The Ramen Life
One perfect bite of ramen at Chuko.
We were high up in the mountains, three hours north of Tokyo, in a town called Kusatsu. The village was known for its beautiful landscape and natural hot springs--which were everywhere. However one of the best things I saw was a chef mixing, stretching, shaping and cutting noodles. He was making soba noodles. I watched his hands create perfect noodle after perfect noodle, each one pencil straight and identical. How did he do it? Jim took a video and I'll try and track it down so I can include it here.
I've written about ramen before on my blog (about Yuji Ramen) and so has pretty much everyone else. Pete Wells, Serious Eats, Robert Sietsema for the Village Voice, and on and on. How can we have so much to say about ramen?
Well, clearly we do.
The spicy pickles at Chuko have just the right amount of heat, sweet and tang.
There's a shop in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn called Chuko. I went recently for lunch with my mom and it was late enough that we didn't have to wait. Thank god because we were ravenous. Chuko was opened by three alums from Morimoto, in August 2011. Black curtains framed the doorway, swaying as we walked inside. The corner location, walled in by glass, brought in all the natural light from outside. It was somewhat unusual to be in such a bright, airy space since most ramen shops seem to be in troll-like hovels two steps down in a tiny wedge of darkened space. Chuko is not like this.
I left Mom at the table so I could use the bathroom and when I came back she had ordered half the menu. It's small, but creative. "I don't want to miss out on anything," she exclaimed when I gave her a look. She ordered the pickles, crispy fried brussels sprouts, a pork bun and the kale salad. Whew. I added the pork bone ramen, with pork (of course), and then we waited for the onslaught.
Crispy brussels with lots of fish sauce, peanuts and jalapeños. If you're dining with more than two people, order more.
The pickles and sprouts arrived first. The sprouts had been fried in liberal amounts of butter, so what's not to like, they were ridiculous. I felt like I was mainstreaming butter. I attempted to pace myself. Slathered with chopped up peanuts and slivers of jalapeño, the brussels sprouts shined from the frying pan. The combination of flavor and texture was spot on. The pickles, cucumber and daikon with a sprinkling of sesame seeds, were bright red, so they seemed like they might spell danger, but they didn't. These weren't kimchi style pickles, instead the heat was nicely tamed by sweet and acid.
Kale salad was a surprise order by Mom, and it's a surprise kale salad from these chefs. The kale, both raw and fried pieces, had a nice Asian pucker. Included in the salad were plump golden raisins that had been pickled and on top, fried sheets of sweet potato. It's a kale salad to fight over.
A kale salad unlike most kale salads, and worthy of your love.
The pork bun? Skip the pork bun, it has nothing redeeming about it--too much mayo, too much fat, bare amounts of sauce to pull it together, really, just skip it. (Perhaps it was an off bun night?)
My ramen took a bit of time, which on the one hand means it's being lovingly tended to back in the kitchen, or, maybe the timing could be reviewed. The broth, from many hours of reclining with a pork bone and other pantry staples, was the color of sand. In the bowl was the most perfect egg, cooked just a little on the side of runny, a giant pile of noodles, some greens and wood-eared mushrooms diced into teeny tiny slivers. The thin noodles were excellent, and they reminded me of the soba I saw in Japan. I'm undecided if I prefer a thicker chewier noodle, but these worked well with the other ingredients. The mushrooms felt a little lost, their smallness made for an addition that neither complemented nor detracted. I resisted adding both kimchi and hot sauce to the bowl, but I think both would have given the broth the oomph I was looking for. It's good, but the depth of flavor in the broth isn't as dimensional as I've had elsewhere. Ligaya Mishan wrote about it for the Times in 2011 and mentioned a similar feeling in her review.
But what a perfect lunch with Mom. The staff are exceedingly sweet, the location is on a sunny stretch of Vanderbilt and if you're there in the daytime, the light is so golden you won't want to leave.
Pork bone ramen with pork, at Chuko.