Totto Ramen is another wildly popular ramen-ya of Bobby Munekata–owner of Yakitori Totto, Soba Totto, and Hide-Chan. The narrow restaurant seats only 20 and would be easy to miss if it wasn’t for the perpetual crowd. After signing in, the waiting begins. The tense feeling of anxiety (from the hour-long wait) is a sharp contrast to the inside of Totto, which is brimming with energy. You may be rewarded after your wait with seating at the bar stools, which provide a front-row view of the cooks expertly maneuvering in the tight, open kitchen. The charm of Totto is further accentuated by the sounds of ramen slurping, chopstick clanging, and short bursts of Japanese volleying between the staff.
The menu is limited at Totto, and the waiter wastes no time before asking what you’d like. The popular item is the Totto Spicy Ramen, and almost everyone upgrades to the equally priced Totto Extra Spicy Ramen ($10.75). Ask for the pork instead of chicken, which isn’t as tender.
The broth is unbelievably creamy and as rich in the taste of chicken as Momofuku’s ramen broth was in pork. Aside from the de rigueur piece of nori, the bowl was topped with scallions and bean sprouts. The thin, straight noodles were slow-cooked, but were slightly off the al-dente mark.
Floating in a the soup were fatty slabs of braised char siu pork, which were treated with a propane blowtorch before being dropped into the bowl. The result is a crispy, charred exterior that leaves the inside moist and tender.
The only difference you’ll notice with the Extra Spicy Ramen is that you’re given a side of rāyu, a fiery red substance that is a lot less scary than it looks. The mixture is made with sesame oil and dried chili peppers, and you’re advised to add it in gradually. The hot oil isn’t as spicy as it’s advertised to be (∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫∫). However, it’s strong enough to mask the rich chicken broth. The tradeoff is still worth it. The ramen becomes a lot more intense with the addition of the fragrant condiment. Ask for a Sapporo ($5) to wash it all down.
Although the staff is always friendly, you can’t help but feel rushed (justifiable because of the long wait for limited seating). At Totto, lingering over your meal should be avoided. Unless you enjoy standing outside or having your party split up, don’t show up with a group. Totto accepts cash only, so find an ATM after writing your name in.
*Fun Fact: Ippudo of the East Village, reputed to have the city’s best ramen by everyone who matters, is expanding into Hell’s Kitchen. More interestingly, the proposed location, expected to open in February 2012, is on the same block as Totto Ramen. I’m excited, but am not expecting shorter lines (Ippudo already has wait times of up to two hours).*