Restaurant Review: At Okiboru, Soupless Ramen in a Stressless Setting

A new noodle shop brings the specialty ramen known as tsukemen to the Lower East Side, along with a speedy, efficient serving system.

The first step in eating tsukemen is to raise the noodles high, then lower them into a concentrated broth.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

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By Pete Wells

If you spend enough time chasing ramen in Japan, you eventually encounter noodle shops where the exterior wall looks like a vending machine. The menu is illustrated in rows of photographs showing every variety of soup on offer. Next to each picture is a button. You feed a few hundred yen into a slot, select the soup you want, and wait while a ticket is printed. Then you walk inside so you can hand your ticket to a cook behind the counter, who will prepare your bowl. After you’ve slurped your last noodle, all you have to do is get up and leave.

New York City has never gone in for giant walk-in ramen vending machines. Since October, though, the Lower East Side has had a noodle shop that approximates the speed and efficiency of the Japanese model.

It is called Okiboru House of Tsukemen. While you settle in to one of its two dozen or so stools, you scan the QR code on the counter in front of you. These blurry square patterns have become all too familiar since the start of the pandemic, but few restaurants exploit them as fully as Okiboru. You open the link, select your meal and pay with a credit card or Apple Pay. Your order goes to the kitchen, tagged with your seat number, and a few minutes later your noodles appear before you. After eating, you simply walk out.

Okiboru is like many popular Tokyo ramen shops in another way: It sticks to noodles. There are no gyoza or pork buns or even steamed edamame to start the meal, and no matcha soft-serve at the end. The menu is bracingly short, with just two items. One of these is what you probably picture when you think of ramen, a twirled nest of noodles submerged in a bowl of steaming broth. We’ll get to that in a minute, but Okiboru is a house of tsukemen, almost certainly the city’s first, and tsukemen (pronounced tskeh-men) is the reason for the lines outside on Orchard Street, so let’s start there.

The noodles at Okiboru, co-owned by the chef Matthew Lim, right, are thick and rectangular, to catch as much of the dipping broth as possible.
The shop is highly efficient, but lines still form outside on Orchard Street.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

Tsukemen, a thriving branch of the ramen family tree that began to sprout in the 1950s in Tokyo, arrives in two parts. There is what appears to be a bowl of ordinary ramen, but it is completely dry. A concentrated broth is contained in a separate, smaller bowl. Hot, caramel-colored and spoon-coating, the broth at Okiboru looks and smells something like chicken gravy.

With your chopsticks you tease up a few strands of noodles, no more than you will be able to suck into your mouth without embarrassing incident. (Tsukemen is less forgiving than ramen.) You may want to eat a mouthful or two as is, savoring their heft, their responsiveness, their lively bounce.

After those exploratory strands, you lower your next pinch of noodles into the broth. It tastes a bit like chicken gravy, too, only more so — there is no thickening cornstarch or flour, only chicken and dried fish. Eating the noodles in their gravy may remind you, vaguely, of dragging a scrap of bread through a pan in which you have roasted a chicken, although the dried fish complicates the comparison. The scent of the ocean is what makes these wet noodles taste like ramen.

I have never had tsukemen noodles that cling to their sauce as well as Okiboru’s. This may be because the broth has been reduced to a sticky syrup, but the noodles’ shape — an overfed rectangle, like linguine — must have something to do with it. Okiboru makes all its noodles in the kitchen each day, and the rollers that cut them into strands seem to leave the surface slightly rougher than typical ramen noodles. However it’s done, the marriage of sauce and starch is so nearly perfect that you may forget you are eating in an undecorated room in a vintage tenement next door to a shop that sells backpacks and suitcases on the sidewalk.

Each bowl of tsukemen contains a simmered egg, its bright yolk soft as jelly. You can also get sliced chicken, supposedly cooked sous vide, although I find it dry and bland, and a charring blast with a cooking torch doesn’t do it any favors. Far better is the sweet and savory chashu, thin bands of pork belly cooked until they fall into fatty shards.

There is a lime wedge in the bowl, too. Squeezed over the noodles when you’re in the homestretch, it brings out their flavor, which can get obscured by the sauce, and spurs you on to finish.

Okiboru House of Ramen sprang from Okiboru, a group with three locations in the Atlanta area. Founded by three chefs, Naoki Kyobashi, Hyun Park and Justin Lim, the company started with a single shop in downtown Los Angeles that attracted attention for a brief time before closing in the pandemic. When another venture of Mr. Lim’s, Scoville Hot Chicken, failed to catch on in New York, they remade it as Okiboru, bringing on Mr. Lim’s son, Matthew, as the chef and an owner.

As it happens, shortly after Okiboru opened, a leading tsukemen specialist from Japan set up an outpost in the area. Tsujita Artisan Noodle, a 20-year-old concern whose dipping noodles are highly regarded by ramen heads in Tokyo, now has a branch in Fort Lee, N.J., its first on the East Coast. When Tsujita touched down in Los Angeles in 2011, the critic Jonathan Gold suggested in LA Weekly that its tsukemen might be life-changing.

The version being served in Fort Lee did not change my life. The thick slabs of chashu and the egg — in fact, all the garnishes — are exceptionally good, but the broth was lukewarm and kept sliding off the slick, round noodles. I’d go back for the soup ramens, though; the vegan ramen, with its bright, glittering flavor, is a real achievement.

The speed of the QR-code ordering system at Okiboru belies the care and technique that go into the ramen.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times
One dish besides tsukemen is served: tontori ramen, in a hot chicken-pork broth.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

Fort Lee has become a hub of ramen activity. A block away from Tsujita, a short hop from the apron of the George Washington Bridge, is another recent arrival, Thumbs Up Ramen, selling awa-kei, or bubble ramen. A relatively recent innovation from Kyoto made by whisking the soup to a froth just before serving, awa-kei ramen is supposed to deliver more flavor when the tiny bubbles burst in your mouth. There can never be too many styles of ramen, but I have to admit that this one did not do much for me.

The regular soup ramen at Okiboru is called tontori. It arrives in a bubble-free broth the consistency of heavy cream and the color of old ivory. Produced by boiling roughly equal parts of chicken and pork bones, it has a complex but tightly woven flavor; neither ingredient gets the upper hand. The noodles, made on site like the ones for tsukemen, are nearly as chewy, but they are narrower, and round.

By custom, steaming bowls of soup ramen are for cold weather and the cool coils of tsukemen are for summer. Okiboru, though, offers both hot and cold tsukemen noodles. I’d never seen that before. On wet winter afternoons when the windows are fogged and the wait on the sidewalk is especially miserable, hot noodles dipped in hot broth are exquisite.

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