If you're going to fight with a ramen obsessive - and you shouldn't have any trouble finding a ramen obsessive spoiling for a fight - you're probably going to fight over broth. You'll debate the qualities of a perfect dashi, or the amount of time a pork bone should spend in the soup, or which salt makes the best shio tare (the seasoning that makes ramen salty.)
But the noodles? Nobody talks about the noodles. As ramen virtuoso Ivan Orkin wrote in last year's "Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession and Recipes from Tokyo's Most Unlikely Noodle Joint," in most Japanese ramen shops, "Noodles take a distant backseat to the soup and the chashu. In fact, most shops order their noodles from a manufacturer."
When I walked into Menkoi Ramen House, which last month opened on George Street, I was guilty of the same broth bias. I ordered the spicy ramen, figuring that if I was going to eat a piping hot bowl of soup on an extremely hot day, I might as well try extra hard to sweat my internal thermostat back into the medically-advisable range. As I later learned, spicy ramen is the most popular order, even though the menu includes miso ramen, tonkatsu ramen, shoyu ramen and shio ramen.
First, I sized up the broth, letting my chopsticks linger over the bowl while I slurped the creamy broth, which was about the same color as Dairy Queen's butterscotch dip. The broth was more mellow and less porky than advertised, and had a faint odor of singed rubber. I was on the brink of writing off the restaurant as a great addition to the city's late-night scene (Menkoi plans to stay open until 3 a.m.) when I tried the noodles.
Menkoi's kinky noodles are enhanced with a good amount of egg, which isn't an Orkin-approved move: He'd rather taste wheat. Maybe it's because the broth was so straightforward, but I appreciated the richness and rounded flavor. But what I liked even better was the noodles' bouncy chew. There was probably one bean sprout in the bowl for every four or five noodles, which created a crunchy backdrop that worked to the noodles' advantage.
Sato Kazuhiro, who owns three restaurants in Columbia, makes the noodles at Menkoi's Columbia location. They're portioned out in unmarked plastic bags, and kept in a kitchen cooler near the front counter. Although Kazuhiro wouldn't delve into noodle philosophy, he revealed that he special orders Japanese flour from California, a critical step.
In addition to ramen, Menkoi sells appetizers including onigiri, gyoza and edamame. The menu also includes plain noodles for $2.50 a pop.
Menkoi, 41 George St., is open daily. For more information, call 501-7999.
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