The Gleeful Gourmand: Destination: Toki Underground

Friday, September 12, 2014

Destination: Toki Underground

Ramen. The last time I ate ramen before this past weekend was in the little house my friends and I rented in Fredericksburg my senior year attending Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington). I can very clearly remember boiling the hard, scratchy noodles and flavor packet, microwaving a Hot Pocket to go along with it, and settling down to watch "The Simpsons." Gourmet dining at its finest, really.

Suffice to say, I didn't know from real ramen. I had certainly heard, and read, about real ramen since college, but I had never had a chance to experience it. Then about a year ago I was reading an article in UMW's Magazine about one of its alum, Erik Bruner-Yang, who had opened up an incredibly successful and wildly popular Taiwanese ramen and dumpling shop in Washington, D.C. called Toki Underground.

Our first course at Toki Underground: Fried Chicken and Steamed Buns

Just reading the descriptions of the food had me salivating, and I knew I needed to try this restaurant. I finally had the opportunity this past weekend when I went up to D.C. for a girls' weekend with two of my best friends. We made an attack plan for having dinner on Saturday evening. Yes, you read that right. You actually need a plan of attack to eat at Toki Underground. Problem number 1: It's ridiculously small. Intimate, is more like it, with seating on stools all along the outside perimeters of a tiny room. Problem number 2: They don't take reservations. Here's what we knew to do, based on some friends who had already been: Show up a little before 5 p.m. when they open; line up with a bunch of other hungry, ramen-crazed people and put your name on the list (or get first seating).

We didn't get first seating because we were a little late getting ready, but we were pretty proud of ourselves getting second seating. They told us it would be about a 45-minute wait, and took a cell phone number to text us when our seats were available. We walked about five paces down the street and into the nearest bar for a drink, enjoying the air conditioning. Did I mention that it was about 100 degrees that afternoon? Okay, maybe not 100, but it sure felt like it.

They ended up texting us about 30 minutes later, and we went upstairs for our first look at Toki Underground. I have to admit, though the initial shock of the smallness of the space was the first thing I noticed, the second thing I noticed was how cool it was. With Japanese art and neat Asian toys and trinkets placed around carefully, and a well thought-out playlist spinning, it just had a cool vibe. However, with its open kitchen blazing like the fires of hell, it felt anything but cool. I'm fairly certain all three of us were praying fervently that we didn't get the seats right next to the kitchen, so close you could reach out and give one of the chefs a high-five. So close I watched one poor diner mop his streaming brow with a paper napkin, only to have the napkin dissolve and stick to his face.

Main Dish: The Toki Classic ramen bowl.

Luckily we got seated across the room next to the windows and stairway. We perused the menu and immediately ordered an appetizer of Fried Chicken and Steamed Buns, a spicy, crunchy explosion of deliciousness that made me think of a crazy mashup of Asian and Southern comfort food, especially with its condiments of aioli, relish, and pickled cucumbers. They provided lots of water in fun mason jars, and we ordered drinks (Toki Monster, a bourbon-based cocktail; one whose name we can't remember but had vodka, lemongrass, and grapefruit; and ice-cold Sake for me).

Next up our ramen bowls arrived quickly: Two Toki Classics (made with a triple stock, pulled pork, veggies, soft-boiled egg, sesame, and nori to name a few ingredients), and one Vegetarian (same principle ingredients with more veggies, and a mix of mushrooms). Served with chopsticks and a small metal ladle for digging into the broth, this ramen was beyond good. My first bite was a surprise - remember, the last time I had ramen it came from an orange package. These noodles were sublime. Silky, rich, creamy, and instantly addictive. With the right amount of spiciness, it was like nothing I've ever had. Every bite was sumptuous, and every slurp and sip revealed a different dimension and depth to the dish.

Sake, frosty cold and perfect with ramen; The Toki Classic ramen bowl. Supreme deliciousness.

The only problem was the heat. I don't know if their air conditioning units weren't working right, but it was downright blazing in there. Hovering over bowls of steaming ramen only added to the problem. The Sake and water helped, but I couldn't help but think that next time I made a trip to Toki Underground, it should be in the dead of winter. That said, I can summarize with this: The point is, while D.C. has many fabulous restaurants, and even more new restaurants that are making a splash on the national scene (hello, Rose's Luxury, you are next on my list!!), I would literally endure anything, including searing heat, torrents of sweat, and any amount of line-standing to have seconds at Toki Underground.

3 comments :

Kirsten Oliphant said...

I have a terrible addiction to ramen (the packaged kind), ESPECIALLY in pregnancy. I feel like I'm just coming down from a ramen high. :) This place sounds amazing and loved the pictures!

Jenna said...

I guarantee you - this place will send you over the edge! I have a weird memory of eating ramen in my kitchen senior year of college and a guy friend telling me about a girl who ate nothing but ramen (from the package) and how she ended up getting scurvy. Urban myth at its best!! But now unfortunately, every time I think of ramen, I also think of scurvy. ;)

Elizabeth Wilson said...

Every bit of this story is true.

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