo of NYC, though I do enjoy their ramen as well. I will however state that I like Totto’s char siu better than Ippudo’s because of that additional touch of the torch. I can go on but I’ll save my thoughts of Ippudo for another post.

    The paitan broth was great! I did drink up the whole bowl of it… after 2 noodle refills. I came back to try out their other combinations and was glad I did, hence the promise of more posts with Totto’s ramen in them.

    Thanks for visiting and commenting, Jed!

  3. This is amazing…and informative! I enjoyed your story and experience, it makes me want to eat some now! I need to find Totto Ramen! I also like that he asked what your favorite childhood show was- lol, thats always a good icebreaker.

    I need a blowtorch as well, lol.

  4. The torched pork slices were something else, really. Coupled with great conversations, few things could have made lunch better. I could sit all day, stare at those slices getting torched and eat them.

    Glad this post was entertaining and informative for you!

  5. Great post as always. Next time I’m in NYC I gotta check Totto Ramen out. That torched pork looks delicious. A friend of mine recently tried doing a torched Prime Rib at home. He used a propane powered torch from Home Depot. Said it was cheaper and more powerful than a regular kitchen souffle torch. I want to try it out!

  6. A blow torch does make food seem that much more exciting, doesn’t it?

    That torched pork is something else, Richmond. You’ve got to hit them up. The only real way this could have been EVEN more outrageous is if they added salmon roe as an option.

    Santoka is still the only one I know of that offers that option.

  7. The blowtorch really does make the char siu. But I am not a fan of the chicken ramen at totto. You MUST try the spicy ramen — it is the best I’ve had in the city.

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