When Dad called to ask how he could un-freeze his iMac I was about 100 feet from the Times Square North picture, walking up to 45th Street and turning east into a full-blown street fair (apparently the ‘Times Square Holiday Fair‘) complete with gift and food vendors. It was unclear what the celebration was (if any), but I moved to the sidewalk to avoid the crowd and head toward my destination.
I was in Times Square to eat lunch at the ESPNZone theme restaurant so I could watch the big Georgia-Auburn football game on their 30 foot television…except ESPNZone is locked with a court notice announcing their bankruptcy! Damn! Now where am I going to be able to watch the game? I was ready to eat bad fried food at ESPNZone in exchange for being able to hang out in front of the game. Now I figured I’d get a quick bowl of ramen at my fallback option then duck into a bar somewhere and nurse a beer for an hour or two. I headed north.
I got as far as 5th Ave before some obnoxious young dudes with trucker hats and walkie-talkie head sets started yelling at me because I was “trespassing.” As Dad heard over the phone, I let them know that the sidewalk was a public space and that’s what made filming in New York so exciting, and I kept walking. They shouted a few choice New York phrases (ahhh, The City!) but didn’t follow me. Still, a block away I ran into the real police cordon and I had to jog north to 46th St. then back down to 45th. St. after Grand Central (where they were filming) to reach Menchanko-Tei Japanese Restaurant, my destination.
Menchanko-Tei had been described in an article as a “simple” little ramen soup restaurant. It was little (five tables in front opposite a bar, three booths behind that, and two tables in a tiny balcony overlooking the bar), but very elegant: blond wood surfaces, brushed metal detail, polished black surfaces elsewhere. I sat at the bar above which the Liverpool-Stoke City soccer match flickered silently. At 3:45pm there were two other tables filled, and no one was watching the match, so I asked the hostess to change it to Georgia-Auburn. “Sure,” she said. “What is that? I don’t know sports…” I told her it’s on CBS and suddenly Cam Newton is turning the corner and diving in front of the pylon for Auburn’s first TD. Cool! I camped out for almost the entire game, or at least until Auburn went up by 11 points in the fourth quarter (and it looks like no one scored after that). Good game. GREAT food.
I went there for ramen (‘real ramen’ obviously, not the processed facsimile in the plastic package often sold six for a dollar) so after a quick glance at their menu I ordered their special Pork Bowl with pork broth and spiral slices of rolled pork shoulder that had just the right amount of fat, gooey tendon, and tender meat. Almost as an after thought, I noticed they offered a daikon radish salad, and I ordered one to accompany what I expected would be a rich bowl of soup. What arrived as the salad was like nothing I’d seen before: daikon sticks the size of french fries arranged in a star-burst, with a fluffy cloud of katsuobushi (smoked dried tuna) shaved into thin confetti or excelsior fluff. The dressing was a perfectly balanced combo of shiso leaf and umeboshi vinegar that was spicy sour prickly savory good, especially with the cool crunchy daikon.
The salad was so good I forgot about the bowl of steaming noodles and pork beside it until I was done with every stick of daikon. The the ramen was terrific, with noodles that were the perfect tooth; not soft, cooked all the way through, tender, and really springy the way good ramen noodles, ‘real ramen’ noodles should be. Each noodle ‘snaps’ as you bite through them, like a rubber band breaking, but breaking very easily. The broth was not clear, but rich with fragrant pork fat and probably a light miso paste to add ‘heft.’ Once I was nose-deep into the soup, I didn’t look up at the football game until I could see the Ony Logo at the bottom of Menchanko-tei’s custom made ramen bowls.
By the time I was done with those two dishes (and a mug of ice cold Kirin beer on tap), it wasn’t even the end of the first quarter of the football game, so I got a menu and ordered a few more dishes. First their plate of pickled veg (tsukemono moriawase in Japanese, usually a seasonal assortment), which included tatsoi-like stems(!), two umeboshi pickled plums (which tasted like sour apricots, and now that I look it up on Wikipedia, it says they’re more closely related to apricots than plums!), and soy pickled eggplant — all of them fantastic.
Along with the pickles I ordered a tofu tempura in dashi, which was very fine, this time bland in flavor — grassy tofu with the smoky background of the dashi — but interesting textures: crackle-y tempura batter above the dashi, spongy batter soaked with dashi below, warm custard-y tofu inside. Occasionally the cool crunch of a scallion coin added to the soft flavors and contrasting textures.
After half-time in the football game I ordered their plain green salad with the traditional (but still mysterious to me, though I’m honing in on the components) Japanese creamy dressing. When the fourth quarter started I ordered a grilled onigiri (rice ball) stuffed with cod roe and another daikon salad.
When the check came (including one draft Kirin per quarter) it was only $55! This restaurant was simply a ramen soup recommendation and my *second* choice for lunch this Saturday; I might have had bad chicken wings and Bud Light for at LEAST $55 (the last time I was there you paid a $30 minimum to sit in the media room with the giant tv’s). Instead I watched most of the football game in High Def in an elegant East Side restaurant quaffing ice cold Kirin draft and having my mind blown with each new dish they put in front of me. I was SO DAMN LUCKY to find this cheap and heavenly meal. Not to mention lucky that I occasionally get to travel to NYC for work and can afford to eat anything I want. I ate so much it counted for lunch and dinner, and if you ask anyone in NooYawk they’ll tell you that $55 for both lunch and dinner is a FRIGGIN’ bargain in Manhattan (see below), especially for exceptional food.