Toki Underground

Toki Underground

Toki UndergroundA couple of years ago, nearly to this day, I had my first unpleasant encounter of this blogging business in a Ramen noodle eatery. After taking a seat in the empty space, I pulled out my camera to take a test shot. I was interrupted by the chef who brusquely asked me what I was doing. After explaining the purpose of my visit, he barked, “No photo!” My mind responded, “No photo, no blog.” I walked out of there immediately and I wrote on the Thai establishment next door.

Well, another Ramen opportunity popped its head up recently. I reconnected with a friend that I met some time ago, and I suggested that we meet at a noodle joint that people have been raving about. Toki Underground is a Taiwanese-Japanese noodle shop located in the recently gentrified H St. NE neighborhood, alive and bustling with new restaurants, bars, and night entertainment, along with near impossible night parking due to the lack of parking garages and new street parking restrictions. For this blog, I met up with above friend for lunch, hence avoiding the parking issue, but not the traffic issues that I encountered with the main corridor shut down for a street festival (seriously?). Walking down the car-empty H St., a rare sight, I was hunting for the address. Stumbling upon the place, I noticed that there was no signage at all except for the number. A steady stream of people entering was another hint that we were at the right place, and we walked upstairs only to be placed on a rather lengthy wait.

Pork Dumplings

After negotiating a seat by the window (prized seat for the photographer) in that loud dark tight space whose former life was a living room, we placed our order. The first to arrive was Pork Dumplings. These parcels were cooked the proper way with one side pan-fried and the rest of it steamed. One bite into it revealed a mildly seasoned and savory filling that exuded a faint porcine note, encased by a soft dough that made these bites delicate and sumptuous. The accompanying sauce was the proper Chinese-style sauce with the right combination of vinegar, soy, and chili oil. The presentation itself bespoke of an establishment that treats itself dishes with care and executes them well. A good start indeed.

Fried Chicken Steamed Buns

Fried Chicken Steamed BunsThe other appetizer to arrive was Fried Chicken Steamed Buns. Arrived was a filled plate that was quite a sight for the eyes and was yelling “assemble and eat me.” After making myself a filled bun, the first bite brought about a raised eyebrow. The soft and pillowy bun encased the perfectly cooked crispy and moist chicken bits, sauced in a rather fiery sweet chili sauce, and enhanced by good bits like ginger, garlic, sesame seeds, and green onions. The other accouterments consisted of house-made pickles, fresh basil, green onions, dill, and a mixture of mayonnaise and Togarashi, a Japanese chili mix. Every bite was a titillation of flavors and textures that made these successful and totally irresistible for both my dining companion and me.  If weren’t for the mains, we could have ordered another plate of these wonderful sandwiches.

Toki Classic RamenMy friend’s main dish was what this place is re-known for – Toki Classic Ramen Soup.  The pretty bowl arrived with the mound of noodles drowned by a sea of steamy broth and erupting with a garnishing of green onions, young kale, salted ginger, and a sheet of Nori.  After stealing a few bites from his bowl, I could ascertain its nature.  The noodles were properly cooked, enriched by the slightly fatty (where lots of flavor lie) rich and full-bodied broth that spoke of not just the pork flavors but of “age” or time spent brewing the stock.  I read that there is a Master Stock that is cooking at all times, and the sips were pointing in that direction.  Pieces of pulled pork were evident but not the star of the show, as is in the case of most Asian noodle dishes. The toppings added some more textures and flavors with the pungent green onions, the fresh young kale, and salty and biting ginger, the nutty sesame seeds, and the sea-iodine-tasting Nori.  A perfectly poached egg gave its lusciousness to the already rich bowl.  Now, I know why this is called the Toki Classic, and it is worth the order on your visit.

Abura TsukemenFor some variety, I went for a dry noodle dish – Abura Tsukemen.  The bowl of sauced noodles arrived topped with green onion strands, salted red ginger, and a sprinkling of toasted white and black sesame seeds.  The noodles tasted properly seasoned by light soy and dark sauces, and it was made more appetizing by a generous amount of fried garlic slivers, lending its slightly pungent and toasty notes to the whole mix, along with the nutty notes from the sesame seeds.  Bits of mild pork brought a level of satisfaction to each chopstickful with its mild tasting yet well-seasoned flavors.  The side sauce tasted much like the broth from the Ramen soup dish with its slight fattiness and full-bodied flavor, but a swirl of dark soy sauce in it did not make its presence known, which made it unnecessary.  Instead of dipping my noodles into the sauce as suggested by the waiter, I prefer pouring it on the noodles in small amounts to control the flavors and moisture level.  This is another dish worth ordering in my books.

Toki UndergroundFinally I made it to Toki Underground and what a delightful culinary adventure my visit was. Now, I understand what the buzz is all about. Starting with the dumplings that were so delicate and tasty, to the Fried Chicken Steamed Buns that not only grabbed our attention but tempted us to place another order, the Ramen Soup that spoke of full flavors and the realm of Slow Cooking that beats packet or other versions any day, and the dry Ramen dish with the clean-tasting pork enhanced by the rich dip sauce. No wonder there was a 45-minute wait 30 minutes after the restaurant opened and a constant stream of people. Just look out for the street number, and get there early to enjoy what this wonderful noodle joint has to offer!

Toki Underground on Urbanspoon



H Street NE, Washington DC - Blue Moon

On a late-summer Friday night lit by a radiant blue moon (it literally was), we decided to venture to the H street NE neighborhood to savor the cooking of a new restaurant. It had been many moons (pun intended) since I ventured to this part of town ever since an old friend lived there in the early 90’s. Strolling down its main drag with the full moon getting everyone’s attention and spurring us to enjoy a warm night during the lingering remnants of summer, I was quite taken aback by the area’s development and growth including the influx of diversity in a historically black neighborhood that was enjoying the burgeoning businesses on the strip. One such place is Souk Moroccan Restaurant.


When we arrived at our destination, the restaurant was undergoing some renovations in the main dining room, making its foyer cramped with filled tables. We were invited by the waiters to spend our waiting time at a Hookah Bar a couple of doors away. When the table became available, we squeezed into our table and quickly perused the menu. The offerings are the familiar and traditional Moroccan dishes that I have encountered in other eateries. The menu is divided into Cold Tapas, Hot Tapas, Signature Moroccan Specialties, Salads, and Entrées.

Moroccan Vegetable Platter

Our first choice to start the meal off was a combination of cold tapas listed under the Entrée section – Vegetarian Platter. The dish arrived filled with a combination of Zaalouk, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, traditional Moroccan spinach, and carrot salad. The Zaalouk consisted of roasted eggplant, garlic and tomatoes that enticed us with its savoriness, well-balanced flavors, and silky smooth texture along with a good hit of smokiness, and the accompanying pita slices made the perfect scooping vehicle for the dip. The carrots slices were still sweet and perfectly cooked with a tinge of lemon acidity. I could not get enough of the stuffed grape leaves that tasted fresh and not too acidic like in other places. The hummus was not too dense, smooth, and rich with a hint of garlic and tahini sauce. The center of the plate was occupied by a large chickpea falafel that was well-seasoned, light, and crispy from the frying. And the spinach was really tasty with a slight hint of fragrant dried spices, perhaps cumin. I would suggest to order this dish as the perfect starter even though it is listed under the entrée section. As a vegetarian offering, it makes a perfect meatless dish as well.

Chicken with Preserved Lemon

A favorite among the traditional Moroccan dishes is Chicken with Preserved Lemons, and we decided to order this restaurant’s rendition. The dish arrived with a thigh and drumstick that has been cooked with caramelized onions, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, and preserved lemons. The sauce was very tasty but it lacked the preserved lemon flavor that I was looking forward to in this dish. The chicken could have done with longer time on the stove/tagine for it was not quite fall-off-the-bone yet. However, the side of saffron rice blew us away. It was light, very savory, and heady from the saffron threads that added a beautiful yellow tinge as well as its slight flowery fragrance. This side indeed transported us to the sunny fields of North Africa with its wonderful flavors and perfume.

Apricot Lamb Tagine

Our next choice was Apricot Lamb Tagine. A lamb shank was marinated overnight with a saffron, ginger and cinnamon sauce, and slow-cooked with a few dried apricots. When it arrived at our table, the meat was moist and literally fork tender, indicating its lengthy cooking on a low heat in a tagine earthen pot. The sauce was complex and very tasty, with a hint of sweetness from the softened apricots. While I was tasting the dish, I detected a certain je ne se quoi as the backnote in the sauce. After some mulling over it, I honed on Orange Blossom Water that I have tasted in Middle Eastern pastry. Upon checking this with the kitchen, my guesswork was confirmed – what a brilliant addition to this flavor profile! This dish was not only tasty but it also evoked a exoticness that woke up a sense of culinary wanderlust. Truly memorable.

Grilled Beef Kafta

We wanted to try the place’s version of a traditional favorite – Chicken Bastilla. However, the kitchen was out of it and we resorted to the Grilled Kafta. Two kebabs arrived on our table which were made from ground beef. It was well-seasoned with a strong hint of chili and other dry fragrant spices. The pool of light tomato sauce provided a slightly sweet and acidic flavor to these pieces of grilled beef – I felt that the other Tzatziki sauce did not contribute much to the dish which remained mostly untouched. The slices of grilled vegetables had the same smoky notes as the Kaftas themselves after having spent the same amount of time as its meat partner on the hot grill. A mound of that saffron rice rounded off the dish which we continuously could not get enough of.

DSC_0765.jpgSouk has a fairly short menu filled with traditional Moroccan dishes and a smattering of other Mediterranean dishes. The dishes that we savored were cooked with care and a deft hand that understands flavors of this North African cuisine. The highlights worth tasting are the cold dishes in the Vegetarian Platter, that wonderful tender and savory lamb shank, the spicy and smoky grilled beef kafta, and the fluffy saffron rice that titillated the senses. With such wonderful cooking, you may be tempted to complete this meal with a visit to Sahra Lounge a couple of doors down to smoke a hookah as dessert since both locales are run by the same owner. Morocco meets H Street NE – who would have thought of that!

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