Strange coincidences seem to be the theme of my 2014. Instead of progressing naturally towards the future, my life seems to have come to a temporary halt to peek back at what I’ve left scattered behind – unfinished business all over the globe. Opportunities for closure seem to present themselves readily and I, recognizing them as such, leap at them without hesitation. Maybe it has to do with turning 25? Maybe I’m just not allowed to go forward before snapping the strings that pull me back? I don’t know.
This past weekend I flew down to Miami with friends to celebrate one of their birthdays. I stayed with a girl who lived at my roommate’s and my apartment in D.C. for a few months. She is a wonderful person and a gracious host, better than I ever was to her. Upon arriving at the airport, my friends cabbed off to their hotel in South Beach and I to her apartment in Brickell, downtown. The word “Brickell” had had a familiar ring to it the first time my host friend texted me her address, but I couldn’t figure out why until I glanced out of my cabbie’s window and saw the skyscrapers: towers of metal and glass that glitter in the light like the silver scales of some magnificent fish. I had seen all this before. I had seen it exactly one year before. As I paid the driver and stepped a jean-clad leg into the humid night air, déjà vu hit hard. I had arrived in just the same way to just the same street on the exact same date in 2013.
My trip last year was about visiting a man, perhaps the best dining companion I’ve had so far. He showed me things like Michael’s Genuine in the Art District and we cracked the claws of Stone crabs at The Dutch. I felt close to him sharing Jose’s Cuban Air Sandwiches at The Bazaar, closer still scorning the cuisine of the beautiful but shallow Juvia. I lounged at the pool of The Setai and felt melanin forming as I sipped daiquirís ( [dajkiˈɾi], not [ˈdækəriː]) on a beach. I was a 100% satisfied but, as it turns out, he wasn’t. Why? Because he never got to take me to his ramen place.
He had a ramen place and the place apparently had good ramen. He is a man who’s lived in Japan, traveled extensively in Asia and happens to have wonderful and intelligent taste in food. He appreciates good things, whether they’re expensive or cheap; he has little patience for the fake and overrated. From the beginning to the very end he was always more in a relationship with my palate than with me. And all he wanted that weekend was to take me to his ramen place. But I was reluctant. Why? Because it was sunny and warm and I prioritized raw bar and blended drinks over hot soup with noodles. In time I came to regret not going. I regretted it especially when I asked him to visit my ramen place in Hong Kong (also on a hot summer day) and he did. So on the last night of my trip to Miami this past weekend I made the effort to leave the mango mojito bottle service at Nikki Beach and get back to Brickell in time to visit the ramen-ya before my flight. It also happened to be a 30 second walk from my friend’s apartment.
The name of the place is Momi Ramen and it is tucked away in a little house that seems way too old for the neighborhood, on 11th Street. It’s a relatively small restaurant, seating maybe 20-25 inside and 10 at the communal long-table on the outdoor patio. A monumental hunk of pork belly graces the center of the room, an ode to Chef Jeffrey Chen’s inspiration. And behind a narrow glass window one can see the Ramen Master’s face as he patiently dresses each bowl. The menu consists of 5 types of ramen, 3 types of dumpling, 3 types of salad and 1 dessert. Quality over quantity, menus this short always excite me. The noodles are made fresh multiple times throughout the day, using wheat flour imported from Japan. The tonkotsu broth is kettle simmered for 18 hours and filtered 5 times during this process. Each bowl is assembled fresh on the spot, the rich-as-hell broth poured over a mound of springy, tight noodles and topped off with an egg, some mushrooms and your animal part of choice: pork chashu (BBQ), belly, ground pork, oxtail.
I chose the Oxtail Tonkotsu Ramen, a bowl of Chen’s signature bone broth with noodles, topped with incredibly tender chunks of oxtail, slippery wood ear (kikurage) mushrooms and little brown caps of nameko. There were also a few tender strips of bamboo shoot, some white sesame seeds sprinkled over the top and a luscious hanjuku egg delicately lain onto the bed of noodle. As I write this my stomach growls for one particular component of the ramen, though the point of the thing is the harmony between its ingredients. That first spoonful of broth alone gave me enough to remember the dish by forever. It’s a sultry, sexy bit of liquid, filthy rich both in texture and flavor. Jiggly bits of bone marrow have no doubt slipped secretly out of their ossified cage, only to melt into the stock and add luscious fat and porcine zest to the latter. The collagen adorning slowly simmering femur bones has loosened into gelatin, which has thickened the broth to an almost gravy-like consistency. It coats the mouth and sticks to the tongue as it does to each and every strand of starchy wheat noodle. The noodles retain a tight bounce even as the steam of the broth licks the exterior, making them slippery and ideal for slurping. They’re firm and chewy and wake up the face, putting the jaw to work but not tiring it too much. Every once in a while a delicate nameko button or an amorphous ruffle of kukurage gets entangled in the column of noodles chopstick-lifted out of their murky, porky bathwater. These add a very subtle woodsy note to the wholesome “wheat-y-ness” of the noodles. The egg is pretty fab too, though perhaps not the best ramen egg I’ve had. (That’s reserved for Butao.) It reeks pleasantly of the soy it marinated in and offers both the gummy bite of its cooked-through whites and the velvety smooth moisture of its golden yolk. And then there’s the oxtail, glaring ominously out from the tangles of noodle that shelter it. Through the wooden grip of my chopsticks I could feel the supple, delicate texture of the meat, the muscular fibers of which were held together by fat and connective tissue that had almost completely melted into soft, flavorful moisture. Each bite was juicy, tender and packed with the flavor of bone-adjacent flesh. The bonier bits of the cut sunk to the bottom of the plate and I fished them out only to witness the meat slide ride off the bone and back into the pool of savory soup. Although pig reigns supreme in the world of ramen, I’m glad I chose oxtail over pork belly to top my noodles. The meat was rich but not too fatty, providing the substance I needed after a long weekend of vapid pool parties spotted with cabana breaks.
Four hours after lowering my bowl I was already back in icy cold D.C., desperately Instagram-ing every aspect of the weekend to extend it just a little bit longer. The ramen had warmed and calmed me, easing my tradition back into winter. As I think back on that first spoonful of broth, it really feels like I did the right thing, karmically even. I went back and corrected a mistake made by an exactly one year younger version of me, and I learned a lesson in the process: When a man asks you to go to his ramen place, go. Shut up, and go.