Brought to you by the cool folks of Lefty’s Dive Bar in Harrington Street, the much-anticipated Downtown Ramen is drawing crowds of noodle-loving locals. Jeanne Calitz managed to nab a seat – and a rather fine bowl of broth.
Arriving at Lefty’s, we’re not entirely sure of where to go, so we hang around awkwardly for a moment before eavesdropping on a fellow seeker’s phone call: “OK,” he repeats the received instructions, “so I come in through Lefty’s, turn left, and take the stairs.”
We follow gratefully, emerging into what is a very simple production: a smallish hall with counter seating, a few communal tables and some crazy Japanese posters on the walls. It’s crammed with customers; you get the feeling that you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole… even though you’ve just climbed up the stairs. You’ll have to allow me the metaphor, because everything here says: Eat Me.
The menu is concise: choose between two ramen noodle dishes – pork or vegetarian with tofu – delivered in a shoyu (soya-based) broth, and bao (steamed buns) with a choice of three fillings: pork belly with a citrus pickle, soy-and-beer-braised short rib, and a vegetarian option. As appreciative carnivores, we opt for the meaty fare.
The bao arrive swiftly, bursting with flavour. The braised short rib enchants with a fantastic trinity of tastes: smoky, sweet and spicy all at once. Next, the noodles: The dish is served in a big black bowl with a lid to keep the steamy goodness inside. Layered in the fragrant broth await the noodles, amazingly soft and juicy pieces of slow-cooked pork, bean sprouts and a scattering of sesame seeds. There’s the choice of adding chilli and a traditional soft-boiled egg. Both are recommended: the chilli spices things up, while the egg adds a creamy mildness.
You might wonder how to eat this without looking like an idiot – not that anyone here would care. The dish comes with a big red plastic spoon; use it to ladle the noodles and toppings up from the bowl, then pinch a mouthful with the chopsticks. Let it be said, this does not make for elegant eating. But, when it comes to ramen, slurping up the noodles is part and parcel of the game. Ramen chefs believe the noodles have a very short lifetime in the broth before they lose their punch, so you’re encouraged to get on with it. There are some condiments – soy and sriracha – but really, flavourful food like this needs no further embellishment.
It’s a humble list of two beers, including Sapporo beer from Japan, two choices of white or red wine, and sake and soft drinks. If you’re in the mood for something more crafty (beers) or flirty (cocktails), diners are encouraged to toddle down to Lefty’s – where everything says: Drink Me! – for the tipple of their choice.
A small staff somehow manages to keep tabs on the ravenous hoards. They’re fast, friendly, and seem genuinely pleased at the pleasure emanating from their slurping, satisfied customers.
It’s a very relaxed affair – and friendly, too. Sharing a table with strangers is encouraged. But you’ll have to hop to it: they don’t take bookings, so just pitch up and hope for the best. We arrive at 6.30pm and manage to grab one of the last spots; by 7pm, there’s a line of hungry hopefuls hovering on the stairs. But they won’t wait long – this is food served fast (the slow cooking having been done throughout the day), so tables turn over at a brisk pace.
If you do have to fall in line, order a drink at Lefty’s to enjoy on the stairs. It’s a good way to get ready for the awesomeness beyond that magical doorway.