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Takatoshi Nagara really likes burgers. His favorite spot in New York City is Shake Shack—"That was the best," he says happily—and he once flipped patties at a Hawaiian-style burger shop in Japan (mhm, you read that right).
But burgers are just a mere infatuation. Not a passion. Not ramen.
For the chef at Tokyo's Bigiya, one of the first Michelin-approved ramen-yas in last year's Bib Gourmand guide, and the newly opened, rightfully packed Mr. Taka Ramen in New York City's Lower East Side, ramen is an obsession, one fortified with shiro miso, avocado and Japanese soy milk (see the recipe).
"In college, he always traveled from Okinawa to Hokkaido," Takayuki Watanabe says from his wooden stool beside Nagara. "He even went to China to find the original ramen."
Watanabe is Nagara's old college pal and the other half of Mr. Taka Ramen. ("My name is Takatoshi; his name is Takayuki," Nagara explains, "so both of us are called Taka, and that's why our restaurant is called Mr. Taka.") Watanabe is a former fashion journalist who traded runway shows to spread the gospel of loud slurping, noodles and the cuisine of his homeland.
Small pots filled with two types of pork bones roil in the corner while the Takas run up and down a little ladder that leads to their office. Lines for dinner start promptly an hour before Mr. Taka Ramen opens as the two are inside doling out family meal.
Though Nagara is known for his Tokyo-style shoyu ramen, which he has thankfully transferred from Bigiya to Mr. Taka Ramen, the man isn't tethered to any style.
"I tried every kind, miso, tonkotsu. Each city [in Japan] has its own culture of ramen," Nagara says.
"If you go to Hokkaido, you can taste miso ramen, and in Tokyo, we have shoyu ramen and Fukuoka tonkotsu," Watanabe continues.
But, clearly, Nagara is cultivating his own style with this strange but satisfying ramen. Buttery avocado is mashed up with Japanese soy milk, sweeter and earthier than the American variety, and a lump of miso for a funky broth that's more savory horchata than fishy, salty shoyu ramen.
Swirled with noodles and layered with crispy tofu, sautéed bell peppers and an artful twist of lemon, it's a ramen that commands zero talking and more slurping. Best part is, you won't feel terrible after wolfing down a big bowl.
It's wonderfully delicious and all Taka. And you can't say that about a burger.
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