Photos By Dakota Fine, Words By Logan Hollers
The best and brightest of D.C.’s ramen noodle culture converged in Brookland on Sunday for the first annual Ramen World event, sponsored by Mess Hall DC. Billed as an event designed to “highlight some of the area’s hottest Asian culinary concepts,” the sold-out affair offered unlimited ramen from numerous area vendors, unlimited Kirin Ichiban, and a sampling of unlimited cocktails. Unlimited Kirin and cocktails is always a ballsy move, but it certainly made the waits in ramen lines much more enjoyable…and, as the day moved along, increasingly wobbly for all.
The main attraction: (incredibly generously portioned) brothy noodle soups. As expected, the three big participants, Toki Underground, Daikaya, and Chaplin’s, all brought their A-game to this event.
Toki offered a super rich, spicy tonkotsu broth with notes of lemongrass and a long, tingly finish thanks to the addition of ground Szechuan peppercorns. The milky soup, fried bologna, and minerally liver in the soup were a great match with the thick, golden noodles (whose excellent alkaline tang and great chew are always available for sale at Toki’s pop-up market in Union Station, Honeycomb Grocer). Fermented squash lent a pleasantly squeaky pickled component. Toki was also doing its best to kick-start a home-cooked ramen revolution, selling DIY ramen kits to take home for $35.
Daikaya went rogue, offering up a hiyashi chuka bowl (cold ramen noodles dressed in a light vinegar and soy-based sauce) named the “Rocky Balboa”. Pungent, briny, and funky as hell, this wasn’t dorm room ramen, but an intense blast of the sea thanks to miso marinated uni, salmon roe, and shredded nori. Break the soft-boiled egg and mix in the yolk, stir in a bit of the Japanese mustard smeared on the side of the bowl, and you had a salty pile of noodle-y goodness with a distinctive hit of wasabi-like heat on the back end. Super gnarly.
Chaplin’s was the only participant to offer a little treat to those braving the long lines for ramen: a fried pork dumpling, injected with a mixture of soy, Sriracha, and…wait for it…rye whiskey. Boozy, umami-heavy, and fried – this was about as good as you’d think it would be, which is to say it was goddamned delicious. Chaplin’s was also moving bowls of tantan-men ramen, a spicy chili and sesame miso broth, containing minced pork, corn, bok choy, and a soft-boiled, soy-marinated egg garnished with chopped scallion. Hints of peanut butter (in a good way), and a rougher, more rustic broth texture. This was the overall winner of the day for me.
Thip Khao ensured there was a Laotian presence at the event, offering up a Khao Soi rice noodle soup with fermented bean paste, ground pork, watercress, enoki mushrooms, and wide rice noodles topped with puffed white rice. More sour and tangy than rich, this bowl was a refreshing break from some of the heavier pork fat-based noodle bowls.
The guys at Donburi definitely won the day’s service award, as they kept serving (on plastic lids) even after they ran out of bowls…and rice…and chopsticks…and shrimp. Those of us lucky enough to snag a bowl with everything in it were treated to the shop’s signature rice bowl with barely-smoked salmon sashimi, barbecued (to order) eel, deep-fried panko shrimp, and chicken karaage, all splashed with a house-made donburi sauce. A pile of pickles on the side cut through the rich proteins.
PhoWheels was also in the house, plating up five-spice maple glazed pork belly on Malaysian flatbread (kind of a mix between naan and a pita). The fatty (in a good way), decadent pork belly mingled with pickled vegetables, cucumber, and spicy mayo – super good, and a welcome textural contrast on a day filled predominantly with broth and noodles.
There were sweets too, if one was so inclined. I was not (needed that stomach space for more ramen and booze), though I did try a spoonful each of Dolcezza Gelato’s green tea and black sesame gelatos and laughed at SnoCream Company’s panda-shaped cookies and cream macaroons.
New York ramen master Ivan Orkin recently said “The ramen boom has ended.” Apologies, but he’s flat-out wrong. Ramen has grown, and continues growing, increasingly popular worldwide. We’ve gone from seeing ramen merely as a cheap, nutrition-deficient go-to when nothing else is available to now packing the house five nights a week at Toki, at Daikaya, at Chaplin’s, at Ren’s, at Sakuramen… The passion, dedication, and just straight enjoyment on display at the event yesterday makes clear that ramen is a “trend” that’s here to stay. I’ll say this: based on what we saw at Ramen World on Sunday, the state of ramen (in DC especially) has never been better.