Cover image: Kyshuya Wakayama-style ramen at Japan Street Fes © WhereNYC
It was love at first slurp as I closed my eyes and lowered my nose in the bowl of ramen. It was absolute heaven, the equivalent of a culinary perfect pitch of complementing and overlapping flavors and textures: the firmness of the noodles and tender grilled chashu or pork with just a sliver fat. The pickled bamboo shoots added a little acidity and bite and the egg was cooked with just a little gooeyness. The icing on the cake was the garnish with a crispy tuile of nori, or seaweed. Tying everything together was that creamy ramen broth of pork, nicely seasoned and perfectly balanced.
This wasn’t a ramen-ya on a hidden street somewhere in Japan, where the lonely salaryman might find some comfort food while slogging home after a long day at the office. When I opened my eyes, I was on Steinway in Astoria, Queens, at the second leg of Japan Street Fest and Ramen Contest.
For two days in Chelsea and Queens, ramen vendors from Japan and the U.S. East Coast treated the public to their versions of this Japanese classic. From stall to stall, boiling pots of water and broth steamed like magic cauldrons while chefs grilled juicy slabs of pork over charcoals. Long queues of patrons intertwined like hungry serpents waiting to get a bowl of the good stuff.
And there was plenty of it, too. The most popular dishes included Menya Masamune’s signature Shio Ramen from Miyagi, Japan and Astoria-based Shuya’s Bluefin Tuna Paitan version. Yet, the simplicity of ramen is its reliability and authenticity. From Hartsdale, New York, Kishuya’s Wakayama-style ramen hit all the right notes. Perfectly balanced, yet powerful the broth married the whole dish beautifully.
Those unfamiliar with agodashi, or flying fish broth, are seriously missing out on a wonderful Kyushu treat. Umi No Ie izakaya in the Lower East dished out a superb ramen that was light and delicate with the taste of the sea.
The biggest find, however, was the least popular of the day. Snappy Ramen from Boston bravely served an all-vegetarian tomato ramen that was absolutely delicious.
The broth was almost like a vegetarian consommé with a slight sweet tomato note at the end. The green spinach noodles only added to the affect. Garnished with saffron it reminded me a of a Southeast Asian laksa without being too overcomplicated.
There were plenty of non-ramen food options and shopping past the noodle stalls. Fans of Japanese Kansai-style okonomiyaki and takoyaki delighted in the street food section, where people ate hashimaki, a rolled okonomiyaki on a stick – a first for me.
One of the more interesting stops was at Japanese snack and traditional foods purveyor Yamasu Japan who, at its booth, sold a selection of tsukemono pickles, dried sardines and flavored peanuts from Chiba, Japan.
But less impressive were the chewy grilled squid, dipped in tare and served on a stick, which was almost inedible.
Although there were many positives about the street fest, it needed more organization. People began queuing at the Menya Masamune booth because they had mistaken it for the entrance line to the fair.
Tickets to sample ramen cost $10 each, while there was no prior mention of the costs on the website. The lack of event map and volunteers directing traffic made it difficult to navigate and soon long lines appeared everywhere. It would have also been helpful to purchase tickets in advance online, and Japan Street Fes could have divided the event into morning and after sessions to ease overcrowding.
Negatives aside, it was an ambitious two-day event that featured independently owned restaurants, unknown to most New Yorkers that serve food with pride and knowledge. It was impossible to say who had the best ramen at the end of the day, but with our bellies full and hunger satiated, we all felt like winners.
For upcoming events, visit Japan Street Fes.