Unless you were trapped in some sort of underground bunker last week, chances are you saw the "trendy restaurant menu" created by Eater being passed around the Internet faster than Martha Stewart nudes. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, the menu is funny because it's true. I can't remember the last time I didn't see roasted (sorry, blistered) shisito peppers on a trendy restaurant menu. I saw them on a menu at a Tex-Mex joint last night, for crying out loud.
4219 Washington Ave.
Perhaps we'll look back one day and view the satirical Eater menu as a crossroads of sort, presenting a restaurant with several options. Down one fork in the road is a future in which a restaurant can tumble further into the realm of self-parody, a la Guy Fieri's often-skewered Guy's American Kitchen and Bar in New York City, blissfully unaware of its deepening reputation as a punchline and content to continue serving whatever tangle of blistered vegetables every other trendy restaurant is also serving at any given time.
Down another fork lies a potential new wave of restaurants, in which all pretense is stripped and souls are laid bare. In these restaurants, it's possible that trendy dishes are embraced, but wholeheartedly and without affect. In these restaurants, inclusivity is encouraged and simplicity embraced.
Ninja Ramen, I was surprised to find, is one such restaurant. As it stands right now, the menu is limited to one item: ramen. And nothing else. Typed up on a sheet of paper tucked into a plastic sheet protector (the other side of which is the cocktail/beer/liquor menu), the pared-down food menu features two varieties of ramen—both of which you can order spicy versions of—and a dish called mazemen, which is really just ramen with a little less broth. You can also get spicy mazemen; in all instances, spicy is basically a few squirts of hot sauce.
A bowl of "original" ramen is $12. A miso version runs $1 more. I wouldn't suggest paying an extra 50 cents for the squirt of Sriracha, but you do you. The original ramen is a tonkotsu broth, thick and fatty and oh-so-piggy. Ninja Ramen makes the broth itself, boiling down pork bones until the collagen breaks loose of the bones and blossoms into a sweet, meaty, salty bisque that's just greasy enough to be really good.
On top of the broth go a few charred slices of chashu, or fatty pork belly; menma, or fermented bamboo shoots with a briny flavor; bright green scallions; and ajitsuke tamago, or eggs that have been gently boiled in a soy sauce and mirin mixture that infuses them with a salty-sweet flavor and a telltale brown hue. You can order extra eggs for $1.50, extra bamboo for $1, and extra pork for $3—but the best extra here is free: noodles. Most people get to the bottom of their bowl without having eaten all the broth, which is why Ninja Ramen will bring you a hot, fresh second helping of noodles (not made in house, but brought in from the famed Sun Noodle company) to polish the rest of it off. So, yes—your bowl of ramen is $12 (minimum), but I like to think of it as getting two bowls for $6 each.
But while this noodle generosity is appreciated, it's not my favorite thing about Ninja Ramen. What I love about Ninja Ramen is how simple the place is. You're sharing an experience with everyone around you—a diverse crowd, and one that was already packing the small place by 7 p.m. last Thursday evening—who's nose-deep in their bowls of ramen, all eating ever-so-slight variations on the same thing. It's easy to eat here; there's no endless deliberation over the menu or attempts to discern how small a small plate really is.
The beverage program is similarly stripped down, offering a primarily Japanese selection of beers and whiskeys to accompany your meal. I appreciated that although the bar housed only four tap handles, two of them were devoted to excellent Japanese beers: Hitachino Nest White Ale and Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout. As with its food menu, Ninja Ramen shows a clarity of purpose in these selections; this understanding and this simplicity of choice allows everything in the restaurant to flow more smoothly.
Even better, the employees know their products, know them well, and have an approachable vibe that's echoed by the welcoming scene of the perpetually-open front door, long curtains hung from the door frame fluttering an entrance. Last week, a man to my right sat down at the bar—where most solo patrons tend to dine—and told the bartender he'd never had ramen before. In an approach that was anything but patronizing, the bartender launched into an animated discussion of what ramen is, how it's eaten, what to expect, and why it's suddenly so popular these days (which is a blog post for another day). Later on, the same bartender engaged me in a long discussion of various Japanese whiskeys, pouring a sample of one and allowing me to sniff the corks of a few other, rarer editions. I watched as the other servers engaged their own customers in the same way. It felt warm, and not just because of the July heat seeping in through the open front door.
I'm not saying Ninja Ramen's bare-bones approach is necessarily better than the trendy restaurant model of involved menus and small plates and confluences of cuisines. In fact, some people may be turned off by the paucity of choice here, by the years of accumulated—what's a word that's the opposite of glamour?—left behind by previous tenatns in their Washington Avenue location, which could charitably be called a dive. It's just different. And sometimes different is good, a welcome change in perception and perspective.
Full admission, however: I still love shisito peppers, and hope they stick around regardless. I just don't want them sneaking onto Ninja Ramen's menu any time soon.