Ando had no way of knowing it then, but his invention would become the sustenance that gets the poor through tough times, the Japanese through countless disasters and cash-strapped kids through four years of college. Instant ramen has become a kind of safety net against hunger and a security blanket during crises.
I’ve been thinking about ramen lately as the days grow shorter and we watch the novel coronavirus infection rates spike, wondering how on Earth we’re going to make it to the other side with a government that just wants us to suck it up, like Marines. During the pandemic, we have increasingly turned to the foods of our youth for comfort. Restaurants and diners alike may in fact survive this mess with the help of cheesesteaks, hamburgers, soups, pizza, barbecue and fried chicken, even if we’ll need a prescription for Lipitor when it’s all said and done.
Case in point: As I slurped down a pair of bowls on the patio at Menya Hosaki in Petworth — yes, I had two bowls just for myself, an order that all but shouted FOOD CRITIC IN THE HOUSE — I started to experience something that felt like peace. This condition wasn’t summoned just by the shoyu broth, a tawny liquid whose warmth seemed to flow through my veins like a sedative. Nor was it exclusively because of the chewy housemade noodles, which were like playtime for my jaws. Nor was it the result of the kitchen’s complicated layering of flavors, in which the lines between savory, salty and sweet are blurred into a kind of umami impressionism.
No, it was the kind of calm that comes when you’re absorbed in the moment, when your mind temporarily lets go of the noise and the anxieties because you have been placed in a situation that demands your full attention. In the middle of the worst crisis of our lifetimes, when our daily routines have been disrupted and our emotional lives fractured, I was reminded there are still people who want to hand us something exquisite, as if to emphasize that the pursuit of perfection is alive even when so much around us is just struggling to survive.
Eric Yoo is the chef and owner of Menya Hosaki, and he is the guy obsessed with ramen. It’s the only dish he serves at his shop, whose name is a complex pun. Roughly translated into English, “menya” means “noodle shop,” while “Hosaki” is a reference to Yoo’s Korean given name (Hosuk) as well as his nickname (“Hosuki”), a clever twist on the term for the reedy bamboo shoots (“hosaki-menma”) that resemble the chef’s own thin, willowy frame. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz. Here’s all you need to remember: The name of his place gives you a small sense of how much thought Yoo puts into everything, especially his ramen.
Born in South Korea, Yoo, 31, has always loved noodles, starting with kalguksu and jajangmyeon, two popular bowls back in the mother country. But he loved instant ramen as a kid, too, which connects the dots between Yoo and the late Ando, two men devoted to the development of ramen, one fresh and the other instant.
Yoo’s ramen education began in earnest not long after he and his wife, Stephanie, visited Ramen Shack in Queens in 2017. Chef and proprietor Keizo Shimamoto may have been better known for creating the ramen burger, but as Serious Eats noted when the Shack closed last year, Shimamoto’s unpretentious counter attracted ramen nerds of all stripes, including Yoo.
“It was kind of life-changing for me. After that shop, I couldn’t eat anywhere else. Everywhere I go, it was like, ‘Oh MSG! Oh, fake broth! Oh, the same noodles!’” Yoo recalls in an interview. “It was just an eye-opening, soul-awakening experience because it was the first time I had a non-creamy broth.”
Yoo would take a leave of absence from his job as a financial consultant to work a month and a half at Ramen Shack — and then spend another 10-plus months working, off and on, for Shimamoto after that. The mentor slowly revealed his secrets to the apprentice. “It was the little things,” Yoo says. Such as “how umami works and how ingredients work together to bring umami. Because for ramen, it’s an explosion of umami. It has to be.”
Menya Hosaki is, in many ways, a business built on Ramen Shack’s foundation, carrying on the lessons that Shimamoto passed down to Yoo. Everything is fresh and housemade. Yoo has his own machine that turns out (at present) two kinds of noodles: thin, pale strands for his muscular tonkotsu ramen, and thicker, dappled whole-wheat noodles for his shoyu ramen, a semi-clear chicken-and-dashi broth that punches well above its weight class. Yoo has developed four aromatic oils that he uses to amplify and modulate his soups. He also has countless types of tare, the seasoning bases for ramen, none of which Yoo will discuss because these secret flavoring agents do most of the heavy lifting at noodle shops.
You can order any of Yoo’s ramen — including a vegan broth built with almond milk and accessorized with a variety of toasty, umami-packed vegetables — for takeaway, but that is not how to best enjoy the soups. I say that not because I scalded myself when reheating a spicy tantan men broth in the microwave, based on the provided instructions, only to have the plastic container collapse on itself and spill chile-infused broth over much of the counter and my right arm. I say that because, in the privacy of your home, you cannot experience Yoo’s ramens the way they were intended: You cannot see the oil droplets that reflect light off the surface or even sense the harmonies that these infused oils add to the baseline broth. You cannot taste the suppleness of the noodles once they start to fuse together in the container. You cannot enjoy the sculptural beauty of every bowl.
I’m not suggesting you should dine only at Menya Hosaki. First of all, the small shop couldn’t handle the volume, and, second, it would be irresponsible to make such a recommendation during a pandemic. Besides, the to-go ramen is still quality stuff, and it feels like a comfort, even if you slurp it on a coffee table while watching Netflix, with a pair of curious dogs at your feet, their noses detecting aromas that you and Ando and Yoo could never experience during 1,000 lifetimes, no matter how hard you studied ramen.
If you go
845 Upshur St. NW, 202-330-3977; menyahosakidc.com/
Hours: 4:30 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Georgia Ave-Petworth, with a 0.4-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $15 to $18 for all ramen.