I don’t like to wait in line. Actually, I hate to wait in line for anything. Check that, truth is I detest lines, especially when it it comes to restaurants. I am not at all happy with a trend towards reservation-less restaurants. In the name of being more “democratic?” Hogwash. Everyone who can afford to go to a restaurant can afford to use a phone to make a reservation. That said, there is the occasional non-reservations restaurant that still piques my interest. Ippudo, the NYC branch of the giant Japanese chain of ramen oriented restaurants, is one of them, however, it has the reputation of being impossible to get into without a long wait. Though technically the wait is not in line since they will take one’s contact information and call them when sufficient space opens up amongst the communal tables, it is still along wait – so I waited – for a more opportune moment.
That moment came when I needed to find someplace good for an early lunch before catching a 1:15 train from Penn Station. Not wanting to take any chances on a long wait and possibly missing my train I skipped breakfast and showed up fifteen minutes before their opening time of 11AM. I was the first one there. Yes I waited, but I waited for the place to open, which was a defined length of time.
I got to watch food deliveries, people lining up behind me and the staff putting up the flag when they opened the door for business. I didn’t mind, because I got right in and got waited on immediately and didn’t have to worry about my train. I even got the very first loud greeting of the day from the staff, who welcomes everyone who enters with a big combined hello – an auspicious start.
The restaurant is more capacious than I had expected with plenty of seating. I also expected it to be more overtly Japanese than it is, in much the way Setagaya is. It certainly has Japanese themes to its decor such as the ramen bowls hung on the wall over the bar in the restaurant’s entry as well as other characteristics, but it also had a decidedly western soundtrack and a feel to it that was very much of its locale in the East Village. While under no illusion that I was dining in Tokyo, I didn’t mind, as I was not looking for a cultural escape, just a comfortable seat and good food.
The lunch menu is somewhat more limited than the dinner menu, but it still featured the main events – the variety of ramen noodle dishes that they are most well known for. I ordered the Akamaru Modern ramen. For $14 it is a large bowl of “original ‘tonkotsu‘ noodle soup topped with Ippudo’s secret ‘umami dama‘ miso paste, pork chashu, cabbage, kikurage, scallions and fragrant garlic oil. Being a touch hungry, I ordered it as as part of a lunch “special set.” In addition to the ramen, the set included rice with a choice of toppings and a small salad for an additional $3. I chose fried chicken over rice for my set.
A tray with the chicken, rice and salad along with chopsticks and a soup spoon was soon set down in front of me. The chicken was lacquered and slightly sweet, but not too sweet, just enough to cut it’s garlicky essence. The chicken sat on some Japanese mayonaise, which in turn sat atop the sticky rice. Strewn about the bowl were a variety of items including cabbage, scallions and sesame seeds. Each bite was tasty and encouraged me for the next one.
The salad was simple and small, but the greens were fresh and dressed in a nice ponzu dressing. For an extra 3 bucks, the lunch set is an excellent deal. Other options beside the chicken included mentaiko, roast pork and grilled eel. Each was enticing. Though totally satisfied with the chicken, I would try the other options on subsequent visits just to try them.It wasn’t long before my main dish arrived. I dove right in with my chopsticks to pick up a piece of the silky pork belly. A smile came to my face as I mixed together the various elements of the dish making the already cloudy whitish broth even more so and reddening it with the miso paste. A bigger smile came to my face as I dipped into the broth with my chopsticks and came up with a tangle of slippery noodles. The texture was perfect – cooked , but with enough firmness to give them a little bite and some body. Like the chicken, these too exuded garlicky goodness and filled my mouth with pleasure. The pleasure was enhanced further when the other elements of the soup were brought up along with the noodles. When the noodles were gone, I resorted to the spoon and the pleasure continued until there was no more. The tonkotsu broth was rich and full of pork-saturated flavor, a very satisfying flavor that left me happy and content. My contentment continued through the cup of hot green tea that was brought along with my check.
It turned out that I hadn’t needed to get there early. I wouldn’t have had to wait at all had I arrived anywhere from 11am to about 11:30 at which time the restaurant had filled, mostly with people who appeared to be students at nearby NYU. Even then, as I was leaving, though there were people waiting, there were not yet many and the wait was not yet long. I suspect that by noon the story might have changed a bit and the wait and lines might have started to elongate. If you are like me and hate lines and despise waiting, I learned the secret to Ippudo (and to most other hot, can’t get in without waiting restaurants) – go early and go for lunch, if possible. It may not be cool, but if it is the food one is after, who cares?