Neighborhood: H Street NE
The first time we ever attempted to get to Toki Underground, H Street’s well-hyped noodle bar, we literally couldn’t find a day we all could agree on to get out there. The first time we ever got a group together and actually trekked out, we arrived at 6pm on a Saturday night to find (unsurprisingly, I guess) a two-and-a-half hour wait. In fact, this trip was the result of some happenstance: Official Friends of DCWD Sam and Shawn had scored one of the few reservations that Toki offers, but had twice been cancelled upon by the restaurant. So, with their bad luck came our good fortune: four seats at the bar.
The best way to describe Toki’s interior is probably how Shawn stated it upon walking in: “cool as shit.” Sitting on the second floor of a converted townhouse, the walls are alternately covered by faded graffiti, skateboard decks, shelves of mason jars, and a set of panels on which the restaurant’s logo is painted. The space starts with the open kitchen to the back at the mouth of the staircase and then a small bar.
Rails line the outer edge of the space, past the large streetside windows until you hit the staircase which is marked by a thin tree. All of these seats are bar stool style, and that is indeed the trouble with Toki (or in fact, like its seating contemporary minibar, its draw): by our count, there are only 20 or so seats in the restaurant, and so the space fills up quickly and wait times pile on similarly. On this trip, we sat around the corner of the bar, eating atop what seemed to be pachinko machines.
With the praise that NYT critic Robert Sietsema recently lavished on Toki, we were
excited to try as much as the kitchen had to offer. To start, an order
of pork dumplings (which either come steamed, deep-fried, or our choice,
pan-fried), and the special: a soy-braised pork belly atop a bed of
pickled rice, herbs, and sweet yellow corn. The former were wonderfully crisp, six delectable two-bite pockets with generous servings of meat. The latter was an absolutely devastating dish that packed all sorts of flavor into each bite, with hits for every taste bud, salt, sour, and sweet.
For the main event, each of us ordered a different bowl of ramen. I had the toki hakata
classic (tonkotsu noodle, pork loin chashu, seasonal vegetables, softboiled
egg, red pickled ginger, sesame, scallions, and nori) to which I also added pork cheek. This was an absolute revelation. With the warming and umami-filled pork-based broth, every spoonful of the soup was elevated to something amazing. The loin and cheek were fleshy and tender, falling apart with each bite. The punches of spice and salt were absolutely to die for. Comparing this to other bowls of ramen, even some of the other high-level ones in the city, would be like comparing Iberian jamon to various hams: just on a different level.
Similarly, my companions' soup bowls each brought punches of their own unique, and equally enjoyable tastes. Texas's curry
chicken hakata provided a sharp and spicy curry-infused tonkotsu broth with lively five spice fried chicken, both of which brought full flavor and hits of heat. Sam's miso hakata, the vegetarian option, was pleasantly mild with its soybean paste infused broth. Shawn's kimchi hakata, with pork loin and the Korean dish in its name, was equal parts hefty and piquant.
The drinks provided at Toki matched the ramen. A Super Duper Car (Armagnac, Domaine du Canton, lemon juice, shiso lemongrass simple syrup) is perfectly restrained despite its sweet components, while Texas's Blackened Gold (machu pisco, pineapple brulee, cinnamon cayenne syrup, lemon juice, chocolate bitters) is a masterful mixture of caramelized and cocoa sweet. But it's the Toki Monster which is the most memorable, combining comforting and warming Bulliet bourbon, with pepper honey liqueur, a mist of Peat Monster scotch, and the piece d'resistance: a skewer of kushiyaki pork belly.
This heavenly meal is capped off by a most unexpectedly pleasing ending: a plate of warm red miso chocolate chip cookies with a side of milk. For a ramen shop to hit a simple dessert like this out of the park is nothing short of amazing.
If they only served the noodles, this would still have been one of the best meals of the year. With everything else, one of the best restaurants in DC.
Food Rating: ***** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 4.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: N/A
Cost: $ (out of 5) (less than $25 for two)
Pairing: Head over to Rock N Roll Hotel to participate in the Spelling Buzz: a spelling bee plus a drinking game.