Wed 7 Sep 2011
Among professional food writers, there is an ongoing debate over how soon is too soon to review a new restaurant. Whether because of an increasing number of food bloggers, crowd-sourced review sites like Yelp! and Urbanspoon or generally increased interest in restaurant culture, everyone is caught up in a race to be the first to announce, visit and then review each venue as it opens. It’s rare to find a writer who gives a new place even a few weeks to settle into a groove.
In this case, we ended up giving Toki Underground several months…though it wasn’t exactly by choice. When the ramen and dumpling bar opened earlier this year, there was simply no getting near the place. Anticipation, limited seating and a short menu of well-executed dishes resulted in waits of more than an hour most nights.
We finally felt brave enough to face the wait and try the ramen ourselves this past weekend. We were armed with recommendations on what to try direct from chef-owner Erik Bruner-Yang, a friend. We expected a tasty meal in a fun atmosphere; what we got was sensory overload. And I mean that in the best possible way.
Noodles, pork belly and marble soda served in a Taiwanese skater-punk’s dream after the jump.
We arrived at Toki Underground a little before 8 on Saturday, fully expecting a line out the door. What we found was a relatively short wait list (thanks, Labor Day weekend!) and an excuse to pay another visit to Church & State, which is quickly becoming one of our favorite new bars in DC. We made it through one round of cocktails before Toki was ready to seat us.
Despite the name, Toki Underground is located above the Pug and not tucked away in a dark basement. But step inside and you’d never know the difference. As you come to the top of the stairs, you see hanging lanterns and a man-made tree fashioned from rope coiled around a frame of pipe. All around the space, a bar is set with stools that face the wall with a central serving area behind them. These early nods to traditional noodle bar aesthetics are a great indication of what’s to come on the menu.
But Toki Underground quickly departs from the basics with a decor that is meant to surprise and amuse. Look down as you take a seat. The footrest is actually fashioned from skateboard decks. That curved wooden wave extending out from the kitchen – is that taken from a skate ramp? Classic pachinko machine bodies are incorporated into the bar and mounted above the exit. Art from concerts and albums line the walls below a lineup of not-quite-cute vinyl “Rokudon” monster figures mounted in glass bricks. It’s hard to see all the great details in our photos, taken as they were in dim light during dinner – do yourself a favor and check out Dakota Fine’s pre-opening pictorial over at Brightest Young Things to get the full effect.
We took our stools and were handed menus that offer a few variations on noodle soup, a selection of dumplings and some sides including kimchi and cold tofu. This is exactly why Toki Underground shines – they focus on turning out a few things really well, instead of trying to offer a broad menu of dishes meant to appeal to the widest audience. If you’re not in the mood for ramen or dumplings, then you’ll want to head elsewhere.
If you are in the mood for ramen or dumplings, however, you’ve come to the right place. Starting with a tonkatsu broth that is rich and smooth, they build four variations of ramen: classic hakata, a miso hakata, a curry chicken and a kimchi. They also offer a vegetarian option for those who don’t want the meaty umami of the tonkatsu overpowering their veggies. From there, noodles are mixed with scallions, egg, seaweed, sesame seeds, ginger and the star of your chosen dish. There are additional add-ons and variations available as nightly specials for those who want to try something beyond the standards.
At Chef Bruner-Yang’s suggestion, we tried a Toki Hakata Classic and Dan Dan Mien, one of that night’s specials. The add-on for the evening, a cripsy house-cured pork belly, sounded too good to resist, so we added it to the Hakata. And we started our meal off with some of the homemade kimchi, eager to see what Toki’s take would taste like compared to the tangy, pungent offering at Cornercopia.
We also had to decide on what to drink. We had read good things about some of their creative cocktails, and we knew that the chef and his team have put together an impressive list of sakes, but we were intrigued by two of the non-alcoholic offerings on the menu. Hey Song Sarsaparilla, a Taiwanese take on root beer, caught Elizabeth’s eye. Mike was drawn in by the description of the Ramune Marble Soda: “Trust me, try it.” Okay! The Sarsaparilla delivered as promised, but the Marble Soda really defies easy explanation. Suffice it to say it had the flavor of carbonated bubble gum, not unlike Inka Cola. Half the fun is in the presentation, so we’ll leave it to you to experience it in person.
As for our food, we were impressed. The kimchi got us off to a decent start, though there was something about the flavor that made it stand out from other kimchi we’ve tried. An extra helping of funk, maybe, but still a taste that woke us up and contrasted nicely with the sweetness of our sodas.
The Toki Hakata was a complex blend of sweet and salty flavors that were still distinct enough to identify individually as we tasted our way through the dish. The noodles had a consistency that stood up to slurping and allowed for a decent chew as well. And the salty, smoky flavor of the pork was a welcome addition – though the pork loin that always comes in the dish was plenty tasty, it was overwhelmed by all the flavors going on around it.
The Dan Dan Mien is a frequent special at Toki, a brothless version of the ramen that is includes pickled cucumber and bites of fried chicken described as Toki chicken nuggets. The dish was spicier than the Hakata, punctuated by the sweet vinegar bite of the cucumbers and the mellow flavor of sesame seeds. It’s no wonder Dan Dan is such a frequent guest star – the dish was substantial and satisfying and had me scraping the bowl.
We were full after our noodle bowls, so we opted not to try the dessert bento box or the warm cookies and ice cold milk. They went on the long list of things to check out next time, including the Toki Endorphin Sauce (a homemade version of sriracha), the dumplings, and the Calpico (a “non-carbonated yogurt soft drink”).
Focused menu or not, there are plenty of new flavors to keep us trying unfamiliar things at Toki Underground for a while. And with cold weather approaching, those warming noodle soups are going to be even more welcome. We’re looking forward to it – we just need to make sure we’ve got somewhere warm to wait for our turn at the counter.
<<EDIT 9/8: Chris Shott’s Young & Hungry column in this week’s Washington City Paper offers a great return look at Toki Underground – his newsletter teaser was actually our inspiration to visit when we did. Check out his piece here.>>