Ramen is the new hamburger. About a year ago, it seemed as if a burger joint was opening every few weeks. Noodle shops have begun appearing with almost equal frequency. Ren’s Ramen and Toki Underground kickstarted the craze, and Adams Morgan basement ramen joint Sakuramen got into the game in late May.
Sakura is the Japanese word for “cherry blossom,” so one mural features delicate petals floating alongside curling, noodle- mimicking white and gray lines. The shop is the creation of first-time restaurateurs and second-generation Korean Americans Jonathan Cho, 40, of Alexandria, and co-owner and brother-in-law Jay Park, 35, who lives in Adams Morgan. Cho generally handles front-of-the-house duties, while Park oversees the kitchen. They developed the menu — which is all available for takeout — along with Cho’s wife, MyungEun Cho.
Make a beeline for the steamed Chashu Buns ($7), one of four appetizers on the menu. They are filled with slow- roasted Berkshire pork belly bolstered by a marinade of hoisin, fish sauce, sugary mirin rice wine, sake and a bit of caramelizing brown sugar. Scallion circles scattered on top add a fresh counterpoint to the fat-ribboned meat. In an effort to enhance the flavor of the gyoza ($8), the pork dumplings are graced with a few threads of red chili pepper, which don’t add any punch. Furthermore, the crimped half-moons are flash- griddled all too briefly, leaving the dough faintly translucent, slightly undercooked and underwhelming.
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Tragicomic insider stories about the trials, tribulations, and just plain weird stuff that happens when you run a restaurant.
Before Toki Underground’s chef-owner Erik Bruner-Yang knew that he was going to open a ramen shop, he took a trip back to his homeland of Taiwan. While he was visiting, he stopped in at the flagship store of vinyl toy company C.I. Boys. “They’re Taiwan’s equivalent of Kidrobot,” he explains.
The shop was having a massive sale on their colorful collectible figurines, so Bruner-Yang promptly bought nearly 2,000 of them. It ended up costing him more than $3,000, not including the giant suitcase he had to purchase to carry them all.
To return to the States, Bruner-Yang and his mother had to fly through Japan. As they were going through security, officials pulled him aside. They wanted to see inside his big bag. When they unzipped it, they were confronted with hundreds of small, unopened boxes.
Politely, but “super seriously,” they asked Bruner-Yang to take a seat, because they were going to have to open every single box. “If I was a toy collector, that would have been my freak out moment,” he says.
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H Street ramen joint Toki Underground is filled with a symphony of sounds: dumplings sizzling on the grill, indie music swelling out of the speakers and the staff cheerfully calling out orders. Chef-owner Erik Bruner-Yang splits his time between cooking and keeping an eye on the cozy, counter-lined dining room. “There’s Dean; there’s Brook; there’s Kristin,” he says as he points out customers slurping up steaming bowls of noodles. “Ramen shops are supposed to be for locals, so I should know everyone who walks in the door.”
Vision: To clarify: This is not the 10-packets-for-$1 Top Ramen you subsisted on in college; this is gourmand-approved, Taiwan-style ramen, which Bruner-Yang learned how to cook during a monthlong trip there in 2009. “I wanted people to feel like they were eating out in the streets of Taipei,” the Asian food mecca where he was born, Bruner-Yang says.
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