The Upper East Side always makes one of my eyebrows lift a little when it comes to the possibilities of good food. Even places that seem tested still give me doubt, and MEI JIN Ramen is no exception. On a sunny weekend, my group of four sat down at a table immediately in a fairly busy restaurant, talked to our Thai waitresses, and listened to the soundtrack of Ozzy Osbourne, an ominous start. The decor is minimal and tasteful, not either enhancing or distracting from the environment.
They have a couple craft beers and some good small brewery selections from Japan, making a meal a little more upscale or thoughtful than a trip to an izakaya paired with Sapporo pitchers. Whether that is positive or negative, I let you decide.
I am happy to report that all else aside, the food here will be determined to win you over, even if you did pass groups of high-fiving fraternity brothers on your walk over to 2nd Avenue. A decent list of starters is almost too difficult to turn down, and we definitely ordered too many, starting with the lovely tuna tar tar ($9, below). Evenly portioned basil sauce, ponzu, and Japanese mayonnaise are squirted over the small chunks of raw tuna, a fish best trusted to the Japanese. Chili oil provides a nice glow, while sliced almonds, smelt egg, and chives add small hints to a dish you are not going to want to share.
The Japanese fried chicken ($7.50, below) is very good, tender and moist within a fried shell that is not so crispy but absolutely perfect. Salt and pepper seem to be portioned equally but are hidden when dipped in the excellent spicy mayo.
The most exciting part of the Asian shrimp toast ($9, below) is the combinations of textures. Wonton skin, green onion and ooba leaf are within the thin crispy shell, while a creamy honey jalapeño sauce accompanies.
Most ramen is of course full of pork, the broth flavored by fatty pig bone. MEI JIN is however all about the beef, with strong marrow smells and tastes creating very unique ramens. The Japanese chef here has cooked in Japan and cooked in New York, and has decided to leave pork off the menu, concentrating on these beef bowls and mixing in some chicken.
The winner for me is by far the bowl of miso beef broth entitled MEI JIN ($13, below), which is like eating a bowl of delicious fat, the exact point of enjoying ramen in the first place. Besides this fatty heaven, the bowl is full of colorful vegetables, sesame, and chili oil.
If beef is your love, then the beef soy ($10, below) is the game you should play, as the marrow is almost visible as its fumes rise from the bowl.
Two versions of the spicy chili option ($11 for beef, $10 for chicken) are runners-up for best options here, see below. Their bright red bowls glow with rich color and piles of ground meats. The flavors of each respective meat do shine through, but the game here is all about the ra-jan chili oil and chili pepper.
A side of the menu that is just as well-represented as the ramen, but that we did not get to, is full of Japanese-style curry dishes, also based on beef broths. On another occasion, this will have to be sampled.