Walking into Toki Underground, chef Erik Bruner-Yang’s 25-seat ramen-and-dumpling joint on DC’s H Street, Northeast, it’s easy to draw comparisons to David Chang’s revved-up ramen at Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan. (Chang did for Japanese noodle soup what Barack Obama did for Ben’s Chili Bowl: made it instantly cool.) Like Momofuku, Toki is a small spot with attitude, the kind that comes from servers with full-sleeve tattoos, electro-pop music, and skateboards as decoration. In other words, white-tablecloth pretension isn’t part of the equation. Sure, there’s a $475 a bottle of aged Yume Wa Masayume “Dreams Come True” sake to sip with your $10 bowl of ramen while perching on stools at the bar or at one of the three counters lining the graffiti-scribbled walls. But while pricey libations are part of the grunge-meets-gourmand theme, they aren’t the norm. Chances are you’ll be sipping $3 South Korean OB beers or an Asian-inspired cocktails, such as the gin-based Jaded with cucumber foam.
Bruner-Yang took a cue from the ramen-ya, or small noodle shop, where he worked for a year in his family’s native Taipei, Taiwan, and added his own flair. At Toki, the wrappers for the five varieties of steamed or pan-fried dumplings are made fresh, and pork and chicken are ground in-house. The other main event is the ramen, and four of the five kinds have tonkotsu—the hearty broth that comes from simmering pork bones for more than 24 hours. The classic Toki hakata has a heap of noodles, pork loin, tangy pickled ginger, and a crisp sheet of nori. Variations include a serving with punchy house-made kimchee and Bruner-Yang’s favorite: curry-infused tonkostu broth topped with crunchy five-spice fried chicken.
For extra creaminess, order the nitamago, an egg cooked sous-vide; when it’s pierced, the runny yolk thickens the soup. The Toki “endorphin sauce”—a house version of Sriracha made with four chilies—lends fire without overwhelming the soup’s flavor. For dessert, there are chocolate-chip cookies with a melted chestnut-orange truffle and a small carafe of milk—a nod to Bruner-Yang’s American upbringing.
Although Toki channels Taipei on the plate and New York in the vibe, it’s grounded in Washington: The downstairs Pug is a favorite neighborhood dive, the art on the walls was done by a local artist, and Bruner-Yang cut his culinary chops working as a manager at nearby Sticky Rice, helping open Kushi in DC, and making pho dogs for U Street Music Hall. We’re guessing that soon enough there’ll be one more similarity to Momofuku: a line out the door.
Toki Underground (1234 H St., NE; 202-388-3086 ) opens Friday, April 1. It will be open Sunday through Wednesday 5 to midnight (bar closes at 2 AM), Thursday through Saturday 5 PM to 3 AM (kitchen and bar).
Dumplings $5 for six
Pork, beef, chicken, shrimp-and-crab, or vegetarian
Served steamed or pan-fried with fresh-cut ginger, scallions, napa cabbage, house spice mixture, and topped with Toki tare (a slightly sweet, soy-based sauce)
Toki hakata classic
Tonkotsu noodle soup with pork-loin chashu, seasonal vegetables, ½ boiled egg, red pickled ginger, sesame, scallions, and nori
Curry chicken hakata
Curry-infused tonkotsu noodle soup with five-spice fried chicken, seasonal vegetables, ½ boiled egg, red pickled ginger, sesame, scallions, and nori
Shiitake-kombu noodle soup with pickled cucumbers, shiitake mushrooms, seasonal vegetables, sesame, scallions, and nori
Miso-infused tonkotsu noodle soup with seasonal vegetables, ½ boiled egg, red pickled ginger, sesame, scallions, and nori
Tonkotsu noodle soup with pork-loin chashu, seasonal vegetables, ½ boiled egg, red pickled ginger, sesame, scallions, nori, topped with locally made kimchee
Chashu pork cheek $4
Chashu pork loin $3
Extra nitamago (soft egg) $1.50
Toki endorphin sauce $1.50
Kae-dama (more noodles) $2
Taiwanese-side cold tofu $3
Seasonal vegetables, market price
Pickled cabbage $2
Side of the day, market price
Warm cookies served with ice-cold milk $7
Dessert bento box $7
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