Ramen Rises in Harlem

With the ramen trend exploding downtown, one might wonder why Jenny Ko decided to open a noodle shop on a tiny sliver of street below the elevated subway platform at 125th and Broadway. “There was lack of good Asian food up here,” says Ko, who opened Jin Ramen with Ifan Chang, Jay Huang, Deepak Rajwani and managing partner Richard Kashida in February.

Sitting inside the restaurant with its sleek stylings—the walls are wooden beams that protrude out in haphazard fashion—you can see that more than a few passerbys stop for a second look. The partners knew the particular area in Morningside Heights—Jin shares the street with laundromats, pizzerias and take-out joints—wasn’t the most obvious place to open a ramen shop but knew they could rely on the area schools to bring some built-in customers. “You’ve got Columbia and the Manhattan School of Music and college kids know about ramen,” Ko says. Kashida adds “A lot of our customers are glad we’re here because they don’t have to travel downtown for a good bowl of ramen.”

But knowing how to cook pork bones for 7 hours to achieve Jin’s Tonkatsu ramen’s creamy and rich broth wasn’t her first calling. After graduating from NYU with a degree in accounting and information systems, Ko pursued her love for pastry and baking at the International School of Culinary Education (ICE) while working. Ko and husband Ifan also own Chokolat café, the patisserie located next to Jin, and Chokolat bakery just a few blocks down.

With little knowledge of how to actually make ramen, the team hired Shuichi Kotani of midtown’s Totto Ramen as a consulting chef to help them conceive of the menu and teach the kitchen techniques on how to make the broth. The result is a menu that offers Jin’s signature Tonkotsu (creamy pork broth), miso, shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce) and a spicy Tonkotsu, as well as perfectly fried kara age (Japanese fried chicken), pork buns and a few donburi, rice bowl items. Those who know ramen know the noodle is the star, and Jin doesn’t take any chances, using noodles handmade by chef Kotani, a noodle master in his own right.

Ko and her husband live in the area and have experienced the changes in the neighborhood over the past five years, thanks in part to the expansion of Columbia. And she knows the opening of Jin is part of that. “The gentrification is a positive thing for the neighborhood because it’s made it safer and you get more choices where to eat. There are a lot more restaurants and stores willing to move up to [Harlem]. When you come home from work you don’t want to get back on the subway to go downtown for dinner,” she says. “Now there’s something that’s close by and that’s convenient and easy.”

Kashida, who started in the business opening locations of restaurant mini chain Gyu-Kaku in LA and New York, knows some people’s knowledge of ramen comes in freeze-dried form. And he admits he still enjoys tearing open a package after a late night of revelry. But there are ways to make it healthier and he offers his tips below:

1)    Boil 2 pots of water to start. 2)    Cook the noodles al dente in the 1st pot to separate and get rid of any preservatives used in packaging the noodles. 3)    Strain noodles when done and lightly rinse with warm water. 4)    Use the 2nd pot of boiling water to boil some vegetables (napa cabbage or baby bok choy work well) or sausage if you want. 5)    Add and mix soup base to the pot of vegetables but try to use as little soup base as possible for a healthier bowl. 6)    Bring pot of vegetables and soup base to boil and add an egg if you desire (the hot liquid will scramble the egg). 7)    Optional: Add dice green onions, julienned leeks or kimchee on top for a spicy kick.

Photos: Jeannette Park