The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.
The name tells you what you need to know about this spirited spinoff of the sleek Daikaya around the corner: Chicken goes into most of the bowls of thin Sapporo-made noodles and steamy broth (take your pick between milky or clear, then a salty base note). If there’s any doubt ramen isn’t world-class fast food, a slurp of shoyu paitan — chef de cuisine Kristian Felix’s pet, bold with Japanese soy sauce — slaps it down. A seat in the dining room finds you facing a wall festooned with lunch trays; a stool at the kitchen counter coaches you on the Japanese alphabet, by way of a chart. Ramen gets succulent competition in Bantam King’s fried chicken, presented a la the Colonel with mashed potatoes and coleslaw, but also with corn on the cob seasoned with furikake and macaroni flavored with sake lees. For $10, you can buy the cooks a six-pack. Just saying.
Bantam King: 501 G St. NW. 202-733-2612. bantamking.com
Prices: Ramen $12-$14.
Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following was originally published July 15, 2016.
Bantam King could quickly become a fried chicken heavyweight
If you think the owners of Daikaya are sabotaging their sleek ramen shop in Chinatown by introducing a second one nearby, a look around the kinetic Bantam King will convince you it’s no twin.
The new spot, once a Burger King, dresses up one wall with cafeteria trays in blue, green and yellow, another surface with Japanese comics. Colorful paper lanterns float above diners’ heads.
While noodle soup (and not much more) is the specialty at both Daikaya and Bantam King, the latter features pulled chicken ramen, popular in Japan and offered here with a choice of two broths, one milky (paitan) and the other clear (chintan). That selection made, diners then pick a base note: shio, shoyu or miso — salt, soy sauce or fermented soybean paste, respectively. “Think light to heavy,” coaches a server.
Knowing that ramen is meant to be eaten piping hot, I lift some wiry noodles with my chopsticks and support them from below using my white plastic spoon as soon as my bowl of shoyu paitan is set down. I slurp a few strands, a move that tempers the boil, and then sip the broth, which is lightly creamy and dancing with ginger and garlic. Toppings — sweet onion slices, pickled bamboo shoots, tender roast chicken — are appreciated by themselves, bite by bite.
Meals are prepared in the rear of the shop, behind a four-stool counter. A string of Christmas lights and clouds of steam draw the attention of customers packed into the 50-seat dining room. Monitoring the action: co-owner Katsuya Fukushima, the culinary guru behind both ramen restaurants.
Bantam refers to a breed of fighting chicken distinguished by its short legs and near-upright tail. The name reinforces the storefront’s passion for chicken, which it also serves fried, similar to KFC with sides of biscuits (tender), coleslaw (mushy) and mashed potatoes (wet) with a light gravy (more, please). Consisting of a juicy breast, thigh and drumstick, the $24 spread on a silvery tray also comes with corn on the cob, seasoned with furikake, and elbow macaroni, crisp with crumbled chicken skin. Fukushima pays attention to the small stuff. With the fried chicken dinner is a little pot of house-made strawberry jam spiked with toasted Sichuan peppercorns.
Groups of ramen slurpers typically order and share a single tray of chicken, a server says, treating it as a snack or side dish.
“Have you been to Daikaya?” a manager asks a companion and me one evening. We nod. “How do we compare?” he wants to know.
As far as we’re concerned, there can never be too many ramen joints. “People are going to both places!” says a delighted co-owner, veteran restaurateur Daisuke Utagawa.
That said, Bantam King has the corner on the market for fun. For one thing, the Colonel gets some serious competition with the newcomer’s finger-lickin’ indoor picnic. For another, where else in town does the house sake come in a glass jar with a peel-away foil lid?