Rai Rai Ken Moves Two Doors Down, Transforms Itself, But Only Slightly
Without much fanfare, Little Tokyo old-timer Rai Rai Ken has moved into semi-luxurious new digs, just two storefronts east of its original East Village location on 10th Street. Bright red door-banners proclaim its glitzy newness, and a look through the plate glass windows shows counter seating along an L-shaped noodle bar, and neat wooden booths lined up against an opposite wall. Most are two-tops, but there are a pair of larger, more-secluded booths in back. Those who loved the cramped old space, and its darkened, cramped, well-worn look, with a bubbling pot of stock seemingly always on the stove - will be amazed.
Rai Rai Ken (named after the Chinese restaurant in Sapporo where ramen were first introduced) is one of the original anchors of the East Village's Little Tokyo neighborhood, which is centered on 9th and 10th streets just east of Third Avenue, but spreads out onto St. Marks, and Second and Third avenues. As the oldest ramen parlor in the neighborhood, it predates all the upscale spots - many representing Japanese chains - that have materialized in the last three years. In fact, it and Momofuku can take much of the credit for the current popularity of the Japanese wheat noodles.
Another feature of Rai Rai Ken, and a tribute to its longevity, is that the menu reflects East Village terroir in the composition of the broth, and ingredients used in the noodles. For example, you'll see more vegetables in Rai Rai Ken that at other, newer ramen parlors; the broth is less salty; and the number of choices of ramen far fewer - limited to soy and seafood broths. No miso ramen here.
The place freestyles with its broth, and one day years ago I popped in for some noodles, and was startled by what I saw bobbing in the stockpot - in this case a turkey carcass and whole Braeburn apples. Thus you'll find Rai Rai Ken's ramen broths lighter and more subtly flavored than usual.