Fatigued from the election, I’ve lately tried to avoid filling out complicated forms, so I’ll admit that I hesitated when first presented with the ballot-like menu at Ichiran, the debut U.S. outpost of a nearly sixty-year-old Japanese ramen chain with roots in Fukuoka. The document demands that choices be made for everything from lip-coating porky richness to noodle texture to chile-pepper potency — all for a bowl of soup. Sitting in one of the restaurant’s famed single-occupant stalls, which offer about as much privacy as your average barebones voting booth, wasn’t helping matters. Thankfully, unlike at my local polling place, here the decisions are a bit less weighty, and all roads eventually lead to servings of steamy, cloudy broth bobbing with bundles of squiggly alkaline wheat noodles.
Like the automats that dominated the East Coast dining landscape in the mid-twentieth century, where meals could be had at the push of a button, Ichiran at least partially embraces the notion that human interaction is perhaps overrated. “The only place in the world where solo dining is encouraged, and you don’t have to see your servers [sic] face,” is how the company brazenly pitched itself in a recent Facebook post. To that end, some of its sixty-and-counting locations, which are spread throughout Japan, Hong Kong, and now Brooklyn, even let diners paw at vending machine-like boxes bearing photographs of the food they wish to eat. This flagship American branch doesn’t go that far, though those who are familiar with the unique setup can simply take a glance at the light-up seating switchboard hung up in the foyer and settle themselves into one of the restaurant’s “flavor concentration booths,” which are divided into two narrow hallways of private stations. A third section does away with the proprietary hermetic premise, offering a canteen-like communal dining area where you might encounter, as I did one evening, a group of Instagram-happy ramen fanatics standing on their chairs to get the perfect overhead shot.
Ichiran got cooking in October, ending nearly a decade of speculation after plans for a Greenpoint location fell through. It wound up in a broad, boxy factory building not far from the Roberta’s compound in Bushwick, a relatively secluded locale to launch a Western expansion. Even so, the promise of a hot new bowl of noodles, consumed without the nuisance of someone else’s existence getting in the way, drew lines down the block on opening day. But despite the hype surrounding this quirkily antisocial and somewhat utilitarian approach to dining, the entire staff appears to be downright thrilled at the prospect of working here — from the friendly cashier who greets sheepish first-timers and offers to show them the ropes to the kind souls who work the private booths as anonymous food-delivering arms, which jut out from underneath rolled-up bamboo curtains. One night, an ebullient young man broke the ramen fourth wall, crouching to look me in the eye while telling me to “Enjoy!”
Ichiran only serves one thing: classic tonkotsu ramen, which relies on a day-long-simmered pork bone stock, here doled out according to intensity. The headiest version rivals the best broths in town, with an enduring lushness after each slurp that approaches the porcine heft of Long Island City’s fabled Mu Ramen. You’re also invited to tweak the amount of garlic, scallions, and marinated pork belly in your order. The latter comes in thin, fat-streaked slices that are pleasantly chewy but eschew the melting tenderness of the bulkier braised hunks favored by many of the city’s newer ramen shops. And while yolk-oozing marinated soft-boiled eggs (a favorite of ramen cooks and eaters alike) are nowhere to be found, the $19 bowls, boasting springy, thin noodles and seriously fiery red-pepper sauce, more than merit the trip to these industrial not-so-wilds of Kings County.
Ichiran’s lone side dish is a $9.90 plate of simmered pork belly slabs festooned with a pompom of shredded dried seaweed. Joined by sweet golden koshihikari rice, it makes for a great accompaniment when you just can’t get enough pig. Find it listed next to the ramen add-ons, including spongy wood ear mushrooms and sheets of dried nori seaweed that soften when submerged. To drink, there’s lemony shochu and matcha green tea lattes. Green tea also shows up in the restaurant’s only sweet, tucked beside the section for noodle refills on the menu. That’s how I missed it initially, before a pair of mysterious hands pointed it out to me. My vote’s for dessert. The silky green tea tofu pudding has a gorgeous sharpness and exceptional depth. It, like the rest of Ichiran’s lineup, is just the kind of thing you’ll be glad to enjoy in private.
374 Johnson Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-381-0491