A 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.
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.
The 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.
My 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.
For 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.
Finally 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!