NYC can’t seem to tire of Japanese ramen. With seemingly a new ramen restaurant opening every day, there are a few that have garnered strong reputations and long lines to get in. One of these is Totto Ramen on 52nd Street between 8th & 9th Avenues in Manhattan. The restaurant is small and narrow, tucked into the basement of its non-descript building. It has a counter overlooking the kitchen much like a sushi bar and also several small tables along the far wall. It does not hold many people, which is one of the reasons why there is always a wait for a seat. My son, a budding ramen-ophile, and I, arrived about fifteen minutes before the restaurant opened for dinner one recent Sunday. I figured with an opening time of 5PM on a Sunday that that would be enough time to get a seat right away once they opened. I was wrong, very wrong. We put our name on the board and waited as we missed the first pass into the restaurant. We finally got in at about 5:45PM.
We did get a seat at the bar to watch the energetic activity of the kitchen. I generally enjoy watching the kitchen ballet and I did so here too. At one end the noodles were cooked in their cylindrical mesh pots, while at the other end, the stocks were periodically replenished from large vats. In the middle, the broth was ladled into the large bowls along with the rest of the ingredients for each bowl while the char siu pork belly was torched for caramelization.My son and I started with an order of Avo tuna, tuna sashimi and avocado in a yuzu based sauce. The three thin slices of tuna were enough for my son and I to have a taste. It wasn’t a bad dish, but neither was it particularly exciting nor worth putting additional pressure on stressed tuna populations(1). I wouldn’t order it again. My son is twelve years old, but he is developing a good palate for spicy foods. As a result he ordered the Totto Spicy Ramen. The chicken based paitan ramen broth came topped with their “original rayu”(chili infused sesame oil), scallion, chicken (char siu pork was an option), bean sprouts, and nori. There were plenty of al dente straight noodles. The spice mixture was on top, to be mixed into the soup. Prior to mixing in the spice mixture, I tasted the ramen, which was actually relatively bland. Once the spice mixture was stirred in, the soup brightened considerably. I ordered the Totto Miso Ramen. This ramen was also based upon the paitan ramen, but was served with yellow, wavy kansuinoodles, a seasoned hardboiled egg, scallion, bean sprouts, onion and char siu pork. Like the spicy ramen, this one also had a scoop atop the center of the bowl. This was a mixture of ground pork and Koji miso. Again, like the spicy ramen, this needed that scoop to be completely integrated into the rest of the ramen to achieve the deep flavors that I was expecting. The toppings were fine, though the egg lacked a flavor significantly more special than a basic hard-boiled egg. I’m glad that I had the extra protein, but it didn’t add that much from a gustatory perspective.
Once we were seated, the service was fairly quick and we were through our meal without rushing in less than a half hour. The line does move along at a regular pace, though the crowd was sufficiently large to assure that the waits wouldn’t be short. The ramen was good and a fair value and the ambiance was fun in its own way, but it was far from my favorite joint in the NYC area. Given that it isn’t hugely expensive, I wasn’t as annoyed as I might have been that they only take cash, but it was still a relative drawback. I would sooner wait at Ippudo (I prefer their pork-based tonkotsu ramen), for example, than at Totto. That said, I do enjoy trying the different styles of ramen cropping up in NYC and I’m glad that we had the opportunity to try Totto Ramen.
(1) Had the tuna been bluefin, I wouldn’t have ordered it. Yellowfin and other tuna stocks are not yet in the same shape as their bluefin cousins, but it is not much of a stretch to say their populations will only be stressed more by the scarcity of the bluefin. I don’t totally avoid it on menus yet, but I rarely order it.