Remember my last ramen post about Misoya, when I wrote that Totto Ramen was the last big ramen joint I had yet to try? Well, the next time I happened to be in Midtown Manhattan on a cold day I knew I had to try it! So I braved the 2 hour wait on the sidewalk just to get a seat at this tiny ramen joint.
The ambiance may not seem like much, but I loved it! This was the first place in New York I’ve been to that felt like a true Japanese ramen joint. Most of the seating was along the bar with only a few small tables on the side. Chopsticks, spoons, and tissues were left in communal containers along the bar. This made for an experience befitting ramen’s status as “fast food” in Japan. Then again the Japanese take their cuisine very very seriously, so even their fast food turns out really delicious!
Totto Ramen is part of a larger chain of Totto restaurants that also includes locations dedicated to soba, yakitori, and a izakaya-style place. I’ve been to Soba Totto before, though I actually enjoyed their yakitori the most while I found their soba good although not spectacular. All of their locations are quite authentic and reflective of the ambiance that these foods were meant to be enjoyed in.
Totto Ramen specializes in not just any ramen but specifically paitan ramen, a specific variety based of a chicken bone broth with influences from Cantonese white soup or bai tang. Paitan in Japanese specifically refers to the milky opacity of the broth, but Totto Ramen uses a chicken as their logo to show that their broth is made from chicken and not a blend with pork bones. The resulting broth is lighter than tonkotsu, yet still rich in umami flavour. Time to tackle another one of NYC’s ramen institutions!
Things Roger Ate (and slurped up) like a Pig
Broiled Char Siu Pork – 4.5/6 (Very Good – Excellent), $6
- Broiled char siu pork served on top of a bed of leafy greens mixed with vinaigrette
For a place that’s built their reputation on chicken soup, this pork was surprisingly good! The pork cuts chosen had a perfect mix of fat and lean meat, with the fat cooked long enough to marbleize it yet broiled to leave a lovely crisp on the exterior of the pork. The pork was simply prepared, with only a light hint of a sweet sauce coated on the pork unlike the Chinese preparation of char siu. The grill aromas were quite strong on the crispy exterior and I think a high grade charcoal must have been used as the resulting flavour was very clean.
My only complaint was that with such a simple preparation used I feel that the quality of the pork used could have been higher, which would have imparted a stronger pork flavour to the lean meat portions. The simple leafy greens actually complemented the pork quite well, with the tartness of the light vinaigrette balancing the richness of the pork. Definitely a solid side dish for a ramen joint!
Totto Spicy Paitan Ramen – 5/6 (Excellent), $11 (+1 for soft-boiled egg)
- Ramen in a chicken shoyu broth flavoured with special rayu (chili sesame oil), topped with green onions, chicken or pork, bean sprouts, and nori (added a soft-boiled egg)
The broth, as I mentioned in the intro, was milky in colour and tasted exclusively of chicken flavour. The chicken used tasted very high quality to me, most likely from free-range chicken, resulting in a very pure and umami-filled body that didn’t have any hints of impurities or added MSG. The rayu or chili oil used was quite typical of spicy Chinese dishes, with the chili sesame oil supplemented with spices including a hint of Sichuan peppers. This resulted in a broth that had a nice hint of spiciness to go with the wonderful natural flavour of the chicken.
The noodles here were quite unique for use in ramen. They were thinner than most noodles, and although they were cooked al dente, their smaller width meant that there was less chew per mouthful than there typically would be in ramen. I think that thinner noodles are better suited to chicken broths and thicker ones to richer tonkotsu broths because less time is needed to process the taste of the chicken broth in the mouth, hence thinner noodles requiring less chew time can be used (did that make any sense or am I just crazy?)
The three small slices of chicken included were completely devoid of flavour and were probably for making the stock rather than intended as a flavourful topping. The soft-boiled egg was perfect: it was sufficiently soft to allow some liquid yolk to mix with the broth. I liked how the green onions were cut nice and long as it helped them retain their flavour better to contrast the rich spicy broth.
The nori was unfortunately completely soaked into the broth instead of being placed on top of the bowl and lost all semblance of crispiness. I would have liked if bamboo shoots and perhaps mushrooms were also included as basic rather than add-on toppings, although considering the reasonable price and quality this is still a great deal.
Now to the million dollar question: is this the best ramen in NYC? I think it depends on your preference between chicken and pork bone broth as it’s impossible to compare such vastly different dishes. I feel that Totto Ramen offers the best representation of paitan chicken bone broth ramen in the city and does a better job with their specialty than Ippudo does with their tonkotsu at a more reasonable price too.
Personally however I prefer the impossibly rich tonkotsu broths over chicken bone ones. For that Ippudo will have to do, although their tonkotsu is not as authentic and rich as I would like although still very good no doubt.
The Santouka ramen chain has a branch at the Mitsuwa Japanese Market in New Jersey, and from experience at their Vancouver location their shio tonkotsu ramen bests Ippudo’s version by a slim but not insignificant margin. I guess my ramen-to-try list will just have to continue to grow! Overall, Totto Ramen does a great job and highlighting this unique style of ramen with the spicy Chinese influence! It would definitely be on the top of my recommendations for ramen in NYC as long as you can stomach the wait times too!
Date visited: Oct. 27, 2012
Price range: $10 – $20