The Above Ground Underground Ramen Shop
Ramen. One of my top five favorite foods. Homemade noodles, complex broth, soft boiled eggs, PIG things... what can be better. Toki Underground has been one of my favorite DC spots since it opened in 2012, and it's consistently good. Check out why it's worth waiting in the small upstairs hideaway.
Setting the Scene
Toki is a tiny ramen joint located above a bar on H street. It is kind of confusing to find, but I like it that way. Diners make their way up the narrow staircase with anxiety and anticipation in hopes to score one of the few seats available for dining in. A few coveted reservations are available, if you're lucky.
I wait patiently for the rest of my party to arrive (even with a reservation you will only be seated when everyone is present) and stared longingly into the open kitchen as I watched the noodle chefs master their craft.
My daydream was interrupted by one of my friends' arrival, and shortly after bartender Dan made his way from behind the bar to ask us if we'd like a beverage while we wait. Loved this! We ordered a can of rosé, yes a CAN -- it was light, refreshing and perfect for sharing. He served us each a frosted glass of the rosé and kept the rest chilling behind the bar.
We were seated (the host even saved us a seat for my friend that was stuck in the bowels of DC traffic - uncommon and extremely appreciated), and sweet Dan was right behind us to refill our glasses of rosé. I perused the familiar menu as my mouth watered and decided on the pork dumplings and pickle plate to start.
Pork dumplings are literally my favorite food (see Hangry in China) and these are so perfect. A thin dumpling wrapper hugs tender and flavorful pork inside, garnished simply with julienned scallion, sesame seeds and a bit of ponzu. I like a thin dumpling because you can really taste the filling inside.
The PICKLED THINGS, a new menu item that I am psyched about. This plate included white soy cucumbers, celeriac and kimchi with squash. These pickled things hit all the flavor notes. The white soy cucumbers were crunchy and salty, with an underlying deep umami flavor; the celeriac was briny and bright - very vinegar forward; and the kimchi was spicy, crisp and fishy -- the way kimchi should be! Could not get enough.
You should also get the fried chicken steam buns app. I have had them many times before and they are basically crack buns (in the best possible way).
Max -- my favorite server -- is fantastic. Attentive, great with suggestions and passionate about the restaurant. He answered questions like a pro and effortlessly accepted my challenge of picking out a ramen bowl with two add-ons for me. He picked a winner. I was presented with the vegetarian ramen (tofu, daikon, seasonal pickles, shiitakes, greens, marinated kombu), with pork cheek and soft boiled egg add-ons.
Seems oxymoronic to get the vegetarian bowl with pork, you say? You're silly! It's the best of both worlds! Lots of fresh seasonal veggies, tofu from the gods (seriously it's like crispy and creamy at the same time - it's unreal), homemade al dente addictive ramen noodles, braised super-tender pork cheek, and luxurious soft boiled egg that melts into the broth adding an unctuous shine. The broth cannot be forgotten - I could drink a bowl of the subtle but complex liquid gold. It's salty, sweet, and bright, a wonderful complement to the accoutrements inside. Good job, Max!
With three full and happy bellies, we ended the night with Toki's only dessert option - Red Miso Cookies! Made-to-order chocolate chip cookies, served warm atop red miso buttercream and an ice cold glass of local milk. To. Die. For. I get them every time, they are impossible to resist, and everyone yells "Cookies!" when you order them - so fun and intimate! Expertly executed salty/sweet combo.
A final thank you round of beers for the kitchen (xie-xie) and we were on our way to food coma town.
Toki is one of my favorite spots in DC, I tell everyone to go if they can. It's clear that there is a huge amount of passion and love that goes into the food, and the casual atmosphere with an awesome playlist setting the mood leaves diners feeling the love. Getting a seat can be a bit frustrating, but the policies are in place for good reason - don't give up!
Two and 1/2 Hangry Stars for Toki Underground*
*The reason for deducting 1/2 a star is solely due to the space in the restaurant. It's tough to eat comfortably with more than two people, but still worth it to go immediately.