Boyish in a baseball cap, Luck Sarabhayavanija welcomes a guest into his restaurant and immediately something is off. The place, usually a teeming din, is empty and still. No throngs awaiting seats. No joyous sounds of slurping. It is between seatings. The quietude is strictly temporary.
Sarabhayavanija owns Ani Ramen House, the cozy Bloomfield Avenue noodle shop renowned for its silky pork buns, Tokyo-inspired ramen bowls — and daunting lines of avid customers. The eatery opened in May 2014 to crowds seeking an authentic noodle experience rivaling those at destination spots like Momofuko Noodle Bar in Manhattan.
The masses have found their place. A bona fide hit, Ani Ramen serves 200 to 300 ramen bowls a day. Early next year, it will expand to burgeoning foodie mecca Jersey City.
At 12 bucks a bowl and starters — crispy gyoza, stuffed shitake, etc. — running from $3 to $8, the Ani menu won’t wilt the wallet. Steaming bowls are served by a hip, dynamic staff in a taste-conscious room that, with its grand chalk-style mural, newsprint wallpaper and dangling naked bulbs, evokes a funky artist’s space.
For the 31-year-old restaurateur, who lives in Weehawken with his wife and Ani co-owner Anne Fernando and three young sons, noodles are a family affair. “My boys have been to 200 ramen spots all over New York,” says Sarabhayavanija, whose mother owns Spice II, the acclaimed Thai restaurant next door to Ani Ramen.
“It’s been something my family has always loved,” he says. “It’s been my comfort food. I loved noodles growing up, be it Thai, Vietnamese or ramen.”
Are you surprised by Montclair’s reception to Ani Ramen?
Absolutely. Most restaurants are like a locomotive. It starts off slow and once it builds steam it stays consistent. Since day one, before we opened and hung up “Opening Soon” signs, we had people knocking on the door. On the second day, 50 people showed up asking when we were opening and if we took reservations. It was overwhelming right from the beginning. I immediately said, “Let’s bulk up on staff.” We opened in May (2014) and even when it was 80 or 90 degrees that summer we still had people lining up. Then some of the press started rolling in. The New York Times gave us a glowing review and that really put us on the map for people outside of Montclair. Our ramen lovers in Montclair kind of know when to come — Tuesday through Thursday — and they stay away Friday and Saturday nights.
What are you doing in the kitchen that makes your menu work so well?
We keep a limited menu. Some restaurants try to please every single palate and they have 15 to 20 main courses and 10 to 15 appetizers. I think it’s tough to be really great at everything. We tried it. We tested over 20 appetizers — we call them Little Big Bites — and 20 bowls of ramen. I cut it down and said, “What’s great?” These six are great, and they’re what we kept for our ramen bowl menu. We know we’re able to be consistent with this set-up. One thing that’s really limited us — though it kind of worked to our benefit — is our kitchen. It’s really small. So our menu is also wrapped around what our kitchen can put out and not leave our dining room hanging.
You get your noodles from the Sun Noodle factory in Teterboro, which also supplies Momofuko. What’s so special about these noodles?
They’re the ramen kings for anybody who takes their noodles seriously. I met up with them and went to one of their ramen lab tastings, and I was like, “This is it. I need to bring this quality of ramen back to what I grew up around.” They’ve replicated as close as you can what the water is like in Japan — the alkaline in the water. It’s like how they say you can’t find New York pizza anywhere else. Why? Because the dough is different. Why? Because the water here is harder. So there are people in California who try to do a New York pizza but they have to import their dough from New York. That’s what Sun Noodle has done with their recipe, consistency and quality. We tried to do our own homemade artisanal noodles, but the quality just wasn’t there. Sun was the only ramen supplier on the East Coast that could guarantee us fresh ramen delivered daily. Anywhere else in the U.S. had to be frozen.
What makes the perfect pillowy pork bun? I hear, for example, that you use Kewpie brand mayonnaise from Japan instead of Hellman’s.
You have to steam it fresh. There are no short cuts. Once you’ve braised the pork belly, that’s set and ready to go. But you have to steam the buns fresh and then contrast what goes inside. Instead of just throwing a piece of pork belly into a steamed bun we have a savory-salty pork belly with pickled cucumber for acidity to balance it out, we have a little shredded cabbage for texture and we have spicy miso mayo for a little kick. And we do use Kewpie mayo. It’s a little bit sweeter, richer.
A nice touch is the notebook that comes with the check, where customers scribble messages or draw pictures about their dining experience. What’s that about?
I’ve been to so many restaurants where ownership and management force the servers to hand in three to five comment cards every shift. Sometimes they just make them up or if they get a bad comment they throw them away. I thought it would be a waste if ramen lovers coming here weren’t able to read the comments. So we decided to keep almost a diary of all the comments we got. We started out with like three books of 250 pages each. Now we’ve filled over 30 books. Besides recording comments like “I waited 45 minutes, but it was well worth it,” we’ve started a Ramen Lovers book and whoever has the best drawing gets a free dinner. We get everything from amazing cartoons to people just leaving us notes telling us where they’re from, what they loved. We read through all of them. And even the bad comments we leave in there. It’s good to see. We take it into consideration. We try to accommodate as much as we can, but we stay in our lane and make sure we stay consistent.
Ani Ramen House is at 401 Bloomfield Ave., Montclair. Hours, menu and more at aniramen.com.