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In the lead-up to the Rammys, the so-called Oscars of the D.C. food scene, City Paper held a contest in which Young & Hungry readers could submit their own reviews, detailing their best dining experiences of 2011, with the two best submissions nabbing two tickets to Sunday’s big soiree at the Marriott Wardman Park. Herewith, winning contestant Tom McClive of Silver Spring on Toki Underground:
Leave it to this hyped place to make ramen cool and popular. D.C. has largely ignored Ren’s Ramen and other places like Rockville’s Tamari Café, but Toki makes it cool. Half the appeal is the jazzed up menu, the other half is the modern, edgy yet cute Asian vibe. Being in Northeast gives Toki street cred, as opposed to the MoCo suburbs. There’s nothing like it in the area.
It’s a tiny place, and so far it’s usually packed. Early diners will be fine, but expect to wait if you go later. There are a few bars nearby where you can hang (they’ll call you when your number’s up), including one downstairs (The Pug) whose business must now soar with people waiting to eat upstairs. When you’re done eating, you feel like you should leave.
Almost everyone sits on stools, facing the wall and eating on a long counter that rings the tiny room, except a lucky few who can face the kitchen. Your footrest is a skateboard, and above your head is a row of small, plastic, Asian toy figures. Pachinko boards decorate other spots. Your dining view is not great unless you’re by the front window, and it’s hard to talk to your friends. This is not a date spot, nor a group spot. The six of you can’t sit together. Toki tries to stay open late, real late, except they run out of food before that.
The appetizer everyone gets is the house-made dumplings. They come with a sweet brown sauce, like the stuff that is put on eel, distracting and unbecoming. Yet the dumplings themselves were quite good, the skin thin and chewy and the ingredients fresh-tasting. The presentation, a squeeze-bottle-made lattice on a white plate, makes them look all-American, and I cringed until I ate one. They’re worth it, just avoid the damn sauce.
Ramen is originally Chinese, and didn’t become widely popular in Japan until after WWII, but the Japanese have certainly made it their own. Toki’s version comes from chef Erik Bruner-Yang, who is of Taiwanese heritage and who learned a few things in a Taipei ramen joint. Much is made of Bruner-Yang’s Taiwan connection, though the food is certainly much more Japanese style. He claims his ramen is Hakata style (from Kyushu, Japan), and nearly everything else on the menu seems Japanese. One appetizer called “Taiwanese style cold tofu” is served with shaved bonito, and a special one day was mackerel, also done Japanese-style. Everyone in Toki yells “irasshaimase” when you enter (well, I think that’s what they’re yelling. Hard to say.), but my waiter, though super-nice, was a bit in the woods about the food, and couldn’t pronounce “mackerel” or “mochi”.
Ramen is simple food, like sushi, that is labor-intensive and depends on just a few tastes that better be damn right. Ramen in Japan can really be made with any broth, but pork has become the standard here. Toki’s broth is quite clear and a bit creamy in the mouthfeel; DC people used to Vietnamese pho may find it thicker and blander. The miso ramen is cloudy of course, and though the extra flavor is nice, it makes the whole fairly salty. In Japan, miso ramen needs thicker noodles, but Toki uses the same ones. The noodles are good but not outstanding; they were cooked correctly but lack the chewy bite that is perfect. The veggie ramen is made with shitake mushrooms and seaweed, the others use a pork bone broth (ramen seriously is not a vegetarian dish). One interesting twist is the kimchi ramen (which is seen in Korea as well). There is much more pork floating on top than is usual for ramen, and it’s leaner and softer. You get your money’s worth. Also on top are pickled ginger, nori, lots of sesame seeds, and a soft-boiled egg that’s perfect. If your version of ramen doesn’t have the egg, order it as an extra. For a few bucks each, you can get extras of everything, including more noodles (or hell, just order another bowl). Toki charges $1.50 for housemade Sriracha sauce, a bit excessive.
There are a few things that don’t feel right here, mostly the starters and finishers. Toki has an extensive mixed drink menu, but this doesn’t feel like a cocktail place. Beer is fine (they even have Taiwan beer, cool!) and the house sake is a great deal at $5. The desserts are a bit too offbeat, with $7 cookies and milk (can’t buy into that concept, sorry) and a bento box filled with four truffle-like objects. Nice try, though. Still, you’re mainly here for the noodles, and you’re likely to be happy with them.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery