Tenpai is an unexpected treat. A mugi shochu, which from previous experience we’d expect a light, neutral flavor like Yokaichi or a rich, sweetly whiskey note like Kannoko if aged in oak barrels. Tenpai defies both of those expectations.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Japanese ramen has become one of the hottest casual dining trends in New York City over the past few years. I enjoy ramen so much I keep a running phone-pic gallery on my facebook page (made public for your enjoyment). It seems every time we look there is a new trendy ramen shop opening up trying to lay the claim to “best ramen in NYC”.
That crown has long been held by Ippudo, which truly has great ramen if you can get a seat. On a recent Friday afternoon at about 2pm I waited an hour for a seat at a communal table. The meal was over in 20 minutes. At times the line will be 2.5 hours long. I like ramen and all, but that’s a bit absurd. Fortunately, near the East Village location there are plenty of other ramen shops that are nearly as good and usually with little to no waiting. Even more fortunately, Ippudo is now planing a Midtown location. My guess is that the crowds will just double, but lines won’t be any shorter.
Chef Kotani Shuichi of the Totto empire decided to enter the fray with Totto Ramen. The Hell’s Kitchen location is so popular I’ve yet to try it. Never been there to try with less than a 2 hour wait. Jin Ramen opened in Harlem. While not as hot a ticket, it’s the only ramen shop north of midtown on the West Side and does a well catering to ramen-starved Columbia students. Other restaurants have begun capitalizing on the ramen craze by changing their menu for late night dining. Moco in Murray Hill, 1 or 8 in Williamsburg, and there’s now a pop-up ramen shop at Kinfolk Studios on weekends – Yuji Ramen does a brisk business of their tasty dry ramen.
All in all ramen appears here to stay and the fine folks at Japan Block Fair 2012 had a great idea – host a NY Street Ramen Contest. This lets any shop that wants to go head-to-head in competition to be crowned New York City’s ramen. What makes the contest different is that this isn’t just who has the best ramen, but who can come up with a completely new recipe that most evokes NY ramen culture.
Eight places picked up the gauntlet and went head to heat in Round 1 of the contest at the first Japan Block Fair on the summer. The champion will be crowned at the final Fair later in the year.
The attention shocked even the organizers who were understaffed to host the sheer number of ramen tasters that came out to vote in the first round event.
Contest voting started at 1pm and was scheduled until 3. People were still in line and still trying ramen at 4:30. Voters waited in line for up to an hour to sample their first ramen, let alone all of them. I must admit that when I saw the line I decided to watch from behind the scenes and enjoy the rest of the great food the Japan Block Fair had to offer. I’ll attend the next one to vote on the ramen.
In the meantime, there appeared to be 3 front runners for the contest based on the voters I talked to. Totto Ramen, unsurprisingly, was extremely popular, but they came up with a new spicy chicken recipe I can’t wait to try.
A second contestant that also had me curious, though not enough to wait an hour to try, is Houryu Ramen, who served shaved ice over their spicy vegetable ramen. It confused me, but voters who tried it said it worked in a strange way.
A 3rd contestant that had people buzzing was Yebisu Ramen, not yet open, this ramen shop from the famous Japanese brewery, will be opening in Brooklyn sometime this year. I expect very, very long waits and very, very satisfied customers. This was definitely the most buzzed about ramen at the contest with a soy seafood base with lots of fresh seafood on top of their dry mazemen. I couldn’t get a good photo of their operation, but that’s them with the dark red sign behind the entrance banner.
At the end of a very long day of hundreds of voters tasting ramen there was no clear winner. Voting will continue in Queens next month with the final tally being made at the last Japan Block Fair of summer. I’ll report back once I’ve had a chance to sample the contestants myself. For now it was fun just to see all of the buzz this contest generated.