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Food Porn Friday: Ramen Holiday

Ramen

You remember that dorm room cup of noodles? Yeah...this ain't it. (At Noodle & Pie, on Magazine St.)

In the last few years that I lived in New York City, before the eventual, inevitable move back home to New Orleans (I know what it means), I created a personal holiday that, to the best of my knowledge, remains unique and special to me alone. See, every five weeks or so, depending on my schedule, laziness, and whether or not I had a fancy date or job interview, I would make myself a haircut appointment. I may not be what anyone might call "fashion-forward," but basic personal grooming is important. I even brush my teeth on occasion. Call me old-fashioned.

My last barber was a hip Filipino chick from Vancouver, who has a salon in the East Village. She was fun, cute, talented, didn't overcharge me for a basic cut, and, most importantly, she always took an extra couple of minutes to massage my scalp while washing my hair. Her name is Regina, and I'll always remember her fondly, not just for the lingering head massage, but for introducing me to a food that changed my life.

Ramen.

Near Regina's salon, on Avenue A and 10th St. in Manhattan, is a pocket of Japanese restaurants, mostly little noodle shops and diminutive sushi bars. It's not a coincidence that David Chang opened his flagship restaurant, Momufuku Noodle Bar, nearby, on 1st and 10th. On a particularly miserable, freezing, wet, brutally melancholy late winter day, I stopped by Regina's for my prescribed cut and head-tickle. Afterwards, biding my time before having to throw myself back into the slop, I asked if there was anything good and preferably hot to eat nearby.

"Have you been to Rai Rai Ken?" she asked. "The. Best. Ramen. Unbelievable. Just one block that way!"

My associations with ramen noodles, at that point, were probably like those of most Americans. I remembered late night styrofoam cups of soup heated in a dormitory microwave and then slurped down unceremoniously, a way of putting a little more gas in the tank, not to mention that we all knew the combination of broth, carbohydrates and an outrageous sodium content was like Arthur's Excalibur in the Crusade Against Hangovers. It was fuel and medicine, not food. I didn't know anyone in his right mind who "craved" a bowl of ramen noodles. Especially not someone from New Orleans, who knows that his mama's red beans or crawfish etouffee is several light years away from gas station noodle soup with a few lugubrious rehydrated peas floating at the top, waiting to be taken out of their misery.

This was not the case at Rai Rai Ken. Sitting at the bar, alone with an ice cold beer and a steaming bowl of long-simmered shoyu broth (made with a soy sauce base, a savory choice) filled with perfectly al dente hand-pulled noodles, thinly sliced pork, menma (bamboo shoots), a soft-cooked egg, spinach, nori (dried seaweed) scallions, and a candy pink-and-white fish cake, the winter was all but forgotten. I was happy, but more than that. This bowl of noodles restored my soul, and I didn't even care that I was alone. Because I was content. The universe was balanced and fair and beautiful.

Hence, I made it a point to follow my haircuts with a bowl of ramen, eventually turning the combination into my own personal holiday. I called it "Haircut and Ramen Day," which that seemed appropriate.

After moving back to my hometown, finding a decent bowl of ramen was something of a challenge, which both surprised and disappointed me. With the Vietnamese cuisine explosion, there were now dozens of places a New Orleanian could find an authentic bowl of pho, but my craving-filled searches led me nowhere. Don't get me wrong, I love a nice bowl of pho. But pho isn't ramen. It is an a priori truth, like "A=A" or "Water is Wet," or "The Atlanta Falcons Can Kiss My Ass."

So, I decided to take things into my own hands. The good thing, for ramen junkies like me, is that you can still get a basic fix pretty much wherever you are, even if the noodles aren't painstakingly fashioned by hand, thanks in part to a man named Momofuku Ando, inventor of the instant noodle. No joke, instant ramen was considered by the Japanese to be the most important invention of the 20th century. This, in the same century that brought us the Internet. Those are some important noodles.

Best part is, with a decent packet of instant noodles -- and you can find all you want and more at the Hong Kong Market in Gretna -- you can have a hot bowl of ramen in about five minutes. The key is loading it up with tasty and nutritious add-ons. Take my recent effort: Korean-style spicy Shin Ramyun with smoked pork shoulder, a poached egg, nori, kimchi, and scallions, as seen here:

Scotty Ramen

Ramen a la Scotty, with BBQ pork, poached egg, nori, kimchi and scallions.

Now, if you're a fan of this site, you're probably wondering what this lengthy diatribe on haircuts and Japanese noodles has to do with New Orleans. To my great and unabiding delight, there is now at least one place in the Crescent City where hungry ramen-heads like me can score the real deal: the newly opened Noodle & Pie, on Magazine St. (pictured at top: read more about my first visit here). Sure, they offer all sorts of cool small plates and appetizers (the tofu is wonderful, and don't miss the grilled sardines), but it's all about the broth and the noodles for me, both of which don't fail to satisfy my inner noodle junkie. Eman Loubier and his crew from Dante's Kitchen really do a service to my favorite Japanese staple, with 12-hour simmered broths and lovingly, patiently, scientifically hand-fashioned noodles. I couldn't recommend it more.

Well, I'd probably recommend getting a haircut beforehand, but that's just me.


Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, has written for Gourmet, The New Orleans Advocate, Gambit, ThrillistEdible Brooklyn, Tasting Table, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo essay designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Find him on Twitter @scottgold.