Ninja Ramen is physically a hole-in-the-wall off Washington. The entrance kisses the avenue and you would probably think it was abandoned if the owners didn't prop the door during operating hours. But, maybe that's the point of this secretive establishment.
As you take a step inside, you feel like you've walked into a secret society where all the people there look at you like you don't belong. Okay, that did not happen to me at Ninja Ramen; the staff was very welcoming. But, the hush-hush vibe certainly makes you feel like an outsider walking into an private organization ... of ramen-eating ninjas watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the flat screen TV.
This small dark bar/restaurant has only been open for a few weeks, and has received much buzz about its inventive cocktails named after ninjas. Oh yeah, and its ramen. At the front, you can sit at the bar and watch the bartender whip together a multitude of drinks, like the kasumi seizo, cleverly described as something that "reminds you of the smell of sunflowers, even though it doesn't." It's a combination of sparkling sake, soju, St. Germain, pomelo and Peychaud's.
I decided to try the Amy Jo Johnson cocktail not "because I had a crush on the Pink Ranger," but because I always wanted to be the Pink Ranger (I was her for Halloween). It's a combination of mezcal, ume liqueur, lime, basil and strawberry -- a little sweet with a savory kick at the end. Your first sip of this light pink drink is fruity, but a couple of seconds later, the scent of basil and ume liqueur comes shooting up your nose -- I quickly learned this was not a sweet drink anymore.
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My dining companion tried a twist on the classic Old Fashioned, kyushiki, a Japanese Old Fashioned made of whisky, ruz, angostura bitters and shiitake mushrooms. Christened with a maraschino cherry and shiitake mushroom, it's a strong, bitter drink that definitely needs to paired with food. That's where the ramen comes into play.
We were seated near the back of the restaurant, normally a distained area to dine, but not at Ninja Ramen. You get to be right next to the large boiling pot of ramen. And it smells amazing!
There's no food menu, at least for now. Ninja Ramen only serves one type: tonkotsu. It's a simmering bowl of pork bone broth, soy sauce, long spiral noodles, green onions, pickled bamboo, pork slices and a soft-boiled egg.
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SHOW ME HOW
It's hard to decide where to begin. Do you scoop up a ladle full of the broth and savor the creaminess? Do you go straight for the pork and mix it with the soft-boiled egg's slightly runny yolk? Or do you dive head first for the ramen noodles? So many choices and none of them are wrong.
The pork slices looked so tender and juicy that I picked up a piece with my chopsticks, stuck it on my spoon with some broth and took my first bite. You don't even have to chew -- it melts in your mouth. Combined with the creamy pork bone broth laced with soy sauce, this was a sensational bite, and I hadn't even tried the ramen noodles.
Navigating your way through the tonkotsu ramen is an adventure. When you start combining the al dente noodles with the soft, runny egg yolk, heart-warming broth and tender pork, you won't be able to put your spoon and chopsticks down.
Interestingly, our cocktails became so much more tolerable after we both ate some of the ramen. The sharp bitterness and sourness from the ume liqueur and basil from my drink were balanced by the ramen's savoriness, as was the sharpness from the kyushiki cocktail.