Note: This is a column by food writer Devin Healey. Manager Tim Wong was so gracious with his time and in-depth in his responses that this story on New Brunswick’s popular noodle shop will run in two parts on TAPInto New Brunswick. This is part one.
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — I love ramen. I crave it. When it’s cold outside, when I’m sick, when I’m hungover. Several years ago, before it crossed into the mainstream culinary landscape, I barely knew anything about ramen beyond the instant stuff you could buy for 99 cents at any corner bodega. But now, after cultural behemoths like Momofuku, Totto, and Ippudo became institutions, and especially after Ivan Ramen’s spotlight on “Chef’s Table,” the soul-soothing noodle is at the forefront of North American Asian cuisine.
You may be familiar with Rai Rai Ramen on Route 27 in North Brunswick (across the street from Luca’s, the focus of a previous post), which has been a Middlesex County go-to for some time now, even following a disastrous fire several years back. At the time, Rai Rai Ramen was a newcomer in the area, which has since been inundated with almost every imaginable type of Asian cuisine.
When Chef Owner Sebastian Karyadi opened Ramen Nagomi last year on Bayard Street in New Brunswick, he added something to the increasingly diverse Hub City food scene that was sorely missing. The Rutgers University undergraduate population is over 25 percent Asian or Asian-American, and Middlesex County’s is nearly as high. This is not to say that ramen is exclusive to an Asian-American demographic, but coupled with its surge in popularity in the canvas of the American food scene, Ramen Nagomi couldn’t have picked a better time or a better location.
And what’s a surer sign of success than opening a second—and a third—spot? Later this year, Karyadi plans to launch another restaurant in New Brunswick and a sushi joint in Princeton. But more on that scoop in a little bit.
Soft Shell Crab Miso Ramen: House miso crab paste and vegan dashi broth, served with whole fried soft shell crab, hanjuku tamago (marinated soft boiled egg) and nori. Credit: Devin Healey.
Half a block from George Street and near the heart of New Brunswick’s busy downtown, the subterranean Ramen Nagomi is anything but out of the way. A beautiful, brightly decorated space with playful decor welcomes diners, regardless of whether they’re ramen amateurs or pro slurpers.
I’ve visited on multiple occasions to sample small plates, ramen go-tos and deeper cuts. I’ve never left unsatisfied, with an empty stomach, or with a significantly lighter wallet. (Ramen Nagomi is BYOB, in case you were wondering.)
Recently, I spoke with General Manager Tim Wong via email to pick his brain about the restaurant, the New Brunswick food scene, and the future of Ramen Nagomi.
Note: Wong’s responses have been lightly edited for clarity and style.
Ebi Katsu Shrimp Bao: Panko-crusted fried shrimp patties with a yuzu kosho mayo, in between freshly steamed buns. Credit: Devin Healey.
CougEats: When did you first open and how has the reception been? New Brunswick has a very diverse food scene, but it seems that ramen is one cuisine that was underrepresented, especially now that it's getting so popular with non-Japanese diners.
Tim Wong: Ramen Nagomi opened on April 24, 2016. When we first opened, many of our initial customers didn’t have much exposure to ramen beyond instant ramen. The initial reactions were part curiosity and excitement, however, our guests were completely open to something different than what New Brunswick was offering. We certainly didn’t have lines out the door when we first opened, but looking back it was definitely a good thing because we were able to grow the restaurant, find our rhythm, and develop our menu from the feedback of our guests.
CE: Can you explain the different types of broth? Which is your personal favorite? What seems to be the most popular?
TW: Ramen is like Italian pasta in the sense that there can be multiple, if not infinite, variations of the types of noodle used and the sauce or broth paired with the noodles. In Japan, every region has its own distinctive style, much like how American barbecue has distinctive regional styles. One region might be known for using a thin straight noodle. Another might have a preference for thick and curly.
Ramen Nagomi opened with the intention of serving a light, clear-style broth ramen, or “assari” style, paired with thin straight noodles. This style of ramen is great for highlighting delicate flavors and ingredients, which is why our assari style broths are produced using locally sourced, free-range chickens and cooked at below simmering for hours.
As the restaurant grew, we developed our menu to focus on more on a heavier style with bolder flavors, which is great for the colder seasons, such as our Spicy Miso Ramen, Tori Paitan (milky chicken broth) Ramen and Tonkotsu (milky pork bone) Ramen. These broths tend to have a stronger flavor with more richness
Credit: Devin Healey.
CE: Do you do anything differently in your broth prep (that you can reveal, of course) that sets you apart from other ramen restaurants?
TW: At Ramen Nagomi we’re focused on producing the best product we can at a price that makes sense for our customers. We adhere to the Japanese cooking philosophy of honoring and showcasing quality ingredients. This means sourcing quality ingredients produced locally when possible (which Jersey has an abundance of), as well as ingredients that are raised humanely, raised without antibiotics or growth hormones. We have immense respect for the care it took for our ingredients to be produced, and we try to honor our ingredients by cooking them in a way that produces the best flavor, which means being considerate of cooking times and temperatures, like having our chicken broth simmered slowly for hours or having our pork bone broth cooked at a rolling boil for hours to extract as much goodness we can.
This eventually comes down to the presentation of the bowl as well. After all, we all eat with our eyes first. - END
Ramen Nagomi has taken the New Brunswick food scene by storm and has no plans of slowing down. Indeed, you heard it here first: Nagomi is about to welcome two new restaurant ventures to its budding family. Wong said they plan to open Poke Nagomi in New Brunswick this winter and Nagomi, a sushi restaurant in Princeton, in the late fall or early winter
For Poke Nagomi and Nagomi, Karyadi and Wong are collaborating with Chef Yoshiki " Riki" Matsubara, formerly of Los Angeles’ K-Zo and Nobu Las Vegas, as well as Jeffry Undiarto, chef and general manager of Los Angeles’ n/naka, which you may be familiar with from season two of “Chef’s Table.”
According to Wong, Matsubara and Undiarto have known both him and Karyadi for a long time and have always wanted to develop something together. Wong’s only wish is that people will enjoy the new restaurants as much as they enjoy Ramen Nagomi.
Credit: Devin Healey.
Considering the success of New Brunswick’s new favorite noodle joint, I have a hunch that both Poke Nagomi and Nagomi will be equally beloved.
Keep an eye out for part two of our Ramen Nagomi feature, where we get to know Wong, his background in food, and the Ramen Nagomi family. In the meantime, why stop in and get yourself a bowl of ramen at 49 Bayard St. in New Brunswick, where they just announced extended weekend hours in advance of Rutgers’ fall semester. Just be sure to call ahead. With ramen this good, there’s no such thing as a slow night.