Sonny Nguyen has made it his purpose to present perfect bowls of ramen to the frenzied and madding crowds of noodle lovers out there, and his flagship restaurant Domu at East End Market is, without question, one of the best. Not because they make their noodles in house every day, or because their broths are made fresh without the use of concentrates, but because Nguyen exhibits a healthy obsession for what he does. Sure, it helps that he's a bit of a shinnichi, though any ramen peddler worth their weight in noodles is likely a Japanophile in some way, shape or form.
Domu Chibi, Nguyen's latest venture, presents a "quick casual" and "on-the-go" version of Domu. "It's a cheaper and faster alternative to our main store," says Nguyen. "We had to figure out how to bring the price of the bowl down to under $10 while trying to be as true to a [proper] bowl of ramen as we could." Which begs the question – what was done to bring the cost below $10, or $9.50 to be exact? For one, the noodles.
At the flagship, Nguyen makes his noodz from scratch using a machine from Japan. For "quick casual" Chibi, such a time-consuming process isn't practical nor feasible. Enter Sun Noodle – a purveyor choice made by many a top-flight ramen-ya around the country. Sun's straight noodles are employed for Chibi's tonkotsu, shoyu, shio, curry and butter miso ramens; the vegan ramen uses an egg-free wavy noodle. More cost-saving measures: iPads replace human beings in the order-taking process, and food is served in fully disposable bowls and eaten with equally disposable utensils.
One constant: broths and bases are house-made, just as they are at the mothership. Yes, the 18-hour tonkotsu is rich and fatty, but the "KFC bucket"-shaped bowls, as my dining comrade described them, left a bit to be desired. "It's hard to appreciate the beauty of a bowl of ramen if the component parts are jumbled atop one another rather than given room to float," he growled. Hey, lower cost comes at, umm, a cost.
Another gripe: Noodles were somewhat prone to clumping, which inhibited a pleasurable slurp. But, based on taste alone, the tonkotsu was a mighty fine bowl of ramen, with lush pork belly, wood ear mushrooms and a seasoned soft-boiled egg we chose to brûlée for 50 cents more. BTW, add-ons from buttered corn ($1) to miso-marinated chicken thigh ($2.50) can be tossed into your bowl – just tell it to the friendly iPad. We went a little cuckoo for that miso chicken in the curry ramen, mainly for the luxuriant (and fiery) double chicken broth. For added cluck, we opted for a splash of black garlic oil (50 cents) and garlic-scallion confit (50 cents).
"Needs more butter and salt" was the general consensus when it came to the butter miso ramen with pork belly, while the lone vegan in the group insatiably devoured the spicy ramen – the tomato-miso broth dribbling fetchingly off those kinky strands. No skimping on the tofu, mushrooms, sprouts or shoots either.
Not up for ramen? Then leave. Better yet, get a dashi rice bowl ($8.50) with "wing bites" – boneless versions of Domu's celebrated kimchi butter-coated chicken wings. There's a soft-boiled egg, to be sure, and a ginger-onion mayo and cubes of yuzu-pickled daikon too. It's a dish I'd order time and again as I quite enjoy washing my mouth out with butter.
If you're going, just know that the place gets packed, particularly on weekend nights. We waited a good 25 minutes before getting our orders, so just take "quick casual" with a grain of shio.