Words By Jeb Gavin, Photos By Franz Mahr
It’s been a day and I’m still fingering my chopsticks thinking about crispy pork, chicken [ramen] noodle soup, and little Pinoy radicchio cups. This past Sunday’s second annual Ramen World held at Mess Hall was intense. Maybe intense isn’t exactly right. It was a study of contrasts, a warm, early spring Sunday spent hunched over small bowls in the maze that is Mess Hall. It was festive, and yet there was this intensity: everyone in conga lines stretching around corners and down stairs to quaff or scarf with the sort of drive one normally associates with graduate school entrance exams.
For those who’ve never been, Mess Hall is this wonderful incubator for small food businesses in D.C., but the narrow passways and low ceilings lend an air of being lost in the bowels of a Russian sex club, particularly when you stumble out onto the loading dock for Donburi and remember it’s only 4:30 in the afternoon in Northeast, not 3 a.m. in Moscow. Not that I disapprove either way. As with all things Mess Hall, the focus is on the food being made; careful, deliberate dishes created with an enthusiasm born of getting to do what you love.
I first hit Chaplin’s stand, around the corner in the back for their Stamina ramen. The noodles were springy, and the broth tasted of miso and pork and all of it was overshadowed by the giant spoonful of their homemade hot sauce I glommed on like a fool.
Lurching deeper into the event I hit upon Shrub District’s cocktails and tried to put out the fire with a vodka and nutmeg concoction that tasted like getting waterboarded with grapefruit-infused vinegar… and it was exactly what I needed to set myself to right. I was hoping to save Toki Underground for last, but it was right there and there was no line. So for the second time in a week (I live three blocks away and would breathe chicken karaage if I could) I had Toki’s ramen. It tasted of their usual, superb Taiwanese inspired ramen broth, but this batch had a depth, a modicum of gelatin more than usual as though someone had thought to simmer chicken feet in with the mushrooms and kombu. Perhaps I was imagining things, but I’m going to try making ramen that way and see what happens.
Around the next corner was Purple Patch, fans wending back through a narrow pass and up the stairs to the arcade. Their Filipino lettuce cups with slaw and sour shredded pork were a brilliant contrast of textures and flavors. Across from Purple Patch, fortifying my wait in line was Traveling Sideshow Cocktails mixing mescal and a Thai chili-infused syrup with slices of fresh ginger (the lemongrass vodka was delicious too, but I’m a sucker for tasting the fruitiness and flavor of a chili rather than unmitigated heat.) In quick succession came Yona’s Korean chicken wings and then Thip Khao.
Oh Thip Khao. I don’t want to sing your praises, because I want the chance to eat your whole menu and I worry you’re already so popular I can’t get a table. Alas, I didn’t shut up Sunday and I won’t be able to keep from gushing now. The coconut rice with radish and cucumber and that crispy fried pork, oh that pork. Ate it, had seconds, then before leaving got a roadie which didn’t even last me the ride home.
At this point in the day I had to stop and clear my head and palate with a Kirin before venturing outside. I’d mentioned Donburi had their truck set up right off the loading dock. They were serving up Japanese curry topped with the best tonkatsu and shrimp tempura I’ve ever had. Just the right amount of breading, perfectly crisp, like a wonderful, Japanese version of fried pork chops and gravy. For a long time I’ve had a policy of, “do I really need another curry in my life?” That policy is now defunct.
Back inside, again fortified by Kirin, I sidled past the folks waiting (later I would find out justifiably) for Bantam King’s ramen, on to the Pho Wheels/Slopppy Mama’s collaboration.
Might have to back pedal a bit- if I wasn’t going to eat more Thip Khao, I want more of this noodle bowl- thick, almost lo mein noodles soaking up brisket grease with little bits of Chinese sausage and barbecued beef brisket…
Sorry, busy drooling just thinking about it. Had to clean myself up. At this point I hit Snocream for a bit of shaved green tea ice cream topped with mochi and frosted flakes, and then finally tackled the line in front of Bantam King.
I’m not sure I can do their dish justice with a description, because I don’t think anyone’s so well married the idea of chicken soup and ramen together. Egg-yellow noodles strangling one of the best takes on succotash I’ve had in years, in the sort of chicken broth that would get you kicked out of Seder- and frankly, I’d skip Seder for this chicken soup. Somehow the tender morsels of chicken were the least interesting part of this chicken noodle soup.
Not including my crispy pork nightcap, I ended my run with one of True Syrup’s cocktails (sans plastic pineapple, as they’d run out at that point) and one of Toli Moli’s Burmese faloodas- what I thought of as a Korean patbingsu, full of vanilla ice cream, basil seeds, cubes of jellied pomegranate and ginger, slivered almonds, and rice noodle pudding. It was somehow both light and decadent. Such contrast.
I’ve had better Sundays, but this was the sort of day that reminds you of the promise held in Spring Sundays to come. It’s also given me a laundry list of menus to eat and cuisines upon which to gorge. Menus and cuisines I’d thought about, but never bothered to try. That’s going to change quick, and I have Ramen World to thank. If only Ramen World monthly like Truckeroo…