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Hakata Ippudo NY- 1 thumb up, 1 thumb down

Japanese ramen sure has come a long way from the back alleys of postwar Showa Era street carts to a "ramen noodle brassiere" in the East Village. I'm not sure I'm prepared to recognize this as progress.

After I left my name on a list at the little hostess desk with a flat screen monitor and printed leather-bound menus, I sidled up to the bar for a drink. I was told the wait was two hours. I ordered a $9 glass of shochu, tipped the remaining buck, sat and sipped. I had already paid the cost of what I spent on my last bowl of ramen in Tokyo. One $6 beer and a not so bad 30 minutes later, I was seated at a counter in Ippudo's "dining room". It's nice in there. It's a ramen noodle brassiere.

Ippudo serves Hakata style ramen- tonkotsu broth (made from simmered pork bones) and hosomen (thin, angel hair-like egg noodles). Tonkotsu broths come in many degrees of "porkiness" usually determined by the amount of what other ingredients are blended with it. Generally, chicken, fish, and vegetable broths are used to give soups both a softer and deeper character. Ippudo is a very famous and well regarded chain in Japan. They have enjoyed high profile media exposure as well- i.e. winning television contests, being invited to take part in a ramen museum in Yokohama, and a few other things. Tonkotsu (more of a Kyushu thing) has managed to become really popular in Tokyo these days and I don't know if that's because of shops like Ippudo or if they are simply enjoying the shift in public tastes. Ippudo is also well known for providing patrons with fresh garlic cloves and hand presses to turn your soup up a notch or two. They also provide little handcrank sesame grinders, pickled ginger (gari), spicy bean sprouts, and a pickled green vegetable (takana) for further customizing. It's been a few years since I ate in a branch of Ippudo, but I remember it being tasty- though not at the stratospheric level that some ramen shops can reach.

Disappointingly, I didn't see any of the accoutrements at the NYC shop. I did read a blog posting of a request for the garlic being fulfilled though. I ordered the "akamaru new taste ramen", which I would characterize as nicely balanced, soft, and mild tonkotsu soup. I suppose some are going to find this rich and thick. It's finished with a "special sauce" which tastes pretty much like shoyu and sesame oil. In the middle of the bowl was a red dollop of mild miso or some kind of little chutney (it wasn't spicy). Neither this nor the special sauce seem to have any particular influence on the soup. From my ramen experience, I found this broth to be really just about balance of umami, saltiness, porkiness, etc. This was crafted to appeal to the fat part of the bell curve.

The noodles were very thin, even by Hakata standards, and bunched up nicely to hold the broth in. Two tiny slices of charshu, some julienned cabbage, and slices of Japanese long onion were the toppings. The pork was excellent. Marinated in shoyu, fatty, and a finished smokiness. My problem with the toppings wasn't the quality but the measly quantity. The cabbage too, which is a vegetable frequently served with greasy foods in Japan, was seemingly only there for color. Which brings me to my main thesis that at $13 a bowl, with what I would call very modest portions and a menu full of funky fusion items offered on those long white serving dishes, is this "progress" for ramen as a "cuisine"? And is it what we really need in NYC?

I usually find the best ramen shops illustrate some of the great qualities of Japanese culture- single-minded diligence at craft, the stubborn pursuit of perfection, competitive creativity, and modest presentation that allows the work stand on its' own merits- not to mention offering this all at a fair value to the customer. The ramen at Ippudo is good. Best in Manhattan. But is it worth it? Was the hype worth it? I can't help but feel that that such an ostentatious setting and premium pricing reveal an uncomfortable sense of self-importance. In Japan they call this "ramen dining". But one could equally call it "ramen hubris".

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  1. Hi Silverjay,

    Thank you for the great review. Tonkotsu ramen has always been my favorite type of ramen despite growing up in Tokyo. It irked very much when I saw that they didn't get the basic like gari right. No sign of their garlic was definitely another negative. I don't know if it was my imagination but I recalled the pork to be better in Japan - thicker perhaps? I did think the broth and noodle were close to what I had in Japan. But again it might be just me but I found the "koku" (how to translate this into English?) of the soup a bit lacking. I always prefer hosomen so its noodle fitted to my liking.

    And $13 is definitely a NY pricing. To answer your question of whether it is worth it. I think for those who haven't tried tonkotsu in Japan should pay a visit, as it is possibly the closest to what you can get in Japan in Manhattan. Of course, if you are willing to venture out of the city (just a bit), I prefer Santoka (for shio / miso-shio ramen) or Ichiran to Ippudo, but that just a personal preference.

    1. Silverjay, thanks for the detailed review and analysis. I'm not living in NYC any more but I will be curious to sample the new wave NYC noodle culture on my next visit.

      To be honest it doesn't surprise me to hear about the immense hype preceding each opening and then the anticlimactic reaction post sampling of the fare on offer (Setagaya, Ippudo, will Ichiran complete the hat-trick?). My theory is that Japanese food overseas, for better or worse, is still disproportionately defined and represented by sushi and sushi shops which goes some way to explaining why there are so many sushi bars in NYC and LA, why the gap in quality between the best of them in NYC/LA and Japan is relatively narrow and why each and every izakaya in London doubles up as a sushi bar. By contrast, in Japan itself, the food culture seems most defined by noodles and noodle bars (and maybe also izakaya culture) with sushi still being viewed in many households as special occasion food and eaten only a few times per year (albeit not in my girlfriend's household where they eat raw fish every day, her dad is from Kagoshima).

      All of which leads to the conclusion that noodle bar culture and quality in NYC has a long long way to go before it gets anywhere near to the quality, range, popularity etc to be found in Japan, the current gulf is massive. I've enjoyed the likes of Ippudo in Japan but only now after my most recent trip to Japan, and having travelled around with my noodle-obsessed girlfriend for an extended period, am I beginning to understand just how brilliant noodle culture is there and how little of the good stuff we are exposed to outside Japan. And if you think noodle culture is bad in NYC, you should come to London where it's positively woeful even though sushi bar and izakaya options have improved considerably in recent times.

      1. You're right about their obsession and specialization of their craft, extending to things beyond food. Thanks for that detailed review. Have been enjoying your informative meticulous posts on the Japan board prepping for a trip. Love hakata style ramen. Will make sure to try Ippudo soon.

        1. I tried Ippudo recently and have similar misgivings. It is a good bowl of ramen, especially by NYC standards. However, like those who have been complaining about the rise of costs of pizza slices, a $13 bowl of ramen is like a $5 slice of pizza. It might be good, but is it worth it, and with the long wait? (search DiFara on the outer boroughs board). I understand why Ippudo went with the "ramen dining" angle, especially in NYC where it's difficult to make any money just on the food. The profits come from alcohol sales. Otherwise, it's about quick turnover, which doesn't seem to fit well with the habits of NYC diners.

          But there are other problems. First, there's a lot of wasted space inside. There's a lot of needless kitchen space, especially the area behind the ramen counter, where a couple of cooks prepare various non-ramen appetizers. They also have a kitchen in the basement where the noodle soup is being made, and the room with the noodle cutting machine (you can peek in there going downstairs to the restrooms). They could have designed the space more efficiently to accommodate more diners, I think. I came to this conclusion as I sat at the counter with my party of 4 watching all the activity in that kitchen, wondering why they don't have real cooks doing some real cooking there. The rest of the menu seems such a waste. Most everything else on the menu are items slapped together with premade materials, the only exception are the premade materials that are deep fried. I guess it would be a stretch for them to be making gyoza or chahan (the traditional ramen accoutrement) since it might require some actual skills. If this were just a fast food operation, it would be praiseworthy, but as a "ramen brasserie", it seems a little too lightweight.

          As I compared notes with some friends who ate there during their soft opening, we realized that they changed the ramen formula since then, especially with the shiromaru ramen. The one I had recently was rich and creamy. But the one my friends had during the soft opening period was described as "assari" (which mine wasn't). They seem to be tweaking the ramen formula during the month, trying to figure out what styles are best tailored for the NYC ramen eating public. But I wonder if they really need to bother. Ippudo has been successful with a long established formula and they should just go with that, instead of trying to fine-tune it for whatever they think NYers like. The akamaru modern NY ramen might be that newfangled creation, and I thought it was pretty good, but after tasting a few appetizers, I realized that the red miso sauce tasted an awful lot like the style of mabo tofu that's really popular in Japan. That flavor is fairly ubiquitous on their other menu items. While I do enjoy that flavor, it seems redundant. The kakuni pork in the akamaru made for a better accompaniment than the pork in the shiromaru.

          So to echo Silveryjay's feelings, one thumb up, and another down. If I can go there and have a quick bowl of ramen, I might feel better about it, but I won't feel any value in paying that $13 though.

          1. Silverjay,
            Thanks for yet another detailed and thoughtful account. As a fellow ramen lover, I appreciate your heavy duty analysis and can identify with your passion. If I weren't headed for Tokyo - in 4 days (make that "daze") to be exact - I would probably have made a bee line for Ippudo at this point. Alas, there's an amazing Tsukemen place, in Koiwa, 10 minutes away from my in-laws' house, that I have to save up my calories for.

            I have to admit, though, that when it comes to the NYC Ramen scene, I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy, very hopeful and optimistic. I remember when, not too long ago, people raved about Rai Rai Ken, Sapporo and Minca. Based on my ramen experiences in Japan, these places rank with the joints that have to open at 11pm to service the drunks, the insomniacs or the people who just missed the last train home(not that they don't have their hidden charms and surprises). Yet, we have more and more places opening, more competition and more interest in general. Why is Ippudo even interested in coming here to begin with? For my wife and myself, Setagaya - at least when it opened - definitely upped the ante to a whole other level; we felt like we were back in Japan.

            I also enjoy Eric's comparison to DiFara's which is, to my mind, in essence, a ramen place at heart. People go there for one reason: to eat, to savor the taste of the food. I can deal with the high prices, but also cannot identify with a ramen joint that is anything other than just that. An eating place. Eat, slurp, have a beer and few gyoza, maybe, and then get out.


            1. Hi Silverjay!

              Thanks for another detailed, balanced, ultra-knowledgable report...as i may have mentioned, Ippudo is near my old home in NY...so that, coupled with the fact that i've spent a few weeks in Fukuoka over the last year, has been made me curious to hear the full scoop on the place.

              The Ippudo in Fukuoka is ok, but not my fav in the city by a long shot: the akamaru there is way over (off?) the fatty part of the curve: like molten lard...i prefer their shiomaru option...but it's a low key place, open late, w/ good casual energy...but i much prefer Hakata Daruma and even Ichiran (which i think would do well in Manhattan given that you can specify fattiness, spiciness, density, extra pork, etc)...

              While i could prob deal w/ the addition of a few "brasserie" sides, the absence of garlic presses would send me into at least a mild depression, as that is what initially charmed me about Kyushu ramen joints...based your report, i don't feel like i'm missing too much, though i imagine i'd likely hit it at least occassionally if i still lived a block away...hope the shochu was good at least, and that it was something imo, from Kyushu...

              1. i went to IPPUDO for lunch the other day and had the akamaru special ramen.

                i basically agree with everybody else here. the broth was a medium tonkatsu and the extra red miso and oil or whatever didn't really add anything to the dish. afterward, it left a bit of a buzz in my mouth long after, kind of like msg, but not likely that. i didn't really love the broth so much, i'll have to try the "standard" ramen version next time.

                as noted, the charshu, cabbage, scallions, etc. ingredients were way too minimal for the money. agree that on the positive side the charshu was nicely fatty and smoky. pretty much perfect. however, the two pieces were just very small and it ended up that i wanted one more piece.

                the best part were the silky noodles. best i've had in a nyc ramen dish for sure.

                outide of the ramen, the decor and service were very nice. yes maybe the restaurant is a bit oddly laid out, fancy and spacious for a ramen joint? i suppose that is a misguided ode to nyc upscaling, but whatever. also, yeah for sure the cooks have way too much room back there -- seems like they have a lot of un-ramen-friendly empty space to roam.

                as for the crowd aversive, note the place was only about 1/3 full at weekday lunch. very comfortable.

                1 Reply
                1. re: mrnyc

                  i'll agree with everyone that the add-ins were minimal, much less than i've seen at other ramen places. and, my god, if they're going to serve us that heavenly pork, please, please put in a few more slices! fwiw, my table had both the garlic presses and the sesame grinders

                  however, i'll go out on a limb here and say that i think the concept works for nyc. most people associate ramen with those awful rock hard noodles and the gussied up interior, along with serving some good sides, i think brings a needed perspective for ramen newbies. there's room enough for a place like this.

                  and i don't know about you, but the $13 can feed me for two meals, so it's not too expensive. some of the sides i got were really very good, including some fattier (is that even possible?) and more luscious slices of the pork along with some daikon. i think for an introduction to ramen for typically unadventurous eaters, this is a great place to go. and i don't think the wait is as long anymore...

                2. HI Silverjay, thanks for all that detailed info. I grew up eating ramen but haven't been back to Japan since childhood, so I can't compare my Ippudo experience with the real thing. But a friend and I went on Saturday night when we were visiting NY for the weekend, and we had a great time. I loved the ramen and the pickled veggies and though delicious we, were unable to finish our noodles. We were stuffed! I think by American standards it was a small serving, and maybe in general everyone's getting used to bigger plate-fulls? In any case our meal came to about $60, and for a Saturday night dinner for 2, that's more than reasonable. I think if we were at a hole in the wall, we'd pay less, but clearly the cost isn't just the food but the wonderful dining experience the restaurant provides. Loved the energy and happy vibe--there was a 3-year-old wandering around at 10:30 PM w/ his dad, and the little guy seemed really happy and no one paid any mind to him at all! I wish we had places like that in Toronto. Someplace with lots of fun background noise, good unpretentious from-scratch food and an environment where singles and families can just relax and chill and stuff themselves on noodles! In a dark space with flattering lighting!!! (Oh, and the wait on a Saturday night was down to a mere half hour for two people!)

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: chickster88

                    The portions of the toppings are small by Japanese ramen standards. You usually get more. Checkout the Japan board for dozens of ramen pin-up shots....My commentary is colored, admittingly, by a passionate cultural expectation and association with the dish. It's simply impossible to overlook the leap in style, setting, and price. It's a bit anachronistic. Like, I suppose, opening a swanky BBQ joint in Tokyo when your expectation is checkered table covers, drinks in mason jars, and people in overalls. But I meant my coverage less as comment on a NYC scene and more on the Japanese level of ramen "insanity". That said, I can appreciate your perspective and glad to hear you and others enjoyed the experience.

                    1. re: Silverjay

                      Ippudo is good - but not worth the struggle of the crowds to get in.
                      I ended up seated next to a salaryman and we both longed for Ichiran in Tokyo.

                  2. I tried it today and was very pleased. I think I'm used to NY prices, paying $13 for a bowl of ramen. Portion size was fine -- filled me up quite well. The noodles were toothsome and very good -- much better than Menchanko-Tei's version. I'm starting to feel hesitant visiting Japan now because I'm afraid I won't be satisified with NY Japanese food anymore.

                    btw, I did see a gomasio grinder a couple of tables away from me. So I think they'll give it to you if you ask.

                    1. went to ippudo last night and i thought it was alright, but really nothing to write home about. now to be fair, i may have a high bar b/c i was just at home in CA and i ate at santouka like 3 times and that place is awesome

                      anyhow, i got got the shiromaru ramen. the broth was just okay, i thought it lacked the complexity and flavor that a good tonkotsu broth has, it wasnt bad, just so so...almost felt like it was a bit watery. the pork was not good at all, i thought it was pretty dry and relatively flavorless. the noodles were pretty decent, i generally like the slightly thicker and chewier noodles (a la santouka), but these were pretty good

                      overall, its definitely not worth a 1 hr wait, but when things slow down and the wait isnt so bad, its probably worth stopping by. although i actually thought rockmeisha's tonkotsu ramen is better than ippudo's

                      also, i did like the decor, its a relatively cool place (and very nice for a ramen place)

                      16 Replies
                      1. re: Lau

                        Lau, if you've got the cravings for Santouka before you hit home, there's a branch at Mitsuwa in Edgewater, NJ. I haven't had the tonkotsu there, but the salt ramen was very good.

                        Yeah, I agree that Hakata Ippudo is not worth the 1 hour wait. I went for a late lunch and my wait was only 5-10 minutes.

                        1. re: Miss Needle

                          yeah ive been meaning to go out there for a while to try it, if everything is the same as the LA branches get the "special pork" one next time...its sooo good

                          1. re: Silverjay

                            im going to try it soon, ill let u guys know how it stacks up to its CA counter parts

                            1. re: Miss Needle

                              I've been wondering about how Ippudo compares to Santoka, although I thought I would be asking MRNYC, as I thought I saw him there a couple of times, thoroughly enjoying the ramen. (mrnyc, was that you?) The one way shuttle to Mitsuwa has gone from $2 to $3, and so it seems a bit expensive to go just for ramen, but that "special pork" bowl of noodle with a plate of perfect slices of pork is definitely worth it.

                              1. re: HLing

                                What Silverjay said about the broth is true at Hakata Ipuudo -- it's richer and porkier. I preferred the broth at Ippudo. I thought the noodles were equally good at both places -- both with the right texture and feel. I know the shuttle price went up but at $13 for a bowl at Ippudo, you'll still spend less at Mitsuwa -- and won't have to leave a tip, further making it more economical. And, of course, you've got a great grocery store for Japanese products, though the prices are kind of steep.

                                1. re: Miss Needle

                                  ill caveat my next statement with the fact that ive never had the ramen at santouka in NJ (only in CA), but the santouka "special pork" ramen in CA is significantly richer, thicker and porkier than what i had at ippudo (shiromaru) on saturday. And hence I liked it much better

                                  1. re: Lau

                                    The broth at Santouka is the same for everything. There is no special pork soup. The "special pork" only refers to the meat they give you. It's all the same soup with different bases or toppings added. If you take a bunch of the pork from Santouka and throw it in the soup, there is a good chance it will become richer as the fat melts. BUT, Santouka shouldn't be close to the level of richness that Ippudo is unless Ippudo significantly modified their recipe for the U.S.

                                    1. re: Silverjay

                                      If Lau is referring to the what Santoka in NJ calls "Toroniku" then yes, it's the same broth, and yes the amount of pork slices on the separate plate they give you will probably add to the richness of the broth.

                                      Whether or not Ippudo significantly modified their recipe for the U.S., the broth at Santoka in NJ is extremely rich and thick. I almost cannot imagine anything richer and porkier than that, but I guess I'll have to try Ippudo to find out.

                                      Just curious, Silverjay, your post seem to imply that you haven't done a side by side comparison of the NJ Santoka and the NY Ippudo? Or am I reading it wrong?

                                      1. re: HLing

                                        I haven't had the shiromaru at Ippudo here in NY yet but I've tried the akamaru- as noted above. It was a reasonably rich tonkotsu broth. Very tasty. I've had Santouka, both here and in Japan, many times. It's known for being a lighter tonkotsu-shio broth- whatever that means. I think the Mitsuya branch serves it too oily, but I still order it.

                                      2. re: Silverjay

                                        yeah i know, but i dont throw the pork into the soup base and Santouka's broth is significantly richer than what i had at Ippudo. As I said in my original post I thought their broth was almost suprisingly somewhat watery given that everytime ive had tonkotsu broth its been fairly rich (across a variety of places mainly in CA b/c ive found the nyc places to be pretty weak)

                                        And yes it is the toroniku

                                        1. re: Lau

                                          You know, I just remembered that I didn't order the regular ramen but the "modern" one which was much richer than the regular (that DH had). So perhaps that's why I think it's much richer than Santouka. I don't really remember what the regular one was like as I only took a couple of sips (DH is sick). The regular was not as rich as the modern, and my preference was for the modern -- heartier, richer, and more flavorful.

                                          1. re: Lau

                                            My guess is that Ippudo modified the recipe. Hakata style should be richer than Santouka's style. But I'm basing my views on what I had in Japan a couple of years ago and a sort of conventional wisdom.... Eh, who knows. Just keep on slurping!

                                            1. re: Silverjay

                                              i've had reliable word that ippudo nyc sources all their ingredients locally, so i'd imagine there'd be some deviance from the formula/taste that makes them famous in japan. they make a decent hakata tonkotsu, and certainly have the best marketing machinery behind them.

                                              the original fukuoka shop seems to be a bit better than their satellites, at least the ones i've been to.

                                              1. re: rameniac

                                                Talking about marketing -- somebody I know (who's Japanese) told me that she went to Ipuudo with her husband the other day for dinner on a Thursday night. She said they told her there was a 45-minute wait. She peered in and saw a lot of empty tables. So she told the host that (in Japanese) and they were seated immediately. So the whole mystique of the wait could be perceived as a shrewd marketing strategy.

                                    2. re: HLing

                                      hi hling -- yes probably me i've been to mitsuwa and SANTOUKA quite a bit, but not lately.

                                      however, i was back to IPPUDO recently for lunch again and this time tried the 'regular' shiomaru ramen, which i liked a lot better than the 'special' akamaru style. the broth was more to my taste. even a bit thicker and more flavorful this time -- maybe they have improved it slightly?

                                      i need to try SANTOKA and IPPUDO back to back to compare them, i can't really say much off memory other than the charshu pork is better at IPPUDO.

                                      1. re: mrnyc

                                        wow im surprised, maybe i need to go back to ippudo, i thought the chachu was very dry when i went there. ive never eaten at the santouka in nj (only in LA) and its melt in your mouth there (literally)

                                2. I went there once. Soup was alright, but the noodles were soft. Charshu was sliced very thin and very small, only 2 pcs. For $13, it's a rip off. You are paying $5 for the fancy decor. I will never go there unless they reduce the price to $7.50 or somebody else paying for it. For that price, I prefer Ajisen. Minca is much better too, but I almost always get a stomach ache after eating there. Right now, Setaga-ya is the best ramen spot for me. Menkuitei and Menchanko are reliable too.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: yabadabadaba

                                    I went to Ippudo recently and I had a similar experience. I ordered the Shiromaru ramen and the pork was very dry. I was kind of disappointed after my first bite. Also, there wasn't a lot of veggies in my bowl.. another disappointment. I was hoping for more "topping" since it's $13... guess not... I agree that Setaga-ya had better ramen than this place, although the broth there is a little too salty for my taste but that might be the way it is at their restaurant.

                                    I went to Ajisen a few weeks ago (my previous visit there was like 7 or 8 years ago!) and, to me, their ramen was actually surprisingly good. I have always been an advocate for Santouka but my previous visit there (Santouka's location at Mitsuwa in NJ) was not too good... perhaps they were too busy that day (it was during some food festival and they were very crowded), my noodle was overcooked and kind of mushy, even though the broth and toppings were still good.

                                    1. re: bearmi

                                      Ajisen is overlooked and under appreciated because of their bad reputaion in the early days. Some people just can't judge their ramen fairly because of bad memory. Also, Minca is very good for tonkotsu (pig bone broth) ramen. However, I often get stomach ache after eating there. I don't know why. Menchanko have nice hakata style tonkotsu ramen too.

                                      1. re: yabadabadaba

                                        I will have to try Minca. I walked by Minca a few times but never tried it... I should have done it! I think their price is more reasonable than Ippudo so that would be another reason for me to try it. I have eaten at Menchanko a few years ago but forgot what I had. From what I remember, it was decent too.