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 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 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.
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!
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!)
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.