Jonathan Cho looks out over the dining room of Sakuramen, the fashionable noodle bar he and his business partner Jay Park opened in May 2012. Even in the sauna that is Washington, D.C. in the summertime, nearly all the tables are full.
There are people slurping alone at the bar, groups of friends sitting together at a long table, and from the looks of it, there are even some couples dining here tonight, which makes Cho chuckle. "I think 10 years ago, taking a date out for a bowl of ramen would have been ridiculous. [There] probably wouldn't be a second date."
Ramen has a special place in the hearts of Americans, but it's not the ramen served at Sakuramen. 'Ramen' to most Americans is the noodle soup of our college years--that which keeps us nourished through all-nighters and countless final exams. The noodles at Sakuramen, however, are customized. Everything from the dough's air content, curliness, to how chewy they are in your mouth has been a careful thought of decision.
Sakuramen isn't alone. Toki Underground, on H Street NE is famous for it's 2- to 3-hour waits. There's Ren's Ramen, in Wheaton, and later this fall Daisuke Utagawa, the owner of SushiKo, will open a Japanese restaurant with partners Katsuya Fukushima and Yama Jewayni. They plan to call it Daikaya, and it will house two separate restaurants. Upstairs will be Izakaya, a traditional Japanese tavern with drinks and small plates. Downstairs will be a ramen bar in the strictest Japanese tradition, "You don't talk, you just tuck your face into the bowl and slurp."
Rules of ramen
As a young boy in Tokyo, Utagawa perfected his slurp. Most ramen newbies approach the bowl the same way. "They eat the soup," he says, "and then there's these noodles, and they kind of eat the noodles later."
By the time newbies get to the noodles, they're soggy. Rookie mistake. "One is running away, and one stays," he says. "Which one do you want to catch first?"
The biggest mistake people make, when it comes to ramen, is not getting their face into the bowl. It contradicts everything we're taught about American table manners, but at a ramen bar "put your face over the bowl and face downwards," Utagawa says. "Eating ramen is not a very social thing!"
To pay or not to pay
As we open our minds to new techniques in noodle slurping, Washingtonians will also have to open their pocketbooks. Ramen bowls at these new establishments cost $10 to $15. Utagawa says it's worth every penny.
"A can of ravioli can be a dollar a can, but just because you eat that, you aren't going to go to an Italian restaurant and say 'Why would I pay that much for that beautiful pumpkin ravioli?'"
While there is something new about ramen's popularity, Cho says, there's also something very familiar about sitting down to a big bowl of noodles. "We've picked the most iconic comfort food available, outside of mac and cheese."
And, from looking around the restaurant, it's definitely struck a chord with Washingtonians.
[Music: "Hungry Eyes (In the Style of Eric Carmen)" by Hot Fox Karaoke from Hot Fox Karaoke - Dirty Dancing]