WEST HARLEM — In the neighborhood, 2015 is shaping up to be the year of the noodle.
In January, Nabe Harlem, a Japanese noodle house and sake bar with a speakeasy in the basement, opened at 127th Street and Fredrick Douglass Boulevard.
In February The Handpulled Noodle, which serves Northwest Chinese-style noodles, opened on 148th and Broadway.
Next month Rai Rai Ken, which has been serving Japanese Ramen in the East Village for 15 years, is opening up a second location on 133rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
“I think this neighborhood has been underserved,” said Andrew Ding, the owner of Handpulled Noodle. “This neighborhood is a tapestry of people — why is there not a tapestry of food?”
► The Handpulled Noodle
Ding, who grew up in Sydney and was a classical musician before opening the restaurant, moved to 149th Street when he decided to stop performing.
He had previously lived in Dallas where local Chinese food consisted of Panda Express, so he was excited to come to an international city, he said. However, when he came to Hamilton Heights, he was disappointed by the options.
“Everything tasted the same because it had the same brown sauce,” he said. “That was the staple, that and a deep fryer.”
There are no deep fryers at Handpulled Noodle. The staff spends 24 hours working on a single batch of noodles and their recipe requires the batch to go through two stages of proofing before being ready to make, Ding said.
To come up with the menu, Ding called family members and asked them for their favorite recipes. It is made up of food he ate when he was growing up, something he calls “Northwest Chinese soul food.”
► Rai Rai Ken
About 15 blocks south, Rai Rai Ken is getting ready to open their second location, manager Yo Katsuse said.
Their Hamilton Heights spot has a lot in common with East Village 15 years ago, when they opened their first restaurant. Both have the reputation of being tough neighborhoods, don’t have many Asian restaurants and are near large universities.
“Everyone in the East Village thought of my boss as a crazy guy because he opened the restaurant in such a tough place,” Katsuse said.
NYU students helped establish Rai Rai Ken in the East Village and Katsuse hopes City College and Columbia University students can do the same on 133rd Street, he said.
Uptown’s version of Rai Rai Ken will be more casual than their East Village location. They want it to be a place where students and locals can drop by for a quick lunch and then go back to class or work.
Because it's more casual, the prices will be lower than the East Village. Bowls will be a couple of dollars cheaper in Hamilton Heights and they will have a $10 lunch special that includes an appetizer, a bowl and a drink, Katsuse added.
Unlike Handpulled Noodle, Rai Rai Ken specializes in Japanese Ramen.
Japanese noodles tend to focus more on the sauce, which can be made from soy, miso, curry and tofu and use more animal fat for flavor and aroma. Rai Rai Ken also puts a lot of attention on the broth, Katsuse said.
It takes 12 hours to prepare one batch, he added.
► Nabe Harlem
Further east, on 127th Street and Fredrick Douglass Boulevard, Nabe Harlem is the neighborhood’s first Japanese noodle house and sake bar.
Unlike Ramen, Nabe Harlem served udon and soba, which is made from buckwheat.
“Ramen is like a cheeseburger and udon is like a steak,” owner Larry Parker said of the difference between the two noodles.
Parker, a Harlem native, spent 7 years in Japan teaching English. When he came back in the late 1990’s he missed the Japanese fare, particularly healthy food.
“When I was in Japan, if I wanted healthy food I had a lot of options,” Parker said. “Here my first option was salad and my second option was salad.”
He kept waiting for a place that serves authentic noodles to open up but when it didn’t he decided to open it up himself.
Nabe Harlem is really three restaurants in one. The basement is a speakeasy that serves Asian fusion and has live music throughout the week. While the upstairs serves traditional Japanese food, Nabe Underground pushes the envelope a little bit with their wasabi chicken wings and collard green spring rolls, Parker said.
The third part of Nabe Harlem, which is still under construction, is going to be a hot pot component. Hot pot is a DIY style of dinning. Customers sit in a table and are given raw meat and vegetables, which they cook in a pot that is placed in the middle of the table.
Staff at Nabe will guide people who are new to hot pot through the process, Parker said.