Brunch with Louis: Jin Ramen

Though it is the middle of April, the abhorrent fact that it has snowed in the past week means that we have had way more than six weeks left of winter. (Should have asked a Bear and not a groundhog.) And an unusually cold and long winter always calls for ramen. Though nothing can quite compare to Totto, Jin Ramen provides a quieter and roomier ramen experience that also happens to be much closer to Columbia University. When a friend and her unicorn, Louis, came to town to visit Columbia and Barnard, Jin Ramen was the perfect place to catch up over hot, steaming bowls of noodle soup.

Located at 125th Street and Broadway, Jin Ramen is right outside the 125th Street station on the 1 train. Additionally, it is a short and pleasant walk—weather permitting—from Columbia’s main campus in Morningside Heights.

jin (restaurant)

Jin Ramen has always been crowded whenever I have been, with lots of people standing outside the restaurant in order to wait for their table. Luckily we were able to grab a seat at the bar. The tables are nice and not too close together, unlike Totto, but the bar is really great because you can see right into the kitchen where they make your food. Plus it means that you get it faster because the chef can just put it on the counter in front of you!

jin (bar)

The waitstaff at Jin are super nice, and they take your order on a fancy electronic device that might just be an iPhone in a cool case. The menu has a pretty standard ramen selection, but they have a lot of add-ons to customize your order. They also have specials that rotate with the season, usually more elaborate and non-traditional. I ordered the shoyu ramen, which is a soy-sauce-based soup and my friend ordered the miso ramen. The menu has a nice little allergy notice on the bottom and our server assured me that there was no dairy and no peanuts in any of the food.

jin (menu)

Though the bar was a little cozy (read: bumping elbows with strangers), we had a great view of lots of food, and we were able to catch up on the last couple years while we starved away in anticipation of our food. The atmosphere of Jin is noisy enough to know that everyone is enjoying themselves, but not so loud that it hinders conversation. When the chef placed our bowls of ramen in front of us, I cheered very audibly, to his amusement. Who wouldn’t cheer for their ramen?

jin (bear) jin (louis)

Of course, the food was delicious as expected. Jin adds some different toppings than Totto, such as bamboo shoots and those tiny mushroom things, but omits things, like a mound of flavored pork. The result is a simpler texture that allows you to focus on the soup and the noodles, rather than attempting to craft masterful bites with a little bit of each ingredient. Jin provides that seaweed salt that people put on rice, but the ramen was so flavorful that it was unnecessary.

jin (ramen)

The clientele at Jin Ramen seems to be almost all members of the Columbia community, with one or two families from the neighborhood. Jin has a large table in the front that seems great for a birthday dinner (if you can get it), as well as plenty of room for friends and family. Jin has also opened up a new coffeeshop next door, called Kissaten Jin, which hopefully we will scope out soon. The well-priced menu and the friendly staff make Jin Ramen a great place to bring friend-dates, regular dates, and unicorns alike!

jin (bear and louis)

Ramen, always a comfort, becomes even more so with familiar faces. Bear enjoyed not only the food, but also a chance to see Louis the unicorn, whose colorful lilac hide reminds us all the spring is coming soon. The two of them had a lovely afternoon slurping ramen and burning their tongues! Though spring is slow to arrive, it’s nice to know that the impossibly long winter has been filled with good friends and good food.

Wonton Noodle Garden

There was a year back in high school when I got absolutely sick of Chinese food. I dreaded family dinners, which usually meant eating endless amounts of tofu and sweet-and-sour fish. Those days are no more, and while Chinese New Year celebrations may be so two months ago, it is still the year to eat like a horse! If there’s one thing I know, it’s that good food and good company are always worth celebrating.

For most people, holidays are all about the spirit of the season; they’re about something meaningful, such as independence or thankfulness or love. Flags and fireworks, ceremonies and services, holidays are a time for remembering something important about the human condition, like strength, perseverance, or kindness.

For my family, holidays are all about food. Sparklers and sprinklers are excellent ways to spend Independence Day, but only while we’re waiting for the barbecue. Christmas presents are a ton of fun, but it’s Christmas dinner that we’ll be talking about for the rest of the year. And of course we are so proud of you for turning a year older and being able to drive, vote, or rent a car. But really, we’re all here for the cake.

This year, when my birthday and Chinese New Year coincided in the same week (a phenomenon that hasn’t happened since my tenth birthday), my cousins elected to celebrate the only way we know how: by eating lots of Chinese food. Manhattan Chinatown, to the uninitiated, can be overwhelming, but Wonton Noodle Garden is always a hit.

wonton garden (sign)

Located at 56 Mott Street, the closest subway station is any Canal Street stop on 1, 6, A, C, E, N, Q, or R trains. Of course, I ended up at HK Wonton Garden until my cousin came and found me at the wrong place, so Wonton Noodle Garden may not be the easiest place to locate in the already-confusing web of Chinatown. (Where are the numbers?)

Wonton Noodle Garden, like a lot of Chinatown, is not known for its superior décor or its soothing ambience. It sort of has the vibe of Chinatown-bakery-meets-roadside-diner, which means that it’s noisy and a little grungy, but definitely comforting and predictable. When you have severe food allergies, it’s nice to have something predictable. Chinese food is as close to home as I can get, and all I have to do is avoid peanuts, which is relatively easy at Wonton Noodle Garden. Just double check with the server, and use the photographic menu as a guide.

wonton garden (tea)

Often confused with several other establishments, such as HK Wonton Garden (equally delicious), Wonton Noodle Garden has an enormous menu, so everyone, even your weird friends who “don’t like Chinese food,” will be happy! Like Disneyland’s Candy Palace, where you can watch the confectioners create English toffee, the front window of Wonton Noodle Garden features the cook making the wonton soup with similar expertise and love.

wonton garden (wonton noodle soup)

Of course, we ordered the wonton noodle soup (welcome to Obviousville) and beef chow fun (enjoy your visit to Obviousopolis), two staples of any cousin bonding experience. It is also customary to eat noodles on Chinese New Year. We also ordered sesame chicken and some roast duck, to make it a real New Year’s feast.

wonton garden (sesame chicken) wonton garden (roast duck)wonton garden (beef chow fun)

Bear oh bear, was it a New Year’s feast! The wonton soup had just the right noodle-to-wonton ratio, and the wontons were as delicate and delicious as if they really grew in a garden. The roast duck was savory and meaty, while the sesame chicken was sweet and crispy, just as it should be. The beef chow fun, as always, was perfect. (It’s really hard to mess up beef chow fun.) We scarfed up every bite, took a pile of selfies for our grandma, and laughed so hard that there were definitely tears in there with the tea. My cousins gave me a hilariously cheesy birthday card, and we spent the rest of the evening wandering around Union Square, looking for dessert and browsing bookstores.

wonton garden (restaurant)

I’ve seen some chatter on the Internet questioning Wonton Noodle Garden’s establishment and their claims about “since 1978.” To that, I would just like to say that Cantonese food has been at the center of American cuisine since before the California gold rush. Whether it’s from the Qin dynasty or from the 1970’s, Cantonese food has happiness and health all bundled up inside of it. Wonton Noodle Garden attracts the neighborhood regulars as well as hungry students, so the crowd is usually lively and looking for some noodles. PLEASE NOTE: Wonton Noodle Garden only accepts cash, so come prepared! (I’m not sure if it’s under a certain amount, or if that’s their blanket policy, but I have never not paid in cash here.)

wonton garden (bear)

Ever since my first week in New York, I often suffer from homesickness: for my bed, for the beach, but most of all for the food that my mom and my grandma make. As much as I love the city and it’s electric, eclectic energy, there are days where I hate it—the weather, the work, the wallowing in loneliness. Places like Wonton Noodle Garden offer the perfect antidote—nothing makes me feel closer to home than a big bowl of wontons and the company of my goofy cousins!

Totto Ramen

There’s something about Times Square that scares me. Maybe it’s the vortex of tourists that will accost you and ask you for directions to places like the Statue of Liberty. Maybe it’s the creepy people dressed up as fake Elmo or fake Batman or fake Mario that attack you for pictures. Maybe it’s the massive amounts of billboards that give the illusion of daylight even when it’s pouring rain at two in the morning. It could just be that it’s always impossible to find a place to eat after a show, when you’re most hungry.

For the last couple years, my aunt has come to New York around my birthday. Last year, after seeing Phantom, we wandered around in the February freeze looking for a restaurant that had more than a bar open. After spotting a paper lantern in a closed restaurant and a Yelp search, we found our way to Totto Ramen. And wow. WOW. Goodbye creepy Midtown crazies, hello homestyle happiness!

totto (sign)

Totto Ramen is located on 52nd Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues. We walked there easily from the Majestic Theater after Phantom and from the Gershwin Theater after Wicked, so it’s very convenient post-show. If you are coming from farther away, the nearest subway stops are 50th Street on the 1, C, or E lines.

Totto Ramen is full of Asian people, an observation which tells us two things: it’s authentic and it’s good. Totto Ramen is not the place for a casual introduction to ramen or for a leisurely corporate lunch or for people with personal space options. It is the place for ramen connoisseurs who are willing to endure waiting in the cold and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers just to enjoy some hot, savory, delicious ramen.

totto (line)

Totto Ramen probably seats a maximum of twenty people, give or take, including the bar seats. Thus, there is always a huge line filling a tiny little alleyway that is really just a staircase with an awning. The way to get a table is to sign up with your name and the number in your party on a clipboard on the door. The hostess clears out tables and fills them up with admirable efficiency. It looks like the Hello Kitty restaurant game, but filled with a bunch of hungry young people instead cute cartoon animals.

totto (menu)

Once you’re inside, you’re either sitting right next to a wall, right next to a stranger, or right next to a wall and a stranger. It’s a tight fit with puffy winter coats, but completely worth the discomfort. The menu keeps it simple with only a few choices. I always get the Totto Miso Ramen with chicken and it’s never disappointed me. The best part about Asian food is that it very rarely has any dairy involved, and so all I had to do was double check about peanuts. Our server confirmed we were good to go!

totto (ramen)

The reward for shivering and quivering in a tiny staircase is the best ramen in town. Your eyes will grow as big as the bowl when you see the perfect arrangement of noodles, meats, egg, nori and a weird but delicious ball of ground pork and flavor. The noodles are amazingly springy, which is a texture similar to the al dente texture of pasta. I’m usually a very slow eater (so slow that people tend to leave and come back from the table and I’m still eating breakfast) but the combination of fasting through a Broadway show, trekking through wind and snow, and waiting in an icebox means that I’ll scarf up my bowl of ramen and slurp down the soup in record speed. (Plus, did you see the line outside? We have to eat fast!)

totto (bear)

Ramen is my comfort food. My dad always makes me the best ramen at home on sick days, on cold days, on special occasions. Though I’ve heard it’s an acquired taste, I think that nothing could be better than a huge bowl of noodles, chicken, eggs, and what-have-you thrown into a steaming soup of miso, soy sauce, pork broth, and who-knows-what-else-but-it’s-so-good. It seems that most college students are content to eat plain noodles with a flavor packet, or even noodles in a Styrofoam cup (What’s that? They’re so delicious?). Maybe it’s the xenophobia, maybe it’s the waiting outside, but these people are ignoring an entire culture and an entire cuisine: the world of ramen.

Nifty Fifty

Hi Brunch with Bearees! We have recently received notification that we have reached 50 WordPress followers, in addition to our copious email followers and Facebook fans! Also, this is our 40th post of Brunch with Bear!

We have come a long way since our very first post, over a year ago, and we hope that our numbers continue to grow. As always, we’d like to take a special moment to thank our fans for continuing to read about our adventures.

If you haven’t already, please click that “Follow” button or subscribe for email alerts so that you can always read the latest and greatest about food allergies in NYC. We have returned full swing, and are planning to take on more restaurants in the coming weeks—slush or shine!

Morton’s The Steakhouse

A few weeks ago, my aunt was in town for work and took me out on the town to celebrate my birthday. I love when my aunt is in town and I love birthdays because combining those two events means one thing: amazing food. And even though my birthday is usually a rainy and icy affair in NYC, my aunt manages to make it into a fairytale dream come true with a long, lingering evening of food and festivities. Our first stop? Morton’s The Steakhouse.

morton's (entry)

Morton’s lists itself as being on 5th Avenue but the entrance to Morton’s is on 45th Street, between 5th and Madison Avenues. It’s a short walk—which seems really long when sleet is falling—from nearly any 42nd Street stop on the 1, 2, 3, 7, A, C, E, N, Q, or R trains, the 47-50th Street/Rockefeller Center stop on the B, D, F, or M trains, or, of course, Grand Central Station.

The front doors to Morton’s are very, very heavy especially when your hands are frozen and slippery because of the “wintry mix” that is happening outside. However, the inside is toasty and plush, with dim lighting for ambience and high ceilings for elegance. The entrance staff was very welcoming—though absolutely no help with the doors—and directed me to my table immediately.

morton's (restaurant)

Everything about Morton’s is fancy. There is a coat check at the front door. The walls double as wine racks. All the water comes in bottles. We used Uber to get around all night. (It’s that fancy.) If you want an upscale and sophisticated restaurant that is equally impressive and delicious, come to Morton’s. Better yet, get someone else to take you!

Online, Morton’s boasts a series of specialty lunch and dinner menus, such as gluten-sensitive or soy-sensitive. While they don’t have a standard dairy-sensitive menu, they do have a very knowledgeable waitstaff. Our waitress gave us plenty of time, and encouraged me to order anything that I wanted. We ordered some jumbo shrimp cocktail to start.

morton's (shrimp cocktail)

The shrimp cocktail was definitely jumbo, and served on dry ice for maximum presentation points. The house made cocktail sauce was potent, and made the succulent shrimp deliciously spicy. In terms of the main dishes, I finally settled on the petit filet mignon, and we ordered French fries and Brussels sprouts for the table. My aunt ordered a “mixed grill plate” of filet mignon, grilled shrimp and bacon-wrapped scallops.

morton's (petit filet)         morton's (surf n turf)

My petit filet was incredibly tender and juicy, and I savored the au jus with every bite. My aunt’s seafood was equally soft and flavorful. All the meats were surprisingly simple; no weird breading or toppings, just well-seasoned and perfectly cooked. The Brussels sprouts were also delicious—slightly crispy on the outside, with bacon crumbles in each forkful. Finally, the French fries were amazing—salty and addicting. French fries may look really simple, but trust me, a truly good fry is hard to find.

morton's (french fries)         morton's (brussels sprouts)

Suffice it to say that the whole meal was delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I’m still lamenting the leftovers I lost between an evening at Wicked and Totto Ramen (post coming soon!), several weeks later.

The clientele at Morton’s is as fancy as the furniture. Some people seemed like regulars, and there were a number of special celebrations, judging by the number of cake slices with sparkler candles we saw. Posh fur coats and designer handbags decorated some chair backs, and the waitstaff seemed accustomed to large parties and custom orders.

morton's (bear)

We loved everything about Morton’s. They had amazing food, amazing service, amazing ambience. They double-checked on allergies, they made sure we were able to get to our show on time, and they weren’t even fazed when a small brown Bear made a brief appearance for a food photo shoot. Morton’s is possibly one of the most expensive restaurants in NYC that we scoped, so it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be able to return soon. However, we can’t wait for when we do!