Since 2005 Chef Koji “Nico” Nishikawa has run a successful ramen shop, Lamen Nikkou, in Shiga Prefecture, which is near Kyoto. Known for its award-winning tori paitan (white broth with chicken) ramen, Lamen Nikkou was named the best ramen-ya in Shiga Prefecture five of the last six years by Tabelog, the Yelp of Japan.
This success has made Chef Nico, who graduated from college with a degree in teaching, eager to see how his ramen will be received abroad. To help Chef Nico test the US waters, Lamen Nikkou is participating in Ramen Lab’s incubator program through July 3.
Ramen Lab is a stand-up ramen-ya run by Sun Noodle, the prolific noodle maker that supplies restaurants and Asian markets throughout North America with its brand of ramen noodles, yakisoba, Okinawan soba, and Hawaiian saimen. The monthly incubator held at the tiny Ramen Lab restaurant in Nolita allows ramen chefs and people who want to become ramen chefs from Japan and the US to experiment with their own flavors and develop their personal styles while using local ingredients. Prior to Lamen Nikkou’s residency, which began on June 20, Ramen Lab hosted a group from Tampa that will be opening Ichicoro later this summer.
Chef Nico and his staff arrived a few days before the pop-up began and “hit the ground running,” says Kenshiro Uki, a third-generation noodle maker and the general manager of Sun Noodle’s New Jersey factory. “The first thing they did was go shopping for ingredients, which is a challenge.”
Uki emphasizes the use of local ingredients, and although New York is blessed with a variety of Japanese and Asian markets, there are still some things you can’t find here. But Chef Nico has not let that discourage him from re-creating Lamen Nikkou’s ramen dishes for New Yorkers to enjoy.
The menu at Ramen Lab includes the signature dish of tori paitan, mayu (black garlic oil) tori paitan, wafu (broth with pork, chicken, and vegetables), and yuzu tsukemen with a dipping sauce of chicken, seafood, and yuzu pepper. All ramen dishes come with cha-shu (pork), egg, green onion, and menma (bamboo shoots).
Although intrigued by the signature tori paitan, I opted for the yuzu tsukemen and was not disappointed. The noodles were thick and the dipping sauce light and zesty. The flavorful blend of the yuzu kosho with the chicken broth and shio tare (salty “secret sauce” broth) gives a jolt of umami from the first slurp. It’s easy to understand why ramen lovers in Shiga Prefecture consistently rate Lamen Nikkou number one.
One of the most charming things about the intimate size of Ramen Lab is that the customers stand only a few feet away from the chefs, so they can interact with each other. You can ask Chef Nico about his ramen, the flavors of the stock, anything.
There is only one week remaining in Chef Nico’s experiment in New York, so take advantage of this special opportunity to slurp Shiga’s best ramen.