Ramen Kuboya will probably be known as “that place right next to Minca” for quite a while. Owner Hiroshi Kubo may have opened his noodle-centric restaurant on 5th Ave. in homage to a French restaurant that used to inhabit the space, but by operating just steps from the veteran ramen-ya, his fledgling project has faced constant comparison to the garlic-heavy bowls of ramen next door.
This is unfortunate, to say the least. Opening yet another ramen house in the East Village does make comparison to Minca, Ippudo and the other greats of this neighborhood’s Japanese noodle cohort more than fair game, but the “Kuboya vs. Minca” tagline has yet to carry much weight – partly because ramen is rarely one-size-fits-all.
The feel of Kuboya, which lands between the cozy aesthetic of Minca and Rai-Rai Ken and the overbearing restaurant chic of Ippudo and Hide-Chan, makes this point aesthetically with its casual, cafe-bar setting. No Japanese greeting is delivered from the cooks, no noodles are bubbling behind the bar, no painstakingly planned and purchased decor greets the eyes, and the movements of the wait staff have yet to fall into a comfortable routine.
Kubo’s salt broth, made from a mixture of pork, chicken and seafood stock, follows suit. Hitting an intriguing middle ground between a clean shio broth and a rich tonkotsu broth, its flavor is dominated by salt and the sweetness of seafood stock, with pork fat contributing a supporting flavor and slightly creamy texture. This “triple blend” approach could become a distinct addition to the still-growing landscape of ramen styles in New York, but it hasn’t quite found the right focus of flavors. It’s a satisfying and balanced soup, but the composition leans a bit too much on salt and lacks the aromatic qualities that make taste buds jump.
Kubo’s “wafu” broth – I am indebted to anyone who can clearly define, contextualize and demonstrate this term, because I’ve failed to come up with a satisfactory meaning – is a much clearer soup and a much clearer statement. For $9 a bowl, it steps up as clean, sweet, and subtle competition to Ramen Setagaya’s shio broth and shows ramen lovers that not all soups have to appease fat fetishes to be enjoyable.
Kubo’s miso ramen is the least impressive of what I’ve sampled so far. Mixing the chef’s triple-blend broth with two kinds of miso and chopped garlic, this broth turns the shio ramen’s “almost-there” composure into a bit of a muddle of flavors that don’t layer or merge effectively. The final product comes off as a partial clone of Minca’s hearty, browned-garlic winner. Kubo’s miso and spicy miso broths were also too salty to finish, which is a shame given how much effort has gone into Kuboya’s quality ingredients and shortcut-free cooking.
While these broths all could use a bit more work before they have a distinct enough personality to garner an “oishii!” reaction, Kuboya is also held back by the other vital components of its ramen. Kubo’s noodles are made in house, but are not particularly flavorful or lively in texture – much closer to rai-rai-ken’s everynoodles than the distinctly springy strands at Ippudo. While the pork belly charshu in every bowl is cooked to the point that its fat melts at the touch, it too lacks strong flavors of any kind; chewing on a slice is ephemeral without any kind of lingering, savory taste. The hard-boiled egg added to each bowl is similarly indistinct. Ultimately, none of these parts are standouts on their own, so they can’t help but produce an unfulfilling mix of elements that is less than their sum.
Kuboya serves more than ramen, which could turn out to be a very good thing. Right now a $15 lunch special that includes any choice of ramen, a half-order of chahan (Japanese-style fried rice) and pork gyoza is the best way to give this menu a try; the house’s gyoza and chahan, which would cost $11 on their own, are surprisingly the best part of the deal. These dumplings ride the fine line between browned and burnt in a good way, with a chewy, crisp exterior and moist, meaty, not-too-delicate pork filling.
Kuboya’s chahan is even better. Completely free of mushy, pasty texture and devoid of grease slicks, each grain of rice maintains its own pillowy structure. Shreds of takana (Japanese mustard greens), charshu and egg give the fried rice hints of salty, porky flavors without being overbearing. The result is fantastic comfort food that ends up being more addictive than the ramen touted as Kubo’s specialty.
The underwhelming ramen at Kuboya says something about how tough it is to open a restaurant; even after refining his recipes for years, Chef Kubo has a way to go until they can compete with the neighborhoods kings to which they’re already being compared. That said, the underwhelming ramen at Kuboya also says something about how lucky New York is to have so many great ramen houses in so few city blocks. Though I won’t be returning to Ramen Kuboya anytime soon, I’ll be happy to see how things are going a few months down the road, because there’s a definite sense of taste in these bowls waiting for the right adjustments to bring them to life.
536 East 5th St. Ste. #2
New York, NY 10009