Roaming the District For Top Ramen
Published: Friday, March 22, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 20:03
Because of a series of gentrification projects and violent riots in the 1960s, most of Washington, D.C.’s immigrant Chinese population has left the city for places like Rockville, Md., and has taken with it the colorful and tasty array of Chinese restaurants that exists in other cities such as San Francisco or New York. Despite the million-dollar Chinese gates and the publicly-mandated Chinese language business signs, no one can hide the fact that only 600 people of Chinese descent live in the Chinatown area, comprising a tiny minority of the total population.
Where then, can food enthusiasts flock to in search of good East Asian cuisine? We were pleasantly surprised with our recent impulsive visit to Toki Underground, located on H Street, NE. Driven by an urge for some quality ramen, we sought out Toki, intrigued by its Taiwanese and Japanese inspired flavors and its reputation as the king of ramen in the capital city area. We heard that on a select few days, just half of Toki’s tiny location seats reservations. Because we hadn’t reserved four or five days ahead of time, it looked like we had to go ahead. We figured thirty minutes was ample time to arrive early and secure a spot, but we instead were met with a small stream of customers eagerly waiting outside of the door 45 minutes before it even opened. Some fellow enthusiasts saved our spots as we quickly explored the Atlas District, a revitalized arts and entertainment area. We were pleasantly surprised by the old theaters, a growing restaurant scene and streetcar lines that will be operating within a year or so and will eventually connect to Georgetown. After this quick exploration, we walked up Toki Underground’s stairs into a dimly lit, well-designed, small seating area. It was vaguely reminiscent of some izakayas and small home-style restaurants we have visited in Tokyo. Toki added a more modern twist, involving what appeared to be skateboard footrests and anime-inspired figurines.
The menu is modest, comprising a small variety of ramen, dumplings and drinks. The staff recommended grilled dumplings, a variation from the traditional steamed variety, so we ordered a set. The simple dish drew our attention, especially after we heard Chef Erik Bruner-Yang had been handed down the recipe from his mother and grandmother. This was evident in the dumplings’ traditional yet complex flavor.
The Taiwanese influence can clearly be seen in the kimchi and curry ramens, both of which we ordered with extra noodles and a dash of their home made endorphin sauce, a delicious spin on sriracha. Heartier and more flavorful than a wholly soy-based broth, we were delighted by the rich, spicy and savory flavor in combination with the pulled pork.
For those of age, Toki is known for its variety of drinks as well. We ordered the classic Toki Monster, a combination of bourbon, scotch and barenjager topped with pork belly kushiyaki, a sweet, charred and tender way to top a drink that paired well with the ramen. Of course, we couldn’t leave without being tempted by the plate of cookies and milk, which we were surprised to find was just about the best chocolate chip cookie we’ve had in years. We arrived with an itch for ramen, but we left with so much more.
Though D.C. has seen a dearth of authentic and close-to-the-heart Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants, Toki succeeds in showing that the scene is not quite extinct.
Helen Guo is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. Jacob Richey is a sophomore in the College. THE DINING DUO appears every other Friday in the guide.