When I encountered Hinata Ramen last week, I felt a wave of hope rise in my chest.
You see, ramen and I have a troubled history.
For a brief time after college, my best friend and I would gab late every night over bowls of fiery packaged ramen noodles. A few weeks of that, and I quit eating ramen. I could have sworn it was starting to burn a hole through my stomach lining.
Ever since then, I rarely eat ramen, instant or not. Even deep in the middle of the hot ramen trend, I have only been at ramen spots a handful of times. I couldn’t reconcile myself to ingesting loads of salt and MSG, coupled with memories of an achy belly and a parched mouth.
A foodie friend of mine who’ll eat almost anything, and certainly a great lover of all manners of comfort food—much of it unhealthy— recently confessed, “I feel dirty after eating ramen,” as if he’d done something untoward and clandestine.
In Japan, certainly, despite its popularity and the cult following that some ramen spots enjoy, ramen is seen as unhealthy.
And yet … isn’t it strange that a noodle soup—if you strip ramen down, it comes down to just broth and noodles—should have gone down such a perfidious road when other noodle soups are taken as panacea against illness?
Hinata Ramen presents a healthy take on noodle soup.
The chef and owner, Madoka Tamura, grew up in Fukuoka, Japan, famous for its tonkatsu ramen.
Tamura eschews any chemicals including artificial MSG, and is particular about her stock. She uses organic, young chicken bones, extracting their goodness over a six-hour simmer.
It may sound normal, but it is not the norm. In the industry, making ramen can be a quick path to profit, and less expensive to start up. And rather than taking the old-fashioned approach to making stock, some places—even quite well-known ones—will use a concentrate and just add water.
Call me old-fashioned, but when I go out to a restaurant that touts its soups, I expect it to be made in-house, from scratch.
At Hinata you can see the vats of stock through the open kitchen.
“Young people don’t know what deliciousness means anymore,” she said. “They eat MSG, and when they eat natural food, it’s not enough. It doesn’t taste good.”
Tamura’s broth, augmented by her own mix of kaeshi, the mix of ingredients that a chef adds to the broth to give it flavor (and where MSG is usually added), is rich and milky. It has body, coating the tongue with flavor.
Instead of artificial umami, Tamura uses natural umami, found in seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, bonito, or baby sardines. Cooking with these natural flavor boosters is what her mother and grandmother have taught her.
Tamura is a walking, talking example of what real, good broth can do for you. Just on a surface level, her skin is luminous. She is 35 but could easily pass for half her age. It could be the genes but she attributes it to the oodles of collagen in the broth. It sure beats Botox in the long run and I’ll venture to say, far more delicious.
Working with natural ingredients takes more time, but it sits well with her conscience.
As a mother of an 8-year-old, she recommends her ramen dishes to pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as to children, without reservation.
The ramen noodles are made in collaboration with Ippudo, available in wavy or straight (I recommend wavy), and you can get them cooked to your liking—soft, firm, or very firm.
In fact, Tamura occasionally receives training from Ippudo’s global ramen master Fumihiro Kanegae when he is in town. The two share the same hometown.
There are only four types of ramen available, which makes it easy to choose.
The classic is the Hinata Paitan Ramen ($12.50), served with a couple of slices of roasted chashu (the round slices of rolled up pork belly), cloud ear mushrooms, spinach, bamboo shoots, and green onions. Roast chicken is also an option, instead of pork.
The star of this ramen is definitely the flavorful broth. It is the mildest of all the ramens at Hinata. It is the one that Japanese diners also prefer, Tamura said.
My favorite was the Kara Ramen ($13.50). It is the same broth base as the paitan ramen, and the same toppings, but with a spicy sauce.
The sweetest of the lot is the Nikumiso Ramen ($14.50), which comes with miso-marinated ground pork or chicken. This too uses the same organic chicken broth base.
There’s also a vegan ramen, which you can tell wasn’t an after-thought. A great deal of care went into its creation. Tamura points out it is a truly vegan version. In many places, she explained, the kaeshi is flavored with bonito and so isn’t vegan. Hers is completely animal-free.
The vegan broth has a clean profile with rich flavors. It is topped with a spicy dollop of yuzu and chilies, which give the ramen some heat when mixed in. The toppings are a fun mix of textures, from grilled corn to the small forest of shredded seaweed to the fried tofu, light and crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Like croutons in a soup, there’s that fleeting moment where it has absorbed the liquid but retains some bite. (You could also get the tofu steamed instead of fried, but it wouldn’t be as interesting.)
Extra toppings, such as soft boiled eggs or pickled plums are available for an extra cost.
There are also small plates available. The pork buns are a white pillowy confection with melt-in-your-mouth teriyaki Berkshire pork. ($7 for two pieces).
Or for something more virtuous, there’s also an equally delicious organic garden salad ($6.50). It is very simple—arugula leaves with a light yuzu mustard dressing, topped with some quinoa as garnish—but also very fresh and delicate.
There are lunch specials and a lunch set available. You can choose ramen and get a side for a reduced price (for example, you can add on the organic salad for $4.50).
The dinner menu offers additional specials, from Flash-Fried Shishito Peppers ($4.50) to Homemade Snow Crab Shumai ($6.50).
Prices are a little higher than comparable ramen spots, but given the focus on all-natural, good-for-you ingredients, it’s more than worth it.
159 E. 55th St. (between Lexington and Third avenues)
Monday–Friday 11:30 a.m.–11:30 p.m.
Saturday 12:30 p.m.–11:30 p.m.
Sunday 4 p.m.–11:30 p.m.
No takeout or delivery