|Totto Spicy Ramen with Corn|
The weekday lunch crowd begins to assemble outside Totto Ramen at 11:30. The restaurant will not open until noon, but early arrivals are hopping to secure spots among the approximately twenty coveted seats available in the first seating. Those who arrive too late will have to wait for the first wave to finish. The sign-in list, affixed to a clipboard on the door, includes the standard warnings: parties not fully present when called will drop to the bottom of the list. Names written illegibly will be skipped. By noon, a veritable mob scene awaits the opening of the doors.
The bearded Hico Oshiro emerges right on time. “Irasshaimase!”, he declares to the gathering crowd. “Welcome! Thank you for waiting!” Grabbing the list off the door, he begins to read off names, directing the early ones into his choice of seats as they pass smugly by the jealous stares of the hungry mob. Some will be seated at the three tables in the back; others in the arguably more coveted seats at the bar, where they can chat with the cooks and watch their meals being prepared.
|Totto Miso Ramen with a side of spicy Rayu|
What makes Totto’s ramen so good is the meticulousness with which each component is prepared. The broth is complex and flavorful, made with whole chickens and simmered slowly in large cauldrons, to be ladled over bowls of noodles as they are prepared for serving. The noodles are freshly made and cooked perfectly al dente. Char siu pork is seared with a blowtorch. Egg is boiled until it is just right, with the yolk still vibrant yellow and ever-so-slightly gooey. Avocado is beautifully seasoned.
For a first visit to Totto Ramen, I recommend the Totto Spicy Ramen, flavored with spicy rayu and adorned with an array of toppings. The steamy broth and the added heat from the rayu combine to produce the kind of soup that makes your forehead sweat and your nose run. You finish it feeling like you’ve been cleansed.
|Spicy Tuna Don|
The Miso Ramen is a nice option for a smoother, sweeter flavor. I often try for the best of both worlds by ordering the Miso Ramen with a side of spicy rayu. The seasoned avocado is my favorite optional topping. If you’re feeling particularly hungry and ambitious, and like meat, the meat-lover’s ramen is sure to fill you up. It is loaded with slices of chicken and pork. There is also an excellent and attractively presented vegetarian ramen.
Some of the non-ramen dishes are delicious as well, even if they are not the main event. The tuna don is particularly good, consisting of spicy chopped tuna tartare atop a salad of rice, cucumber and kombu seaweed. I found the stubs soba, a frequent special, to be less successful. It is nicely presented with char siu pork, scallions, corn, egg and wavy noodles, but it contains too much mayo for my tastes.
The ambiance at Totto Ramen is enhanced by good music (lots of Pearl Jam and Counting Crows), punctuated by occasional shouting in Japanese. I don’t understand Japanese, but to my untrained ear the shouting sounds more like an exclamation than an order (something like “RAMENNNN! YEAH!”). It adds a level of enthusiasm and energy to an already intense dining experience.
Totto Ramen doesn’t have a large or varied menu, but there is something to be said for doing one thing exceptionally well. And when that thing is hot, soupy noodles, it is hard to ask for anything more. Just make sure to get there by 11:30 for the first seating. It’s worth the wait.
Or, if you feel like a bowl of delicious noodle soup without waiting outside, head home and try our recipe for phở.
|Pho Ga from my kitchen|
366 West 52nd Street
Recommended dishes: Spicy Tuna Don ($5.50); Totto Spicy Ramen ($10.75); Totto Miso Ramen ($10.75); Seasoned Avocado ($2).