GAHHH! I just found out that my favorite East Village Japanese restaurants are all owned by one… person. How is this possible?! Soba-Ya, Robataya, Cha-An, Curry-Ya, Shabu-Tatsu are among my favorites that one person calls his own. Mr. Bon Yagi came to the U.S. as a dishwasher and somehow worked his way up to owning 11 Asian restaurants* and at one point, owning a diner that often saw folks like Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Madonna. To say the least, I am impressed. Most of his restaurants are rated 4-4.5 out of 5 stars on Yelp and each of them is someone’s “favorite” Japanese restaurant. Rai Rai Ken is Mr. Yagi’s ramen venture.
After my sister-ramen-restaurant battle post, many readers suggested I try Rai Rai Ken, another one of those renown ramen places in the city. Everyone has their favorite (Totto Ramen) and though I am known to be a very loyal customer (Totto4Life), I am always willing to try other favorites – mainly because I like to try new places but also because I like to re-confirm that my favorite still rocks.
Pictured above is the Shoyu Ramen ($9.50), which is ramen in a soy sauce based noodle soup topped with bamboo shoot, boiled egg, roast pork, spinach, fish cake, dried seaweed, and scallion. I have to admit, this was a solid bowl of ramen. Rai Rai Ken also gets extra points for making the egg perfectly gooey in the center, like how Ippudo does it. But the roast pork was just okay… slightly tough and bland. Noodles were not particularly memorable, meaning they were good. Not overcooked and slightly springy. They didn’t fall apart when slurped (unlike Ippudo’s!!) but also weren’t as tasty nor chewy as Totto’s and Kambi’s. Broth was… good. Also not particularly memorable, but was definitely good.
Normally I never bother to order gyoza at Japanese places because they are very similar to Chinese guo tie (potstickers) but are much more expensive. I read that Rai Rai Ken’s gyoza ($6) is particularly good so decided to splurge**. The gyoza skin was nice and thin, and also properly fried so that the base was delciously crisp. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the filling as much as it tasted like the veggie to pork ratio was too high. Too many veggies made the filling not as tasty and made it fall apart easily. It was aight.
We also got the Rai Rai Ken Salad ($6), which included shredded chicken, jelly fish, vermicelli, cilantro, lettuce, carrots, and onions, in a house made dressing. The flavor was great, slightly vinaigretty and slightly peanuty. Usually there is never enough protein, but in this case, I thought there was too much chicken and not enough jelly fish. As a result, the dish was a bit heavier than what you would think of as a salad.
Although Rai Rai Ken didn’t quite make it to my “favorites” list, I can say that the noodle shop is one solid East Village restaurant. I realize I don’t like shoyu ramen as much as ramen with a pork based or chicken based broth (like at Totto, Kambi, and Ippudo). Momofuku Noodle Bar, which I think is overrated, also serves up shoyu ramen. Shoyu is much lighter and tastes more one dimensional in flavor compared to the more heavy pork or chicken based broth. Though I imagine shoyu is probably less fatty/healthier. Hmmm… the reason I may not like Momofuku and Rai Rai Ken as much as Totto, Kambi, and Ippudo may lie in the fact that I just don’t like the style of ramen as much. My bad. It’s not you, it’s me.
People often rave about David Chang’s Japanese kingdom in NYC and forget about people like Bon Yagi. When I become rich and can open all the restaurants I want to open, I would definitely want to do it Yagi-style. Open a trail of restaurants that serve up good quality comfort foods at good prices. I also love the fact that his restaurants are all specialty restaurants. A curry place that serves great curry. A soba place that serves great soba. A tea place that has great tea. Bon Yagi has picked a number of things he wants to master and clearly has gotten very close to it. As much as I like a fancy restaurant with lobster foam and spherified foie gras, I am still partial to great food at great prices. My outlook is somewhat similar to Ikea’s… making good
design food accessible to all.
**A dollar each for these dumplings! You can get 8 dumplings for $3.99 at Vanessa’s Dumpling House.