Ramen in NYC

On my last ramen outing in The City (NYC) I was forsaken by Menchanko Tei , where, as I detailed in an earlier post, I was served a lukewarm and loveless bowl of ramen. This weekend, we headed into the city to meet up with a pal from DC. We met at Totto ( http://tottoramen.com) at 52nd between 8th and 9th Avenues.

Where we were met with, horror of horrors, a LINE. Not a line, exactly, but a mass of people milling about, waiting. “Oh, no,” said my husband. “Plan B?” I asked.

We were 10 minutes late, but our friend had arrived on time and put our name on the list. And before I could even pull out my list of alternate ramen places, a sweet young woman with the waiting list was standing before us saying she could seat us in just a few minutes and to follow her. She left us in the crowded plastic tented enclosure on the steps leading down to the tiny restaurant.

We’d been bumped ahead because many of the people on the list weren’t there when when their names were called. And we were about to be led inside when a gentleman representing a party of 7 arrived to check on the list. Their name had already been called, and the policy is that if you’re not there when your name is called, you lose your place. He was pushy and the list girl was sweet, so we had to stand there for five more minutes while this gentleman obfuscated about the presence of his party, who were still down the street at Starbucks. When none of them showed up despite a flurry of telephone calls, finally we were admitted inside.
Totto is a long, narrow restaurant with about 20 seats. We squeezed in at the counter overlooking the lunchenonette-style kitchen. Disco music was playing, which pleased my friend, who immediately discovered that one of the cooks is also a DJ. We watched the cooks stir steaming caldrons of broth, lift noodles from boiling water, and char slices of pork belly with a blow torch.

To start we ordered  pork belly, and we all loved the vinegary bean sprouts beneath the charred slices.  I ordered the paitan ramen with pork belly. The broth was milky-colored, rich in meaty and umami flavors, and topped with lots of scallions. The thin, straight noodles had a nice chewiness.

Eating at Totto is fun, but it isn’t relaxing. We were seated right next to the door. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the mass of people waiting outside on the steps. We were in and out of Totto in a half hour.

Two nights later we were in the city again and decided to try Totto’s new, bigger place a couple blocks away (464 W. 51st St., NYC). We were seated immediately, and served steaming bowls of ramen and warm saki. The broth of the Paitan that night wasn’t as good as it had been at the 52nd Street Totto, but my husband who ordered the spicy paitan, was happy with flavors of hot chili oil. And next time, I’d order it too. Where else can you eat this well in NYC for $10?