H Street ramen joint Toki Underground is filled with a symphony of sounds: dumplings sizzling on the grill, indie music swelling out of the speakers and the staff cheerfully calling out orders. Chef-owner Erik Bruner-Yang splits his time between cooking and keeping an eye on the cozy, counter-lined dining room. “There’s Dean; there’s Brook; there’s Kristin,” he says as he points out customers slurping up steaming bowls of noodles. “Ramen shops are supposed to be for locals, so I should know everyone who walks in the door.”
Vision: To clarify: This is not the 10-packets-for-$1 Top Ramen you subsisted on in college; this is gourmand-approved, Taiwan-style ramen, which Bruner-Yang learned how to cook during a monthlong trip there in 2009. “I wanted people to feel like they were eating out in the streets of Taipei,” the Asian food mecca where he was born, Bruner-Yang says.
Eats: Toki Underground serves five kinds of dumplings — pork, beef, chicken, seafood and vegetarian ($5 for six) — based on recipes handed down from Bruner-Yang’s grandparents. Whether they’re pan-fried, steamed or deep-fried, the dumplings come with the house tare, a sweetened soy sauce, which acts as a complementary contrast to the vinegar in the appetizers. When you’re ready for the next course, choose from a quintet of ramen noodle options ($10 each). Go old-school with the Toki Hakata Classic, a savory, pork-based Tonkotsu noodle soup with barbecued pork loin, seasonal vegetables and half a boiled egg, topped with red pickled ginger, sesame seeds, scallions and a small rectangle of nori (thinly pressed seaweed). Or go meatless and try the Masumi Vegetarian: Shitake kombu (kelp) noodle soup includes pickled cucumbers, shitake mushrooms and market-fresh veggies, and is finished off with nori, scallions and sesame seeds.
Drinks: There are seven signature cocktails ($10 each) to consider. The highlight is the Toki Monster, with splashes of Bulleit bourbon and pepper honey liqueur over ice, a mist of Peat Monster scotch and a skewer of grilled pork belly balanced on the rim of the glass.
Atmosphere: Colorful skateboards-turned-footrests, graffitied wallpaper, red lanterns and glass cases filled with fantastical vinyl toys brighten the small space, which is usually packed with H Street hipsters and ramen devotees.
» 1234 H St. NE; 202-388-3086, Tokiunderground.com
Written by Express contributor Nevin Martell
Photos by Express contributor Nevin Martell