621 Hicksville Rd., Bethpage;516-513-1881, ramenkyoto.com
SERVICE Brusque but efficient: Order at the counter, your meal will be delivered to the table or packaged for takeout.
AMBIENCE Bare-bones room with a view into the kitchen
ESSENTIALS Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Sunday to 8:30 p.m. Closed Monday. Dining room wheelchair accessible but bathroom is not.
If you attended college any time after 1980, a good chunk of your diet was probably instant ramen, a cheap hot blast of noodle, saturated fat and salt that fueled many an all-nighter.
That’s not what you’ll find at Ramen Kyoto in Bethpage. The noodles are not in brick form; they are fresh and pliable. The broth isn’t made by emptying the contents of a foil packet into boiling water; Kyoto makes multiple soup bases — some with pork bones, some with chicken parts and/or soy sauce or miso paste — that simmer away for hours on end.
Ramen is as central to Japanese culinary identity as burgers are to American. Its roots go back to the 19th century, when Chinese restaurants in Japan began serving “lamien” noodles that the Japanese pronounced “ramen.” In 1958, instant ramen was invented by Momofuku Ando and, over the next few decades, it spread to virtually every corner of the Earth.
Cut to the East Village in 2004 when David Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar. Chang honored Momofuku Ando with the name, but the ramen he made there was worlds away from instant, crafted from top-grade ingredients by a battalion of young chefs. Momofuku kicked off a New York ramen boom that has yet to subside, with dozens of “ramen-ya” in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, each with its own passionate cult.
Long Island’s first ramen shops opened in East Hampton (Momi, 2015) and Port Jefferson (Slurp, 2016). There are Japanese restaurants in Nassau that make a fine bowl of ramen, but until Ramen Kyoto opened in November, there were no ramen specialists whose phone numbers began with 516.
Ramen Kyoto does a brisk takeout business, packing the broth separate from the noodles so they don’t get soggy. But if you eat in the bare-bones 20-seat dining room, your food will be piping hot, and you’ll have a view of the kitchen.
The best noodles are the most popular: spicy ramen. The pork-chicken broth evinces a chili-pepper kick, with an assist from the forceful Korean pickle, kimchee. Also on board: braised pork belly, bean sprouts, kikurage (wood-ear) mushrooms and marinated soft-cooked egg. Everything comes together and clings agreeably to the firm, slightly wavy noodles. Also recommended: tan tan noodles, whose noodles bathe in a funky-spicy miso-enhanced chicken broth and are topped with minced chicken or pork.
But the kitchen fell down on the tonkotsu ramen whose broth is traditionally made by simmering meat and bones (principally pork) for hours, sometimes days, until all the flavor, fat and marrow are extracted into a thick, pungent, salty brew. Kyoto’s tonkotsu broth had all the ferocity of chicken egg drop soup.
The broth in the shoyu ramen also needed intervention (readily available in the form of salt, hot sauce and sesame oil), but it was doomed by a huge fistful of sprouts. The garnishes in a bowl of ramen should work together in harmony, like the elements of a Japanese garden.
Kyoto serves four udon soups, made with the thickest weapon in the Japanese noodle arsenal. I liked that the shrimp tempura was served separately (again, the kitchen is mindful of potential sogginess), but the only note in the broth was sweet.
Not into noodles? Kyoto also makes donburi, Japanese “over rice” bowls topped with thinly sliced beef, roasted pork belly or, best in show, katsu don, fried pork or chicken cutlet. The rice is also topped with a traditional Japanese tangle of caramelized onions and eggs, and a nontraditional floret of steamed broccoli.
My favorite appetizer was the chewy, savory karaage chicken. Unlike tempura, whose victims are dipped in batter before being tossed in hot oil, karaage nuggets are dredged in seasoned flour. I doubt the gyoza (pork dumplings) were made in house, but they were satisfying nonetheless. The same could not be said for the shrimp shumai or the takoyaki, billed, intriguingly, as “squid and potato croquette with prune sauce.” Both were pallid and generic.
With a few exceptions, that same lack of nerve ran through most of what I ate during four meals here. It’s as if the restaurant doesn’t trust its customers to appreciate the deep, salty savor, the belly-filling fattiness of real Japanese soul food. I have confidence in Nassau County’s appetite for flavor, and I wish Ramen Kyoto did, too.