Like a lot of American kids my age, I grew up with an imposter. Fool that I was, I loved it with an unreserved passion.
To my great shame, I still distinctly remember turning down countless opportunities for actual food in favor of plastic pouches of pasty-white ramen noodles.
Oh, how strange it now seems. I was held in a spell, rapt in blind adoration of a bunch of airy white bricks that magically transformed in hot water. Three minutes... and voila! Tender, wiggly noodles steeped one of eight or ten nearly indistinguishable monosodium glutamate flavor packets. Pure comfort-food bliss.
Despite a winning name, Top Ramen really wasn't the star player in my affections. For my personal ontology, noodle bricks weren't even in the same genre as the ambrosial Nissin Cup o' Noodles. Many happy childhood memories involve warming my hands atop the smooth paper barrier that retained precious steam for those three mystical moments between shelf-stable starch and ramen.
Now that I'm slightly more worldly, I know that real ramen holds very little resemblance to either the starchy brick or the salty cup.
I've come to discover that real ramen doesn't involve MSG packets. It isn't even really about the noodles. Real ramen is a sensual experience closer to poetry.
Between the pork and the seaweed, the mushrooms and the egg, the scallions and the broth, the noodle and the steam, real ramen is about comparison. It begins just breathing in the aroma of the bowl. Then the exploration: One bite is briny sea, the next is rich, savory earth. This one is bracing and vegetal. That one, creamy and smooth. This one is chewy, that one, crisp. Real ramen is revelation.
I'd intended to present a comparison of three Manhattan ramen shops, but I find myself torn between them.
Momofuku Noodle Bar (163 First Ave, near 10th St.)
Momofuku Noodle Bar, the critics' darling, was big, bold, meaty ramen with thick, sturdy noodles... a very American ramen experience. They make it with Berkshire pork and serve it alongside crisp Hitachino ales. It's luxe, crowded, efficient, expensive and oh-so-very NYC.
Setagaya (141 First Ave., near St. Marks Pl.)
Ramen Setagaya is very clearly a US outpost of a slick Japanese chain. From a strangely mesmerizing wall display of Japanese food TV to the focused menu and overwhelmingly Japanese clientele, entering Setagaya felt more like a entering a teleportation device that dumped diners off in the midst of suburban Tokyo. The ramen, too, was transportive: tabletop to forest floor, rocky cliff and seaside farm.
(Rai Rai Ken Ramen House, 214 E. 10th St.)
Rai Rai Ken Ramen House is a dim closet behind a red curtain. Dark wood and a skinny ledge. The counter is high. The ramen is passed down from on high by a stoic staff of skilled young men. Chat with your companion. They're there to cook. The ramen is steamy, satisfying and dead cheap. Workers, students and hungry strangers approach needy and leave restored. This is a noodle shop for the proletariat.
Each of these ramen stops is within a stone's throw of the others. And each seems to represent a different aspect of the modern ramen experience. When I sat down to consider which might be considered the one true ramen experience, I really couldn't pick just one. It's situational.
Now, I'm no ramen expert, but I have a theory.
Setting the starchy grocery-store ramen aside as the phony junkfood it really is, the "best" ramen is less about single noodle bar or a single noodle bowl. It's really about the ramen bowl for who you are and how you're feeling at a particular time. Sometimes, the dark cave presents the right bowl of ramen. Sometimes it's the ramen on the slick countertop with the pretty servers.
So here's my thought: don't let anyone tell you they've got a line on the ramen. Top ramen is a state of mind.