Friday, June 24, 2011

Toki Underground

With as many great dining options as we have in downtown, we have generally avoided the trek to the H Street NE corridor. However, we could no longer ignore the call of all of the enticing new restaurants that have helped H Street NE blossom into a full-fledged dining destination.

As I've said approximately 573 times, I really love noodles. When I caught wind of the opening of Toki Underground, a ramen house, I was thrilled. Chef Erik Bruner-Yang is the only chef in the area turning out Taiwanese ramen. Every night his 20 seat hipster haven on H Street is packed. Wait times easily exceed an hour on weekends.If you want to check out Toki Underground, pay close attention to the photo below. The door to Toki is located next to the entrance to The Pug bar.

Look closely for Toki's blue logo on the door or you could end up walking up and down the street unable to find it.

Once you push open the door, you're greeted by a massive graffiti art mural and a steep set of stairs that lead up (yes, Toki Underground is upstairs) to the man orchestrating the waiting list. He'll take your name and your phone number, leaving you free to wait it out at a nearby bar or wander the street checking out all of the new restaurant options. Our 45 minute wait flew by as we wandered through a nearby Rite Aid challenging each other to find the silliest items for sale. Have you ever stopped to flip through the romance "novels" for sale and staged your own reading in Aisle 5? Hilarious (to us at least).

Once your phone finally rings and you're led into the ramen haven, you can't help but giggle at the interior. Skateboards act as foot rests and fun Japanese-style character dolls eye you from plastic cases along the walls. The music is loud and, at times, feels like you're trapped in a W Hotel lobby, but it helped fuel the restaurant's hipster vibe.

B often looks to me to order the dishes that I've read about at a new restaurant. In this case, I said "You're getting a cocktail with a pork belly skewer on it. It doesn't matter what's in it." Always a good sport (and never one to turn down pork belly), B had fun sipping his Toki Monster with bourbon, pepper honey liqueur, scotch, and the pork belly skewer.

Toki serves five different kinds of steamed or fried dumplings and, if the steamed seafood dumplings are any indication, you'll be happy with any of them. They were bursting with identifiable pieces of seafood (not some gray or pink mush), and had a great house-made teriyaki -style sauce.

One of the specials for the evening was corn with five spice butter and cotija cheese. I thought B was going to fall off his stool when he tried the corn. He was on the verge of a happy dance, proclaiming it some of the best corn he's ever had.

The real happy dance emerged when I slurped the first noodle out of my bowl of Toki Hakata Classic ramen. After so many blah noodle dishes at other restaurants, I heard angels singing when I tasted Toki's noodles. Perfectly sticky yet with enough bite to keep them from being mushy, they were textbook. The broth packed a punch that was only accentuated by the generous dash of Toki Endorphin Sauce - Toki's take on my favorite sriracha sauce. A word of caution: that sauce is HOT! B dared me to stick my tongue in the little plate of sauce and after a cocktail, it seemed like a good idea. Please don't try this at home. My tongue was on fire for an hour!

B didn't have time to do a happy dance while eating his Chicken Curry Hakata ramen. He was too focused on slurping. Occasionally he'd lift his head from his bowl to smile and then quickly return to slurping. This is not a place to take a new date if you want to talk and get to know each other. Chances are your date will be fixated on the ramen.

While we loved the pork and chicken flavors of our ramen dishes, vegetarians can try the Masumi Vegetarian ramen that uses a kombu broth and is loaded with veggies.

I looked longingly at the warm cookies and milk being devoured by our stool neighbors but we were too stuffed to try dessert. We ordered extra noodles in our ramen and it proved to be too much for my belly to tackle. Don't worry little cookies, I will be back to order you soon. Seriously, I was ready to go back to Toki the very next day. If this place was located near our house on H Street NW instead of NE, I'd be that creepy girl perched on the stool on the corner every time you went inside.

Second Thoughts from B

At the risk of sounding pretentious, we've literally traveled the world sampling great noodle soup, and in our experience, Toki Underground is about as good as it gets. J talked about me wanting to do the happy dance... she DID the happy dance. She loves noodles to the point that any 3rd grader would ask her, "If you love them so much, why don't you marry them?" Luckily for me, human-noodle marriage is illegal in most states.

Toki's non-noodle offerings ranged from very good to outstanding, and certainly point to a chef that is far more than a one trick pony. While the chef could certainly run a successful operation by producing great noodle soup, his mastery of other ingredients and flavor profiles is impressive. Pretty much everything we ordered could have made me very happy on its own.

But just like Shaq would make most NBA players look small, the noodle soup at Toki Underground overshadows the rest of the menu. I will admit that, unlike J, my excitement for good noodle soup is not exponentially different from the iconic ramen packages of my college years. Still, I know the greatest when I taste it and this is it.
Toki Underground on Urbanspoon

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