In 2001, Tatsuya Hashimoto was watching television when a young man appeared on the screen, a guy who’d made a name for himself in the growing ramen business. Impressed by his story, Hashimoto, who was working for his father-in-law’s construction company at the time, got in touch with the man the next day, requesting a meeting. Shigetoshi (“Jack”) Nakamura, Japan’s top ramen expert and now Ramen Lab’s executive chef, obliged. Six months later, Hashimoto opened Zundo-ya in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture.
With now more than a dozen shops in Japan, Hashimoto is expanding past the horizons of his homeland. His first international location for Zundo-ya (84 East 10th Street) is opening right around the block from his friend and Japanese competitor, Ippudo, in the coming weeks.
The new shop specializes in tonkotsu broth. You can find similar styles all over the city — it’s pretty much ubiquitous, around town. But what makes this bowl special is attention to detail. To make the broth here, pork bones are simmered in a special pot called a zundo (hence the name) for twenty hours, creating a thick, creamy liquid. To ensure the results are as close as possible to the broth found in Japan, the team “softens” the water using a closely guarded technique.
Even the kaeshi, a soy-based flavoring foundation, was developed specially for Zundo-ya in Himeji (an area hailed for its soy sauce factories) — it’s exactly the same as you’d find in the Japanese shops. While he was working on finding his unique style, about fifteen years ago, Hashimoto collaborated with several factories to find his own blend, which incorporates some dried fish into the sweet and salty mix, adding more umami flavor than most compounds have.
The team experimented with several different transport methods to see which one would maintain the integrity of the soup base best. They tried air cargo and bringing bottles through the cabins, eventually settling on refrigerated cargo ships. It takes two months for each shipment to arrive.
“We wanted it to be as close to the authentic flavor as possible,” manager Soichiro Minami tells the Voice. “Japanese like the richness of the broth. Americans aren’t as used to heavy soup.”
These stocks are offered in a variety of forms at the ramen-ya, with a choice of fatback (ranging from light to super rich), noodles (thin-straight or thick-wavy), toppings (like dried seaweed, garlic chips, and bean sprouts), and spice. The most basic is the motoaji ($13) with scallions, yakinori (seaweed), and a pork chashu that’s braised for six hours in a blend of soy, sake, and sugar before getting hit with a torch (the pork is supple, with notes of smoke). The addition of spicy oil will run you an extra $2. More popular is the ajitama ($15). It comes with all of the above as well as a cured soft-boiled egg.
Zundo-ya is the latest addition in what feels like a constant stream of ramen joints in the city. Hashimoto and his team started researching sites in NYC about three years ago, with the aim of debuting in 2015. Even with all the influx since then — three new ramen places have opened their doors in just the past month or so — Minami is confident this new spot will succeed. “Gradually, we’ll compete with the ramen restaurants with easier broths,” he says. “I think the big [ramen-ya] that make soup will survive.”
The menu is still being finalized. For now, in addition to ramen, expect to see gyoza, karaage (Japanese fried chicken), and other appetizers. Donburi (rice bowls) will also be featured.
This location is just one part of a massive growth plan for the company. Hashimoto is sticking to his tagline, which is prominently displayed on the shop’s rustic wood wall in giant Japanese characters: “From Himeji to the world. What we can do with ramen.” Between outposts in New York City and Japan, there will be four to five new stores opening this year. The goal is to have another two to three New York locations before expanding to London or Paris. The ultimate target, however, is franchise.
Zundo-ya’s soft opening starts on Monday, December 7, with the official opening on Friday, December 11.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 7, 2015