Pork buns, one of the new additions to Rai Rai Ken’s menu. Hmmm, where have we seen those before?
Without much fanfare, Little Tokyo old-timer Rai Rai Ken has moved into semi-luxurious new digs, just two storefronts east of its original East Village location on 10th Street. Bright red door-banners proclaim its glitzy newness, and a look through the plate glass windows shows counter seating along an L-shaped noodle bar, and neat wooden booths lined up against an opposite wall. Most are two-tops, but there are a pair of larger, more-secluded booths in back. Those who loved the cramped old space, and its darkened, cramped, well-worn look, with a bubbling pot of stock seemingly always on the stove – will be amazed.
Step through the new red curtains.
Rai Rai Ken (named after the Chinese restaurant in Sapporo where ramen were first introduced) is one of the original anchors of the East Village’s Little Tokyo neighborhood, which is centered on 9th and 10th streets just east of Third Avenue, but spreads out onto St. Marks, and Second and Third avenues. As the oldest ramen parlor in the neighborhood, it predates all the upscale spots – many representing Japanese chains – that have materialized in the last three years. In fact, it and Momofuku can take much of the credit for the current popularity of the Japanese wheat noodles.
Another feature of Rai Rai Ken, and a tribute to its longevity, is that the menu reflects East Village terroir in the composition of the broth, and ingredients used in the noodles. For example, you’ll see more vegetables in Rai Rai Ken that at other, newer ramen parlors; the broth is less salty; and the number of choices of ramen far fewer – limited to soy and seafood broths. No miso ramen here.
The place freestyles with its broth, and one day years ago I popped in for some noodles, and was startled by what I saw bobbing in the stockpot – in this case a turkey carcass and whole Braeburn apples. Thus you’ll find Rai Rai Ken’s ramen broths lighter and more subtly flavored than usual.
One of the cold summer noodle selections — hiyashi chuka.
Reflecting its Chinese roots, the ramen at Rai Rai Ken often feature wontons.
The good news is that the menu remains largely the same – that is to say, short for a ramen specialist. There are a couple of minor additions, foremost of which is the kind of pork-belly ssams that Momofuku is famous for, rendered with admirable fidelity and served with a gritty, fish-based hot paste. Delicious!
This being summer, there are several cold ramen suggestions on a separate card. Foremost is hiyashi chuka, a mix-it-yourself mountain of noodles, cucumber, chicken, thin omelet, slivered red ginger, seaweed, sesame seeds, and scallions – with strips of sun-dried tomato. See what I mean about East Village terroir?
One of the place’s unique offerings is wonton ramen, and my friend and I sampled that, too. The wontons are rudimentary, with only a small plug of pork filling (Rai Rai Ken doesn’t feature the sort of sliced fatty pork you find in most EV ramen parlors), but the contrast these farinaceous jellyfish make with the regular noodles is spectacular. In fact, the entire output of Rai Rai Ken is less heavy in general than what you find elsewhere. Which could be a real asset in summer.
Rai Rai Ken
218 East 10th Street
Another new addition to the menu — negi rice.