City Paper is not for tourists
It’s Thursday, the day before Ren’s Ramen is supposed to close, and I’ve rushed over to the Bethesda noodle house for one last slurp.
To say I am hungry would be a lie. It’s been one of those work days when I’ve survived on coffee, water, and a vending machine candy bar. By the time I take a seat at the far end of the window counter, I’m ready to eat the first mammal that approaches.
Instead, I attack the menu without remorse. I order the miso ramen and tell the waitress to dump a small barnyard of proteins into it: extra slices of roast pork, two runny seasoned eggs, and slabs of fatty pork belly. I even ask for the pork shumai when the server informs me Ren’s has run out of its usual gyoza dumplings.
As I attempt to slurp up those eggy strands, I practically cough them back into the bowl when I forget to suck in enough air to cool off the molten noodles. My second slurp is loud and satisfying. A flood of flavors washes over my tongue. I’d like to sort them all out, but I’m too famished. Mostly what I’m experiencing is this depth of flavor that rattles me to the bone. It’s not just the salty and savory roast pork; it’s the utter complexity of the miso, lacing the broth with all its earthy and unearthly umami flavors.
I have lost beloved restaurants before, of course, starting with this hamburger joint—outfitted with a miniature golf course—that was within walking distance of my childhood home in Omaha. But right now, to think that I may never sample Ren’s ramen again is more than my nutrient-deficient brain can handle.
My relationship with Ren’s is complicated. Until I walked into its Spartan, no-aesthetics operation, once a satellite of the now-shuttered Daruma market, I had never tasted genuine Japanese ramen. It was my Aldous Huxley-on-mescaline moment: The door had been permanently opened, forever to reshape my thinking about the noodle soup. I’ve since sampled David Chang’s ramen at Momofuku in New York, among other bowls, but Ren’s was where it started for me. You never forget your first.
Losing a favorite restaurant is not easy, perhaps because a restaurant is one of the few businesses that actually nourishes and sustains you. A restaurant is more personal than a grocery store and less needy than a mother. Every time you walk into one, a restaurant feeds you and cares for you, and all it asks in return is a few (or many) shekels. Is it any wonder, then, that when a beloved eatery dies, we feel something close to mourning?
Meshelle Armstrong, for instance, says flat out that Georgetown hasn’t been the same since Au Pied du Cochon folded years ago and was replaced by a Five Guys Burgers and Fries outlet. The French bistro was the after-hours destination of choice for many late-night revelers in the District, recalls Armstrong, now co-owner of Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria.
“When the bouncers vigorously flickered those lights, you knew you only had a few minutes to decide if the party was to continue or if you were going to drive home,” Armstrong tells me via e-mail. “Joyfully, when I’d hear the slurring chorus of ‘Pig’s foot!,’ you knew it would [continue].”
“I witnessed many random things while eating in that glorious place: over-dramatized fights by jealous girlfriends, proposals that should never have happened, and random sexual gropings—all while I ate my runny eggs and my doused ketchup fries,” she adds. “I truthfully believe that place may even have saved many lives. Our bellies were full before driving home.”
D.C. pastry chef David Guas grew up near that favorite bend in the river to get bent, and yet his fondest memories of New Orleans tend to focus on the city’s sweet side. Every Sunday, Guas’ grandfather would arrive promptly at 7 a.m. and sound his obnoxious car horn, much to the dismay of neighbors. The horn was music to Guas’ ears: It meant that he would soon join his grandfather for a trip to McKenzie’s Pastry Shoppe, where they’d gobble down éclairs, buttermilk drops, or maybe even one of those French puff-pastry treats known as palmiers.
“It was just a simple bakery setting, with [a] traditional long display case filled with sweet goodies, enough to make my eyes bulge ever so slightly and tongue come out just a bit,” writes Guas, former corporate pastry chef for Passion Food Hospitality and owner of Damgoodsweet Consulting. “The ladies that worked there were the yat-tiest (they had that Brooklyn-type accent) and wore their hair nets and aprons. They would always address me as ‘boo,’ ‘sweetie,’ or ‘daw-ling’.”
“It was all about the ritual for me, the time with my grandfather and ordering the same thing every time,” Guas continues. “I will take those memories to the grave.”
So how did Guas react when the last of the McKenzie’s shops closed in 2001, several years after the pastry chef had moved to D.C?
“Shock, disbelief, sadness and then sheer panic, in that order,” Guas notes.
Chef Gillian Clark of the General Store remembers being a freshman at Johns Hopkins in 1982, when she and a friend asked their calculus professor out for dinner. The outing was part of a program to help create better relations between students and teachers. The bond that emerged after the dinner, however, was Clark’s relationship with the professor’s restaurant of choice, the expansive and ostentatious Haussner’s in Baltimore. It was the Tyrolean dumplings that sealed Clark’s affection for the place. She’d go back time and again for them.
“Long after I graduated, I’d tell people about Haussner’s—the crazy art, the beautiful food. I’d often get that look—are you crazy? How could you eat in there with all of that gaudy gilded artwork? I don’t know, I guess there were a bunch of us that got the place, that understood what it was all about,” Clark notes. “The food was great, the service patient and professional.”
“I read that it had closed after 76 years,” Clark adds. “You can’t argue with that kind of success and that every time I went to the place it was packed. I guess in some way it has influenced my feeling that I need to create some sort of unique drama in my places.”
Eve Zibart, the former Washington Post food critic, considered Katsui in Georgetown “one of the first great Japanese restaurants in Washington.” The chef there, Masaru Katsui, was sort of Zibart’s sensei, the one who “was determined to teach me Japanese cuisine from the sink up,” she recalls via e-mail. “I sat in silence one entire afternoon as he butchered, trimmed and filleted a torpedo-sized side of tuna. He baked whole fish in rock salt, tucked quail eggs into bird’s nests of julienned squid, covered crashing slices of sashimi with a spume of carved daikon (a tribute to Hiroshige’s ‘Great Wave,’ and he was proud of me for seeing that).”
“Unfortunately, the restaurant (at 33rd and M streets NW, where Aditi is now) had no parking lot, and the two-story seating meant that the waitresses were constantly climbing stairs in full kimono,” Zibart adds. “It closed, and by the time Katsui found a better spot in Dupont Circle, other good Japanese restaurants such as Sushi-Ko had taken hold of the market. Katsui went back to Japan to recoup, and unhappily passed away. But whenever I order that bird’s nest or explain a bit of Japanese tradition to someone, I honor him.”
In its own way, Ren’s has been my sensei with ramen, though given the rather secretive nature of the Japanese noodle soup world there have never been any live demonstrations. I’ve spoken with owners Yoko and Eiji Nakamura numerous times about their approach to ramen, and during my last trip to Ren’s, I spoke to Yoko Nakamura about the future of her shop.
She mentioned that Ren’s had been given a stay of execution. She and her husband had been sub-leasing their side space from Daruma, but when the market went belly up, the landlord put the couple on a month-to-month lease—with the understanding that they’d have to split whenever a new tenant was secured for the entire location. The new tenant originally wanted Ren’s to vacate by Aug. 20, but the date has been pushed back to Sept. 3.
The owners said they are actively looking for another spot. Ren’s, though, has special needs. Because the Nakamuras have no investors, they need a small space, no larger than 1,500 square feet. They also need a space with a built-in kitchen. Bethesda does not exactly teem with such commercial real estate.
I’d like to think the Nakamuras will ultimately find a space to meet their needs. Then again, I almost have to think that way. I can’t bear the thought of never tasting Ren’s ramen again—much like Don Rockwell, founder of the food board that bears his name, can’t stand the idea that he’ll never taste the pizza at Sammy’s Villa again.
Sammy’s was located in the White Oak Shopping Center in Silver Spring, and as a boy, Rockwell ate there every Saturday with his parents, who took part in a duck-pin league at a nearby bowling alley. The smell of Sammy’s pies still fills Rockwell’s nostrils.
“I can honestly say that if I was offered a choice, say next weekend, of any meal in town, any meal—it doesn’t matter if it’s a $200 chef’s table, or whatever, or a Sammy’s Villa large sausage pizza—I would take Sammy’s Villa sausage pizza, because it is unavailable right now at any price. And it will never be made again. It’s gone forever,” Rockwell says. “That’s the difference between food and works of art or music or literature…once something like that is gone, it’s gone forever.”
Ren’s Ramen, 6931 Arlington Rd., Bethesda, (301) 693-0806
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