There are certain characteristics that immediately denote an elite ramen haven. Dim lighting. Weird, atmospheric music. Shockingly limited seating and the refusal to take reservations. The ability to buy a round for a kitchen staffed by a crew whose most promising alternative career would have been tattoo artist.
Once upon a time, Toki Underground had these attributes in spades.
The story of Toki is well-recorded in DC culinary lore. When I arrived in Washington, circa 2013, the running joke was that the New York Times only referenced the District’s food scene when talking about Toki. The tiny ramen joint, despite its incipient fame, refused to take reservations and the wait for one of its sought-after stools would often take hours. Fortunately, nestled in the hip H Street district, there is a hyper-abundance of options for waiting, and my friends and I would get in the habit of getting good and sauced before each trip, favoring especially the expansive biergarten across the street. Salty ramen is the perfect chaser for mugs of beer, hence the indescribable pleasure of pairing it with the light Japanese variety.
Then, some weird shit happened. I won’t attempt to unpack the truth of how rising-star chef Erik Bruner-Yang fell out with the ownership group of Toki Underground. The tawdry cross-claims of that dispute are recorded in DC’s online periodicals and you are welcome to look them up. Frankly, I don’t give a flying fuck if the man crafting my ramen is stealing from the till to buy ball-gags, provided that the product he puts in the bowl is the blessed mana of heaven. Which it was.
For years, week after week, my friends and I would make the trek out to H Street, knowing that we were staring down the barrel of a three-hour wait. We would strategize our wait. We once attended a friend’s birthday nearby, putting our names in right before we arrived and slipping out once our number was called. The Toki-inspired shamelessness knew no bounds.
What made Toki so good? It was the complete experience. From the awkward crawl up the narrow staircase, to the comically tight configuration of the limited seating, the slightly brusque host, painfully hip soundtrack, and rows of little action figures lining the walls of the place (we would play Fuck-Marry-Kill with triads of these figures while we waited on our ramen bowls). The stools were uncomfortable and the benches claustrophobic and all of it was a privilege to get your hands on the final product.
To start, fried chicken buns that didn’t need a shell of batter to be mind-blowing. Portions were small and Toki prioritized quality over quantity – competition for those bites of fried chicken bun, which patrons built themselves from a spread of optional fillers, was fierce. Paired with a savory bourbon cocktail impaled with a cut of pork belly (which should be mandatory in bourbon cocktails), the groundwork is laid for a sequence of courses that builds seamlessly on itself.
Next up, the hallmark of the experience, the abura tsukemen. The flavor of this thing was exquisitely umami. Salty, spicy, rich, the tsukemen came as a small dipping bowl beautifully interlacing dark and light sauces with an accompanying bowl of noodles doused in fried garlic and sesame seeds. The depth of the tsukemen’s flavor profile was the perfect lead-in to the ramen, which always seemed even better in retrospect, perhaps due to the lingering flavor of the abura.
The inherent danger in the premise of this very blog is that ramen comes in various species and ramen-heads may hold reasonable, distinct preferences. That said, I favor (and the correct answer is) a spicy miso pork-based broth. The strength of a ramen is fundamentally in the quality of its stock, which is itself a function of time and inputs. Toki’s tonkatsu broth simmered in pork bones for a full day, a process that would surely be uneconomical at high volumes. With a personal preference for spicy ramen, I would request multiple helpings of the “endorphin sauce,” as well as the unlisted “dragon powder” to up the ante. To my delight, the quality of Toki’s tonkatsu was such that augmenting the heat never diminished the flavor of the bowl.
Whether one’s preference is for hot and fatty or for the more sedate Toki classic, the strength of that broth spoke for itself. The egg, nori, kale, and other accoutrements were a well-balanced complement to that foundation of palate-numbing aged stock. Though not a vegetablist myself, word from my vegetarian friends was that the vegetarian ramen was also first-class, particularly impressive given that a quality vegetarian ramen can be difficult to find.
Finally, as though the experience needed more, the beloved dessert of milk and cookies. A fantastic and reverential play on the classic staple, Toki’s milk and cookies were the ultimate finishing touch. The chocolate chip cookies were, with shocking consistency, a perfect balance of fully cooked, but with hot, soft innards, and were paired with a red miso buttercream that elevated the traditional experience well beyond its roots. To complete the ensemble, an ice cold glass of milk. Undoubtedly whole.
If a criticism could be leveled against historic Toki, I would argue that the dumplings were underwhelming, though again I had vegetarian friends who would advocate that they were best in class. On that point I will withhold an opinion.
So what is Toki now? Inarguably – not the same. Until this visit, I had not visited since shortly after Bruner-Yang’s departure, roughly five years ago. At last tasting, everything seemed pretty much intact and the chefs, with whom I had become quite familiar, were the same homely, bandana’d crew as always. The only thing missing was the action-figures that had lined the walls.
Turns out, they’ve taken Toki’s soul with them.
Most of the components remain in a very literal sense, like a childhood home that’s been redecorated by its new tenants, but whose layout still stokes that strange nostalgia. The buns are perhaps the most stable remnant, and they remain quite good, albeit significantly changed and more generic to what one would find at any other ramen restaurant of good quality. They still require assembly, and the general array of ingredients remains the same, but in greater quantity and with less loving selection and presentation. The fried chicken buns have seen their recipe change somewhat over the years, such that they have gotten more savory and less sweet, less moist, and more reliant on that ever-cursed batter, but still quite good. The selection has also diversified a bit, including buns with a curry-sauce, an idea more titillating on paper than in execution.
The beloved abura tsukemen is gone, arguably replaced by the “tonkatsu tsukemen,” an entrée, not an appetizer, which I opt not to sample. It’s a critical decision – although I missed the opportunity to improve the quality of my assessment, I have also sidestepped a potential disappointment that may simply be one too many. For what it’s worth, I have been informed that it’s not even a pale vestige of the former dish.
The ramen itself is likewise in a state that reminds the Snob of what it once was without nearly satisfying the nostalgia. The tonkatsu remains high quality and I suspect that Toki persists in making well-aged broth, and I cannot say I am fundamentally dissatisfied with the bowl when taken in isolation. The pork, however, is of lower quality than before, stringier and less fatty. The bowl is also oversaturated with peppers and kale, reminding me of the busy, inelegant work of far lesser ramen purveyors. All in all, the experience, while undeniably satisfying in some respects, remains disappointing in its fundamental departure from the salty, fatty, experimental works of art that were Bruner-Yang’s mad concoctions.
My somber disappointment at the diminished quality of the ramen is somewhat abated by my delight at learning that the milk and cookies are still on the menu, but here, as with the prior dishes, I discover an Elvis impersonator. The cookies are overcooked, and while the miso butter remains, the ratios of its flavor profile seem somewhat off, too much miso perhaps, and when combined with the cookie it evokes a somewhat sour taste. The milk is now presented in a comically small bowl, perhaps intended for dipping, but which gives the sense of being the manifestation of someone’s silly prioritization of coolness over common sense. To the historic Toki’s credit, it always managed that balance perfectly.
So, some questions linger. Was Toki ever as good as it is in my mind? I pose this to my brother and companion on this reunion tour, to which he responds, “Uhhhhh, yeah!” Good enough for me.
More importantly for the exercise at hand, is it possible to perform a fair assessment of Toki, given the long shadow it casts? Perhaps not. When I try to sidestep the years of affectionate emotional entanglement and Toki’s role in creating the Ramen Snob, I can’t help but think that Toki remains a totally serviceable bowl of noodles.
But, with the veil of Toki past still clouding my perception, such an acknowledgment is itself distant and half-hearted, far from sufficient to offer an objective viewpoint. For now, the Ramen Snob will punt, with plans to revisit with fresh eyes down the road.
Instead, this visit to Toki will serve as a critical palate cleanse, a departure and farewell to the past with eyes to a lifetime of new places and piping hot ramen bowls. To be continued.