Gut Instinct: The Ramen Empire

Who isn’t looking for a bigger, better noodle? At a tender, hairless age, I learned an important food lesson:

“Ramen,” my father said in our Ohio kitchen, teeth-tearing open a rectangular wrapper packed with noodles and “oriental” flavor, “can be delicious. You just have to doctor it up.”

To the salty broth and squiggly noodles he added sesame oil, scallions, garlic, onions and mushrooms, then he swirled in a raw egg. It was Far East ambrosia, a soup as hearty and exotic as it was economical. I slurped my bowl clean and then begged for seconds like a dog whining for another fatty scrap.

With a glee 1960s kids reserved for green-bean casserole, I awaited my father’s beguiling, ever-mutating ramen blends containing piquant preserved vegetables, bright-green bok choy, shiitake ’shrooms or even zested ginger. Packaged ramen was Dad’s blank canvas, filled with wild culinary brushstrokes.

So imagine my shock one dark, hungry night in my college dorm when, water roiling in my hot pot and pork-flavored ramen in hand, I was walloped with these words:

“I can’t believe you would eat that,” said my then-girlfriend, a militant vegan who fashioned her blonde hair into mini horns. “You’re so trashy.”

Trashy? Sure, I occasionally urinated into Gatorade bottles and drank malt liquors like bitter, ginseng-infused Phat Boy, but such idiocy was age 19 in a nutshell. That eve, I recall, the ramen’s MSG was no balm for my wounded pride. Naturally, that relationship’s longevity barely matched a fruit fly’s lifespan, but my packaged-noodle adoration has endured. Now it’s being rewarded, as ramen shops pop up in the East Village like pimples on a teen. The ’hood’s ditching its punk rock past for a pork-broth future.

Like a good little fatty, I’ve hit hallway-size Rai Rai Ken (214 E. 10th St. betw. First & Second Aves., 212-477-7030) and overloaded on simple miso ramen ($7.40). It’s pleasantly porcine, with tender noodles and a sprinkling of crispy garlic. I bought into the hype and bit into Momofuku ramen ($14) at “it” cook David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar (171 First Ave. at 10th St., 212-777-7773). My thoughts? Meh. Berkshire pork slices were soft as an overripe banana and fresh snow peas a pleasure, but my belly despised the gummy noodles. For $14, those freakin’ noodles better rock my socks off.

The best chance to lose my hosiery came with March’s arrival of Hakata Ippudo (65 Fourth Ave. betw. 9th & 10th Sts., 212-388-0088). It’s a Land of the Rising Sun ramen chain famous for its milky, filthy rich broth made from long-boiled swine bones. This Ippudo, America’s first, brought bushels of Japanese media, Tokyo expats and gotta-have-it-first gourmands—instantaneously, dinner waits stretched to two hours. Screw that. To beat crowds, I donned pants and headed to Ippudo for an early weekday lunch.

“Kunichiwa,” the grinning hostess greeted. She stood beside a wall display of colorful ramen bowls, then she escorted me to the modern dining room. It’s a white-and-wood riot of communal tables, square booths, one-armed chairs, mirrors and untranslated Japanese characters. Stylish? Insidious? I’ve long been wary of Japanese script since unknowingly wearing a Japanese T-shirt that translated to “I’m a stupid American.”

I arranged my gringo bum at a wooden counter, where I endured a particularly well-mannered version of hell: Cooks, servers, hostesses—even bus boys, dagnabit—lobbed kunichiwa my way like auditory grenades. I wished I were deaf. Dumb? That’d be my neighboring, map-toting Japanese tourists. Why crisscross the globe to chomp home cooking? It’s not like I head overseas and get a hard-on for a Big Mac. Here at Ippudo, I came for spicy karaka-men ($12). It arrived in steaming tureen as big as a loaf of sourdough bread, along with a long ladle larger than my mouth. Was orthodontic torture a hot, new Japanese kink?

No, this utensil provided pleasure. When I spooned up the silky, tanned-leather liquid, I knew why the tourists desired this ramen so deeply: It was the essence of pig, a milky broth so animalistic that one whiff could cause a Jew to break kosher, while the house-made noodles were al dente enough for a toothless grandma to happily gum.

I joined the clean-bowl club in minutes, lost in a grinning, groaning, stomach-growing reverie that forced me to unbutton my pants in public yet again.