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Totto: My Perfect Bowl of Ramen

August 27, 2012

Only 3 more minutes until noon.  I glance at my watch and feel my steps quicken.  We are fast approaching the destination and I can already tell from half way down the block that there is a crowd gathering in front of the restaurant.

We get to the edge of the crowd with just a minute to spare.  I push my way towards the front and feel all the looks of exasperation and almost ridicule on me from those who have claimed their spot in the haphazardly formed line.  Wait until she sees the wait list, they are probably scoffing to their friends,  At least a 40 minute wait!  

And at noon right on the dot, a server comes out and takes a quick glance down the list hanging by the door.  As soon as he calls out the first name on the list, I jump forward with my companion full of confidence, and a little smug I will admit.  That’s right, I had already staked out my spot hours before any hints of a crowd had even started to form (benefit of working close by).  That is just the kind of dedication you need to avoid the almost unavoidable crowd in front of Totto Ramen in Hell’s Kitchen.

Part of the Totto empire that I adore, this is probably the smallest of all of them with merely 20 or so seats stretched out along a long narrow minimally decorated subterranean space.  But there is no need for fancy decor here.  Not when you are recognized by the crowd that loiters at pretty much all operating hours.  Not when you can always count on at least a 45 minute wait regardless of the size of your party.  Especially not when you serve up on the most delicious bowl of ramen in the city.  In my opinion anyways.

The menu at Totto Ramen started out pretty simplistic with four types of ramen when they first opened two years ago.  Two successful years later, they haven’t changed it much and have only recently started to add a few more ramen options and some appetizers.  The pork buns are kind of a stable on any ramen menu and here at Totto, the char siu pork buns are their spin on this dish.  Soft buns, melt-in-your-mouth seasoned pork belly, all critical to a delicious bun.  Totto adds a dab of kewpie mayo and a scattering of mesclun.  The mayo adds a nice touch but the lettuce seems a bit unnecessary.

Splitting a seasonal special can also make for a good appetizer.  The spicy tuna don is made with chopped up tuna sashimi, onions and flying fish roe on top of cucumbers, rice and kombu seaweed.  This is so flavorful that you will want a bigger bowl as your entree but resist because the speedy kitchen crew at Totto will churn out your main attraction sooner than you expect.

My go-to at Totto is their Totto chicken paitan ramen, the most basic variety.

Or the spicy ramen if I am in the mood for a little heat.  The noodles are of the straight variety, cooked to that perfect al dente.  And the broth, oh that broth.  There is a big pot of chicken broth that is kept boiling in the open kitchen where they continuously add bones and water.  This is where the magic is made.  One sip of the slightly opaque broth and you will sigh uncontrollably.  The flavor is so deep and rich, almost milky from all the bones that has been used to make it.

Each bowl is topped with chopped char siu pork and slices of tender pork belly that has been carefully charred with a hand torch.  They are just that right amount of fatty gelatinous texture with a smokey flavor.  I always like to customize my ramen by adding a seasoned egg and extra scallions to my bowl.  The egg has a soy flavor white with a bright orange almost runny yolk.  My kind of egg.

And for the vegetarians out there, you will find an unexpectedly delicious bowl of ramen here.  I have always heard raves about Totto’s vegetable ramen and it was only on a recent trip that I finally gave this a shot.  The noodles are that same bouncy texture but instead of the chicken broth, it is served in a woodsy kombu seaweed and shiitake mushroom broth.  Topped with barely cooked seasonal vegetables, chunks of seasoned avocado and a slice of yuzu flavored tofu, there were plenty of treasuries to discover.  Of course, there is always an egg in my bowl.  This healthy noodle is surprisingly filling and that peppery broth will cure any ailment you might have.

Just like the perennial pizza or burger debate, everyone has their pick for ramen in the city.  Some might prefer the broth to be clear while others prefer the noodles to be thinner or thicker but for me, this is kind of what I crave when I want to slurp down a bowl of piping hot ramen.  And for the record, your meal here is worth pretty much every second of that line.

Totto Ramen | 366 W 52nd Street, New York, NY 10019 | http://tottoramen.com

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