09/11/18 9:26am

In which I Try Ichiran’s Isolation Ramen

Pay no attention to the an behind the bamboo curtain!

After trekking out to Bushwick on a raw rainy day to help my friend Cathy Erway kick off the fall 2018 season of her radio show Eat Your Words, I was ready for something hot and brothy.

I always get lost on the way to the Heritage Radio Network studio inside Roberta’s Pizza, even though it’s basically around the corner from the L train. Sunday’s detour took me past Ichiran Ramen where a patient local took pity on my hapless Queens soul to direct me to Roberta’s with his phone. I’d been meaning to try this Japanese import and its ramen isolation booth, so I blurted out, “What time are you open until?” I should point out that the helpful young man was Asian and was sporting a Sriracha T-shirt. “I don’t work here,” he said turning his back to walk into the ramenya, as I spun on my heel to high-tail it to the studio.

After the show I made my way back over to Ichiran, to find a line of about ten people. As a solo diner, I got a ramen library carrel rather quickly. “Third door on your right, No. 12,” the gal behind the counter said curtly, making me wonder whether I was at a restaurant or the unemployment office. I took my seat in the “flavor isolation booth,” which really did resemble a study carrel from my college days. No sooner did I start to read the sign that warned, “Flavor Concentration in progress, please be quiet and silence your phones,” than a waiter approached the half drawn bamboo curtain to proffer a menu. The experience of speaking to a faceless pair of hands about what and how to order was in fact quite isolating.

The checkoff menu allows one to customize levels of dashi, richness, garlic, scallion, chashu, spicy sauce, and noodle texture. There’s a handy first-timers guide, which recommends such options as medium levels of dashi, richness, spicy sauce, and noodle texture, all of which I excercised. Once my order was placed, I found myself listening to the bing-bonging of the order bell and craning my neck to watch my neighbors, a couple in a double-wide carrel, slurp their ramen.

First came my salted soft boiled egg. Peeling it gave me something to do while I waited for my $18.90 ramen. Soon a milky bowl of tonkatsu in a black and gold vessel was placed before me and then the curtain closed. It was one of the better looking ramens I’ve come across and certainly the hottest I’ve ever had. The broth was lovely, so rich that it coated my palate for quite some time afterwards, but the noodles were not up to the standard of Ramen Shack. Ichiran was offering a free kae-dama or noodle refill on Sunday—perhaps to soften the blow of the price tag—so I availed myself of a full portion done extra firm. I even followed the directions and ordered my supplementary noodles halfway through the bowl. I am told that the reason Ichiran serves its soup so hot, is so that customers can enjoy their kae-dama with hot broth.

Above the bamboo curtain is the whole Ichiran story written in white on a red sign that also extols the restaurant’s advantages, one of which is “Ordering kae-dama without speaking a word.” I was able to do that and I even put my phone on airplane mode, I can’t say the same of the couple to my left, who while not totally disruptive remained heedless of the sign counseling silence during “Flavor Concentration.”

Maybe I’m just a grumpy Queens kid, but I suspect many of the locals may be treating Ichiran as just another brunch option. As for me I’m glad I tried it, but the costliness of the rather spartan bowl left me craving Ramen Shack.

Ichiran Ramen, 374 Johnson Ave, (718) 381-0491

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