City Paper is not for tourists
Peaches and pigs’ feet. That’s the secret. Or, at least, part of it, anyway.
I’m referring to the ambrosial broth at Toki Underground. That alluring aroma tickles your nose hairs the moment you ascend the stairs, wooing you onward to the jovial host with the clipboard, where the fragrance reveals itself to be a cruel, teasing mistress. Take a number, pal. You think you’re the first guy to be seduced by that scent? We’ll call you in an hour and a half or so.
But that wait is finally worth it. After four months of tinkering at the stock pot, Toki’s tantalizing tonkotsu-based ramen has developed into a steamy addiction, just in time for chilly autumn.
Like most chefs, Toki toque Erik Bruner-Yang is naturally cagey when it comes to the components of his signature dish. And he seems none too pleased to find out that one of his cooks has unwittingly divulged a few of the ingredients while a food critic sits within earshot.
The pig parts I probably could’ve guessed. I’m by no means the world’s preeminent expert on Chinese-cum-Japanese-cum-Taiwanese noodle soups; presumably, no Caucasian is. But any respectable ramen-nosher knows that pork bones have long been the chief component to tonkotsu-style broth. That and salt.
“Just trying to stay on our toes,” the chef says, rather apropos, when I ask about the added trotters.
The peaches, though, are a surprise. Bruner-Yang explains that the sweetness of the fruit is intended to help balance the fattiness of the pork. If it’s doing its job, the fuzzy fruit conducts this business quite subtly. All I taste is pork. Each sip is like slurping pure liquefied swine. It’s as if Bruner-Yang found a juicer big enough to purée an entire Berkshire, snout to tail. And it is divine.
The stuff is sure to get even fattier in the coming months. Peach season is over and the chef plans to refine the sweet summery stew into an even thicker, porkier broth for fall and winter. I, for one, can hardly wait. (And wait. And wait.) But, knowing Toki and its enduring following, I’ll probably have to.
When H Street’s hugely hyped ramen house debuted this past spring, I was among those anxious diners who were immediately underwhelmed by the big bowls of broth. Bland isn’t the right word: The soup had flavor. But it fell a little flat. Maybe it was the flurry of press that heightened expectations beyond the fledgling restaurant’s capabilities. Maybe it was the lengthy wait to snag a seat, around three hours during peak dining times on weekends. Whatever it was, the fare simply couldn’t match up. The food wasn’t bad—but clearly not good enough to justify the hours of precious life lost in the process.
Now it seems the stuff just needed some extra time to simmer.
The food-media frenzy has since shifted to other high-profile D.C. eateries, like America Eats Tavern, Graffiato, and Rogue 24. But the crowds continue to gather at Bruner-Yang’s place. A call to the restaurant at precisely 8 p.m. this past Saturday revealed a three-hour wait rivaling the eatery’s opening weekend. Monday night, the thumb-twiddling time was more reasonable: a mere hour and a half for a table of two at 7:39 p.m. Manager Scott Carder describes the last week of August as the restaurant’s busiest yet—a considerable feat in late summer.
Sure, the eatery’s tiny seating capacity (just 25 stools) lends itself to limited availability. And the utter lack of competing ramen shops in the District ensures some level of demand. (The future arrival of chef Katsuya Fukushima’s own tonkotsu temple Daikaya is bound to test Toki’s endurance in this regard.) The price-point doesn’t dissuade many diners, either: a group of four can eat and drink for around $100—even less if you skip the add-ons and house-made Sriracha-style “endorphin sauce.”
But a kitchen in decline would undoubtedly send discerning soup-slurpers to fiddle with their chopsticks out in the suburbs or at one of the District’s more prevalent pho parlors instead. To the contrary, Toki’s stock only appears to be rising.
When I returned to the ramen house early last month for the first time since April, the improvement was palpable upon the very first sip. My curry chicken hakata had taken on a newfound heartiness. The broth, strewn with sesame seeds and floating slicks of fiery-colored spice, tasted rich, zesty, and delicious.
Several trusted foodie friends making their own return trips came back echoing that assessment. “The first time I went, the broths seemed much less, I don’t know, complex?” noted one regular dining companion.
Even Bruner-Yang admits that his earlier iteration was more or less “just soup.” The chef credits a higher quality of ingredients that he’s been able to procure lately: All his chickens are now organic. All his pork is of the heralded Berkshire variety.
Since Toki’s debut, the broth has been its biggest challenge. If quality was an initial concern, quantity was even more so. Bruner-Yang opened the restaurant with aims of staying open into the wee hours—a helpful service to H Street’s underfed and over-sauced night-crawlers. But he could never whip up enough of the liquid each day in that confined cooking space to satisfy the demand. Even now, the kitchen closes at10 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends.
With the steamy stew finding its stride, the chef has been experimenting with other parts of the menu. Lately, his add-ons have seemed more adventurous than the usual fatty pork, cabbage, and corn you find at traditional Japanese ramen shops, such as the area’s standard-bearer of the genre, Ren’s Ramen in Wheaton. And they come without all the obligatory slurps, burps, and prolonged ahhhhhs from the next table that inevitably accompany your ramen at Ren’s. (Where is Tom Sietsema’s trusty decibel meter when you need it?) At Toki, the various mouth sounds are drowned out by the chef’s personal mix of loud indie rock.
From the outset, Bruner-Yang has sought to distinguish his lonely urban ramen shop from its few existing contemporaries in the ’burbs. “I love Temari in Rockville, and I’ve been to Ren’s Ramen,” he told me back in April. “But they’re very different from us. They’re more traditional to Japanese style.” Bruner-Yang, a Northern Virginia native with family roots in Taiwan, veers toward the stylings of ramen shops in Taipei. “Toki Underground ramen is my ramen,” he said.
That difference seems most apparent in the various meats he offers as optional accompaniments to the soup.
One night, Bruner-Yang ran a special on duck breast bacon: three thick slabs of skewered fowl that initially hit the tongue with an elegant richness, then exploded in saltiness—perhaps too salty when eaten alone, but tempered nicely when paired with the soupy noodles. On another visit, it was butter-poached chicken livers and crispy chicken skin, poultry’s deep-fried answer to pork rinds.
The noodles, too, are getting some deserved attention. In recent weeks, the chef has offered various specials on dan dan mien, a less soupy style of ramen that he unveiled in an attempt to conserve more of his precious broth. It has turned out to be among the more popular items, when available.
The broth-less variety is otherwise identical to Toki’s classic hakata: Same curly noodles. Same soft-boiled egg. Same special ramen sauce—the contents of which the chef is keeping to himself. Presumably not including peaches.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
Toki Underground, 1234 H Street NE, (202) 388-3086
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