Just as the Fall chill hit us this week, we hit two of DC’s ramen spots that have been on our list for a while: Toki Underground on H Street and Daikaya in Chinatown. While neither is exactly traditional (although maybe ‘traditional’ doesn’t apply to vegetarian ramen), both satisfy cravings for chewy noodles and savory broth, with a surprise or two along the way.
Toki Underground’s tiny dining area, which opened over two years ago, remains crowded on most nights.We managed to get seats at the bar soon after opening on a Saturday, and dove straight into bowls of ramen. The vegetarian/vegan ramen has a root vegetable broth that is a bit thin and relies too heavily on salt for flavor. I chose to add a soft boiled egg, which melted right in and added some thickness while taking the edge off of the salt. The real stars here are the other components: a big square of soft fried tofu, a juicy portobello cap, daikon radishes, and sour pickled cucumbers that pack a fresh punch.
A small thing, yes, but Toki knows how to do leftovers. Broth comes strained into a separate container from the noodles so they don’t get soggy. This is especially welcome if you’re getting dumplings too and can’t slurp down all that noodly goodness in the same sitting.
With the memory of Toki Underground fresh in our minds, we headed to Daikaya to do a comparison. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the first floor is a ramen joint and the upstairs is an izakaya with full bar and small plates. We stopped in for ramen first, then headed up for a drink and a snack.
We’ll spare you the suspense: despite Toki Underground’s hype (and that fried tofu – why is it so hard to find ramen with tofu???), our complicated calculation of topping quality times broth flavor divided by oversaltedness maaaay leave Daikaya slightly in the lead.
At $13.25, Daikaya’s ramen seems to be the most expensive around (add-ons cost more). Inspired by Sakuramen, I succumbed to adding corn to my bowl, which already came with bright green slightly blackened brussel sprouts, marinated shiitake caps, wood ear mushrooms, and a few chunks of snow peas and carrots. The combination of sweet corn and tender charred brussel sprouts was delicious. The broth was rich and tasty without being too salty, and the consistency was thicker than that of Toki Underground’s even without the egg. Although the popular spicy miso addition isn’t vegetarian, sesame chili oil is available at every table to add a jolt of heat and fat.
Upstairs we tried the grilled avocado with nori salt flakes, wasabe, and tart ponzu. Outer bites had an intriguing burnt flavor, giving way to sweeter flesh below. Although it’s not something I’d want to eat all the time, this salty-sour-spicy-party in your mouth is a unique experience.
After our visit we learned that the upstairs wait staff isn’t always aware of what items are vegetarian (the fried garlic is not), and one of our readers found meat in her dish when she had asked that it be left out (see the comment below). Next time we’ll skip the izakaya altogether and stick to the clearly labeled ramen menu downstairs.
With cooler weather around the corner, we’re happy to report that delicious, unique vegetarian ramen can be found in a few spots around town. And if you don’t live nearby or aren’t in the mood for a long wait, skip Toki and find a bowl of bliss in Chinatown (Daikaya) or Adams Morgan (Sakuramen and Taan).
1234 H St NE
705 6th St NW