Words By Jeb Gavin, Photos By Clarissa Villondo
I can breathe. This is only curious in so far as hours ago I was at the third annual Ramen World at Mess Hall, and normally I eat to the point of suppressing my diaphragm like Homer Simpson attempting to eat a steak the size of a boogie board. Except for me, I’m typically cramming a fourth serving of whatever Thip Khao has to offer into my gullet and stomping off as though there’s an imaginary sousaphone player noting every step I take. This year both the event and the offerings were more refined, though no less satisfying.
As usual, lines wrapped around the entirety of the building, so I opted to open out on the loading dock. Combini by Uzu had a grill set up off to the side of the patio seating area for Okonomiyaki, this massive egg pancake covered in mayo and a funky brown sauce. They smartly cut them into wedges, because while you can house an entire pancake, it’s probably a better idea to reserve consumption of the whole thing for when you’re hung over as hell.
Sharing the loading dock, the Pho Wheels truck was ladling out bowls of some of the most fragrant broth I’ve ever ever smelled- a strong beef broth full of Vietnamese cinnamon, cloves, and star anise. There was brisket good, but with respect, I still vividly remember last year’s collaboration with Sloppy Mama’s. Oh, those fat, smoked brisket-fat soaked noodles.
Onward and inward. The shortest line (a dozen folks rather than several dozen folks) was in front of the Bantam King stand. As usual they brought their killer matzoh ball ramen, with carefully diced mirepoix and dill. Man, that was a dense matzoh ball, though. Still not a matzoh ball fan, or a chicken ramen fan, but their flavors and those noodles are spectacular. Now that I’ve been to Bantam King, any mention of them makes me think of their perfect chicken rice, and the best chicken dumplings (almost a spicy chicken kreplach.) Unfortunately my love of their rice and dumplings overshadows my love of chicken ramen. Immediately next to Bantam King was Haikan’s station, serving up Little Macs: a burger on a bun made of ramen noodles. Look, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: ramen burgers are novel (and this one was made with some damn tasty aged chuck patties, pickles, and special sauce) but I’d much rather have cheeseburger ramen- a bowl of tonkotsu with a crispy beef patty on top.
Not yet wanting to slog through the line meandering through four stations, I snuck back to the True Syrup station for their kola old fashioned. So fortified, I briefly heckled the Alfie’s crew while eating Thip Khao’s khao soi. Having only eaten the Nok Noi version at Alfie’s, I found the Laotian version to be more like Chinese dan dan noodles- thick noodles in a fermented soy bean sauce full of chilies and aromatics (so much dill!) Once again, Thip Khao knocked it out of the park.
And so began the conga line. Two Cassava jasmine bubble teas and a Kirin later, I’m working my way through Sushi Taro’s lobster ramen. The mushroom and lobster ramen had these thin, straight noodles which to my surprise picked up the chives and broth far better than expected. The pork broth was good, but the lobster taro made the balls of chopped lobster redundant (and probably not as good as the sliced, roast pork.) The taro was too intense on its own, and the broth was good but missing a bit of sweetness and salt. Combined, the taro and the broth walked this fine, perfect line.
Further down the line was Paper Horse, Erik Bruner-Yang’s newest spot. This was the only ramen I found with bok choy in it (a personal favorite,) and the red lacquered pork was top notch, but what really set the bowl off was the small spoonful of Kamikaze chili pepper sauce. Not unlike a more citrusy endorphin sauce from Toki Underground, the Kamikaze sauce brightened the whole bowl.
As I finally rounded the last corner in the far end of Mess Hall, I snagged a paper cone of curried potato wedges (seriously, solid representation of hangover curing food at this event) from Doi Moi and waited for pork rinds from Alfie’s and whatever else was in their bowl. Turns out the answer was boat noodles, these fat, wide noodles in beef soup with chili powder and brisket and love. It was a bowl of love. And kaffir lime leaves. Kaffir is fast becoming my favorite citrus.
Another Ramen World in the books. Delicious, fat stained books. Once again I ask, why isn’t this monthly? Are there not enough ramen (or ramen adjacent restaurants) in D.C.?