When my friends Joe and Nattles suggested lunch at Ramen Setagaya as the initial meeting point during our recent raid on Manhattan, I could hardly decline. There's very little in the way of good ramen in Philadelphia. And besides, it would mark stop number three on my ongoing tour of East Village noodle houses.
Ramen Setagaya, which occupies the front half of a relatively tiny storefront space on the west side of 1st Avenue, is more urbane and less homey than Rai Rai Ken, far less buzzy and NY-cosmo than Momofuku Noodle Bar. Rai Rai Ken strikes me as the kind of place one might find on in a quiet residential neighborhood of Tokyo, which just happens to be exactly its setting in NYC. Momofuku? Well, that's pure NY, and while it fits in perfectly with the youthful nighttime energy of the East Village, I could easily see it being just as successful anywhere from Union Square to SoHo to TriBeCa. Setagaya, on the other hand, is exactly the type of place I'd expect to find in the most bustling, mercantile neighborhoods of Tokyo (a place I've never been but nonetheless have rather vivid ideas about). I suppose that's perfectly apropos, given that Setagaya is indeed a Japan-based chain, named for the most densely populated of Tokyo's 23 special wards. It also makes sense, then, that there's a certain fast food vibe to Setagaya, but in the vein of quick, no-nonsense street food, not of homogenized, preprocessed and branded slop shops.
The core of the shio ramen here is pure and simple – lighter, saltier and more refreshing than the somewhat richer, more darkly flavored broth at RRK and a night and day contrast to the over-the-top porkiness of the Momofuku rendition. The brightness of the shio broth at Setagaya is matched by the springy texture of the ramen itself, delicate and silky, just firm enough to retain their bite throughout the meal. Likewise, the two slices of pork – an extra-pork upgrade is available – are cooked to the point of tenderness but have just a little chew courtesy of a nice vein of fat running through the meat. It's the egg that really ties it all together, poached and halved, its yolk set enough to avoid turning the shio into egg drop soup but soft enough to absorb and meld with all of the other flavors in the bowl.
While I'm sure Setagaya hops at night when the East Village kids come out to play, lunch seems the ideal time to partake of its pleasures. Business was modest just after noon on a Friday, allowing us to relax over our bowls and build the fortitude necessary for a long day ahead. At about $10 each, including the addition of a shared plate of kimchi, the price is right as well.
Once again, I really must give a shout out to Sir Brooklynguy as if not for his thoughtful roundup of NYC ramen bars, Setagaya and Rai Rai Ken most likely would not have made it onto my radar.
141 1st Avenue (at 9th)
New York, NY 10003