The Ramen May Just Be Worth the Wait
It’s Taiwanese, not Japanese. It’s Hakata-style, not Hakata. I just call it — damn good. However you describe it, the fact remains that Toki Underground’s ramen hits the spot, especially on those cold winter nights. And at $10 a bowl, it’s a deal. The extra money in my pocket can now go to staples like wine, shoes, and my US Weekly subscription. Oh, and bills.
The problem with offering something so tasty and plentiful for $10 is that I’m tempted to order more than just ramen. So I did — sides, ramen add-ons, and a bottle of sake for good measure. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I wanted to try everything!
There’s a drawback. The wait time this past Saturday was about two hours. An hour is usually my limit, but I made an exception for Toki. On the bright side, I was able to quench my thirst and drown my wait-time sorrows with Japanese whiskey and snacks at a neighboring restaurant — Smith Commons. (My first, albeit short-lived, trip, to Smith Commons made me want to go back for a full meal.)
For those that have already been to Toki, you know the place is small, with roughly 20 seats. Ironically, it’s not underground. It occupies the floor above The Pug.
My friend and I started with the vegetable dumplings, pan-fried. Upon request, dumplings are prepared steamed, pan-fried, or fried. I liked the dumplings, especially the pillowy-tender, house-made wrappers, which were filled with seasonal vegetables, ginger, garlic and scallions. The garlic was slightly charred. Whether intentional or not, it led to a slightly bitter aftertaste, which my friend did not like and I could have done without. I’m not convinced yet. Next time, I think I’ll try the pork dumplings, because most things taste better with pork.
Ramen comes with noodles (of course), seasonal vegetables, half of a soft-boiled egg, sesame, scallions, and nori. All ramens, except for the masumi and miso, begin with a tonkotsu base. Tonkotsu is made by boiling pork bones over high heat until the bone marrow is released into the liquid and emulsifies. The process takes a full day and results in the real star of the show — a rich, thick, flavorful and salty broth.
We ordered two ramens — the Hakata Classic, which comes with pork loin, and the Curry Chicken Hakata, which contains a five-spice fried chicken in a curry-flavored tonkotsu. Both of them were very well-executed and flavorful. As a matter of personal preference, I’d choose the Hakata Classic over the Curry Chicken. In short, I liked the fried chicken in the Curry Chicken, but the broth was a little too overwhelming for me. Of course, I also had to order the pork cheek with a hoisin-based glaze, which is one of the “ramen add-ons.” I didn’t think it was necessary, but it was so deliciously tender that I didn’t regret my decision for one minute.
We also ordered a side of house-made kimchi and the Endorphin sauce (Sriracha-style sauce). I’m a Sriracha addict and I wish I could buy kimchi in bulk. Needless to say, it was a real treat to eat Toki’s versions of each.
The road to its grand opening has been long and plagued with construction delays, but it’s the little touches that show just how much of a labor of love Toki has been for chef and owner Eric Bruner-Yang. (Apparently, he tastes every bowl of ramen that leaves his kitchen.) His hipster style, echoed in Toki’s decor, fits in well with the H Street corridor, which has become one of the places to open a restaurant. It’s changing so quickly that I can’t quite keep up.
In short, check this place out. I’d like to suggest getting to Toki right when it opens to avoid the long wait, but I have a feeling that it won’t matter.