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Enthusiastic shouts of “Irasshaimase” by the young, attractive staff, welcomed us to HinoMaru Ramen, a newish Japanese noodle restaurant in Astoria. The greeting transported us back to our visit to the Land Of The Rising Sun a few years ago. In Japan, you will hear that greeting over and over, at high decibel levels, at almost every retail establishment you enter. You will probably also eat a lot of noodles, as ramen joints are both ubiquitous and affordable there.
You won’t find sushi, or exquisite classical Japanese cuisine at HinoRamen. What you will find is an authentic example of the everyday fare eaten by the masses. The surroundings are spare, yet attractive, with a choice of table or counter seating. Masks of Tengu, the long-nosed protector of mountains and forests, are a recurring theme.
Appetizers here are dubbed “Japanese Tapas.” Try their pork gyoza. They took us back to our visit to Utsonamiya, the gyoza capital of Japan, where Gyoza-San, an anthropomorphized gyoza in marble, greets visitors at the rail station. The gyoza here, thin-skinned and succulent, measure up to those served us over there.
The Ika Maru was disappointing. Amusing as it was to watch the bonito flakes animated by the air currents (it’s aliivve!), the ponzu-doused grilled squid was unacceptably rubbery. Likewise, the seaweed salad had an odd, overly sweet flavor. A simple green salad would be a better bet. In fact, if you are there at lunch time, they offer a small green salad and a small egg chahan (a poached egg over pork fried rice) with any order of ramen. The rice is less soy drenched and less greasy than its Chinese counterpart, and works nicely as a starter.
The main event here is, without a doubt, the ramen. Choices abound. If you happen to be a ramen newbie (no, the cheap stuff in the little packages doesn’t count), you might want to start with Tonkotsu (Hakata style). This is ramen 1.0, built on creamy pork broth with chashu pork, kikurage (tree ear) mushrooms, scallion, bean sprouts, and fish cake (naruto). Here the broth is umami flavorful and the contents abundant. If you want to kick it up a notch, go for the namesake Hinomaru. Dubbed “New York style,” it’s got all of the above plus a “fireball” to give it heat.
Uni ramen tastes more like a cross between oyster stew and fettucini Alfredo than something Japanese. Bits of sea urchin swim in a Parmesan cheese-laced creamy broth garnished with seaweed, veggies and that ever-present fish cake. If you like rich comfort food, this could be your choice.
Spicy Miso ramen, on the “special ramen” list, starts with a base like the familiar miso soup served in most Japanese restaurants. It is topped with corn kernels, pork, chopped scallions and most importantly a great big “fireball.” The fire balls, round scoops of miso with hot spices, refer to the restaurant’s name, Hinomaru, which means “fireball,” and a nod (or perhaps a bow) to the sun symbol on the Japanese flag.
HinoMaru is an authentic approximation of the kind of noodle shop found throughout Japan, a culinary style that has recently become trendy in Manhattan. The food is tasty and inexpensive. They have an ample selection of sakes and beers. The vibe is young and lively. When you leave this restaurant, expect a hearty shout of “arigato gozaimashita,” which loosely means “thank you for coming.” If you’re feeling well pleased, respond with “gochisou sama deshita,” which means “it’s been a feast”.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
33-18 Ditmars Blvd.
Astoria, NY 11105
Price Range: Appetizers: $4–6, Ramen: $9–15
Cuisine: Japanese noodle soup
Setting: Small typically Japanese décor with counter and table seating.
Service: Hours: Sunday thru Thursday: 12 pm to 10:30 pm
Friday and Saturday: 12 pm to 11 pm
Alcohol: Beer & Sake
Credit cards: Yes
Noise level: Acceptable
Handicap accesible: Yes
©2012 Community Newspaper Group
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