By Annette Hinkle
Ramen. This soup-like meal, which is found in various forms throughout Asia, consists of spaghetti-like noodles in a bowl surrounded by broth, meat, vegetables, spices and often a hard-boiled egg.
In recent years, ramen has become all the rage in Manhattan and surrounding boroughs, which is why Anita Chen felt certain the East End was ready for a noodle shop of its own when she opened Momi Ramen on Pantigo Road in East Hampton in the summer 2015.
While her instinct turned out to be largely spot on and she has developed a loyal following of satisfied customers, looking back on the first year of her first foray into the restaurant business, Ms. Chen, a former lawyer, admits the experience threw in a few learning curves along the way — namely, locals awareness, or lack thereof, of her signature dish.
“I still get ‘What is ramen?’ a lot more than I would have thought,” she admits.
Ms. Chen is of Chinese heritage and was raised in New York’s Chinatown. Like many of the restaurants in her childhood neighborhood, Momi Ramen is truly a family business. Ms. Chen’s husband grew up in China, and it was his brother, Jeffrey Chen, who developed the concept of Momi Ramen when he opened the family’s inaugural restaurant in Miami in 2012.
“Jeffrey is my husband’s older brother and his restaurant is a different concept,” explains Ms. Chen. “He has just 20 seats and does not have a full liquor license. His menu is 25 percent of ours and he has a different crowd. He gets a lot of University of Miami students and walk-ins and he’s open until 2 a.m. seven days a week.”
By contrast, Momi Ramen in East Hampton offers a true family-friendly sit down dining experience with sleek contemporary décor, a full service bar and a menu in which the ramen is rounded out by an intriguing slate of small plates which are ideal for sharing or people who don’t eat ramen.
“We have the pork buns, a sashimi tuna and avocado salad, a rock shrimp wrap, edamame, which is so simple and something people like to eat,” says Ms. Chen.
Other offerings on the small plate menu include homemade tofu topped with bonito flakes and scallions, spicy tebaski chicken wings and a braised short rib.
But at Momi Ramen, the noodles, of course, are the star of the show and though the Chens are Chinese, they actually serve Japanese style ramen.
Ms. Chen happily explains the difference.
“Think of it as spaghetti and meatballs or mac and cheese, but in soup broth,” she says. “In Japan and China, it’s as if you’re eating a hamburger and French fries.”
“Wavy pasta originated in China and is called la-mian. Ramen is the Japanese word for this type of pasta — it’s the same thing,” explains Ms. Chen. “We make Japanese style ramen.”
What ultimately differentiates Chinese la-mian from Japanese ramen is how those noodles are made and what goes into the soup. Ms. Chen notes that her brother-in-law traveled to Japan to learn the Japanese way of making ramen in order to replicate it in his own restaurant.
“In China if you’re hungry, they say ‘We’ll give you won ton noodle soup.’ The won ton they make by hand, the noodles they don’t and the soup is not as detailed,” says Ms. Chen. “The Japanese take their time to learn the craft and the trade and they’re not going to rush or skip steps.”
“That’s what we’ve done,” she continues. “We have two huge kettles and we’ve imported a ramen machine. It’s a huge investment and though we’re not Japanese, I admire and respect the Japanese way of producing something. It takes time for people to understand and appreciate it.”
It also takes time to create the other key ingredient in authentic Japanese ramen — the tonkotsu broth, which is made from over 80 pounds of pork bones that cook for more than 15 hours. The resulting marrow-rich broth is the basis for the several varieties of ramen that Momi Ramen serves, including pork belly ramen, oxtail ramen, and spicy tan tan ramen with mushrooms, bamboo shoots and minced pork. There’s also chicken and corn ramen, shrimp ramen and a simple plain ramen for kids. Customers can also choose from a vegetarian version as well as a gluten free ramen that uses shirataki noodles made from konjac yams.
Though she’s not the chef, Ms. Chen prefers to run the front of the house, she knows good ramen and relies on her own palate in guiding the choices she makes for her restaurant.
“I don’t cook… I eat,” she says. “I have a very specific taste which is true to myself and what I believe. No sugar, less salt, no butter — some ramen places put in butter now, but I prefer more of a cleaner broth.”
“We pride ourselves on consistency — it’s like the golden ring on the merry go round, you keep on trying to get it,” says Ms. Chen. “That’s key. I try very hard when I’m here to talk to the customers.”
“I appreciate that, because I want them to come back.”
Momi Ramen (221 Pantigo Road, East Hampton, (631) 324-1678) is open for dinner Tuesday through Friday, and lunch and dinner on Saturday and Sunday. Specials include Locals Night on Wednesday from 5 to 10 p.m. with two for one Sapporo drafts at the bar and free bar snacks. Friday and Satuday late night happy hour at the bar is 9 to 11 p.m. with special food and drink prices and ‘80s music on Friday, reggae on Saturdays.
Ms. Chen also plans to add a Tuesday night prix fixe and another special for Thursday night in the near future. For details visit momihamptons.com.