Get our free newsletter
Capitol Grounds Cafe is a little hard to find in the swirling traffic patterns and plethora of lunch options where K Street NW meets 17th Street NW. To identify it, look for the sign on the door that reads, “The Ramen from Parasite” and depicts one of the main characters from the Korean movie covering class warfare that took home Best Picture and several other awards at this year’s Oscars.
Purchase ram-don at the register, and listen as the owner of the deli calls out the name of the dish to the Korean chef in the kitchen using its official name—jjapaguri. The word jjapaguri is a mash up of two Korean instant noodle names: Chinese-inspired jajang ramen noodles known as Chapagetti and Japanese-style udon noodles called Neoguri.
When it came time to add subtitles to the film, Darcy Paquet, who translated the subtitles for Parasite, thought jjapaguri would be too tough to translate. It might be easier, he thought, if he just merged the words ramen and udon to form ram-don and boom—a new food name burst into popular culture.
In the film, the housekeeper, Mrs. Kim, has to make the dish in a hurry—eight minutes to be exact—when members of the much wealthier Park family bail on their camping trip. Mrs. Park calls Mrs. Kim and tells her to have ram-don ready for her son when they arrive home. Of course Mrs. Kim pulls it off.
The dish has become an allegory of sorts for the theme of the film. Ram-don is a cheap, comforting meal popular with the working class. And yet it’s good enough for the Park family. Almost. In the scene Mrs. Park instructs Mrs. Kim to incorporate chopped premium sirloin into the dish to literally class it up.
New York is also excelling at making the meal meant for a child or a stoner expensive. Some bowls top out at $25. Chefs are concocting complex broths, hand-pulling the noodles instead of using the instant varieties, and adding Wagyu beef. The broth is typically made using the flavor packets that come with each instant noodle brand.
Capitol Grounds Cafe keeps it simple and sells ram-don for $12. They use Neoguri noodles and top the dish with fresh vegetables, half an egg, and a few strands of bulgogi beef. Don’t expect a broth like ramen or udon soups. The noodles sit in a tangle and are coated in a thick brown sauce. The flavor is mild and savory instead of being salty or spicy. It’s the kind of bowl you’d want in front of you if you’re home sick. Some have already picked up on that.
“Think of it as Korean spaghetti,” says Tom, who took over as the owner of Capitol Grounds Cafe in November 2019 after the previous owner retired. He’s Korean and is building out the Korean section of the restaurant’s menu. Just today they started selling kimbap—a rolled rice dish similar to maki sushi.
But it’s the ram-don that everyone’s ordering. “Last week we had so many requests for it and we’ve already sold four orders today,” Tom says. Visit Mondays through Fridays from 7 a.m. to 4 p .m.
Capitol Grounds Cafe, 1010 17th St. NW; (202) 887-8231