MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Dozens of times in the past six months people in Maplewood, South Orange, and beyond have plaintively cried onto Facebook, “When is Ani Ramen opening in the village?” Well, noodle noshers, your wait is over! The ribbon cutting for the newest restaurant on Maplewood Avenue was Saturday, November 2.
Kathleen Reyes, Ani Ramen regional director, said opening a location in Maplewood has been on their radar since they opened in Montclair in 2014. “Every Maplewood customer in Montclair would tell us how much they’d love us to be here and that always stuck in our minds,” she said.
When she first came to town, “we walked around and it’s such a quaint town” that they knew it would be a good fit. "The people here, they love this town, it’s refreshing.” Once a location was secured, it was an easy choice. “I feel like this downtown area is just fantastic," she said. "It just feels like home here.”
Authentic ramen noodles are “not the dorm room packets that everyone remembers,” said Luck Sarabhayavanija, CEO and partner along with Reyes, Israel Jiles IV, and executive chef Julian Valencia. “Ramen is Japan’s comfort food,” he said, equivalent to pizza or tacos here in the U.S., with tens of thousands of ramen shops across the country.
Sarabhayavanija said that what makes ramen noodles different from regular pasta is the katsui, the highly alkaline mineral water the ramen dough is made with. The ramen is surrounded by broth and layered with a protein such as pork or chicken, then vegetables and an optional egg.
And why has everyone in SOMA who’s been to one of their different locations been salivating to get Ani Ramen at their neighborhood front door? “What differentiates us from most ramen houses is that we don’t put seafood and pork stock in everything. So if it’s a chicken stock, it’s all chicken.” They are sensitive to people with allergies, he said, because he has his own. “I have a seafood allergy, so it was tough for me to go out and have ramen all over Toyko,” because there is often fish stock in the broth not listed on the menu.
They also have vegetarian and vegan options. “We’ve got an amazing vegan noodle, produced by Sun Noodle, who drops off our fresh noodles every single day to all of our locations.”
The space, which had already been a restaurant, is now one open room with long communal tables at which to enjoy food so fresh that takeout is not allowed. Artist Rich Tu, who has been friends with Reyes and Sarabhayavanija since high school and has done design work for Gray Goose and Nike, did the graphic painting on the walls.
So, sit down, possibly elbow to elbow with a neighbor or two, and “tabemashou,” let’s eat.