Refreshing noodle dishes and more at Ani Ramen
Exactly seven minutes into my wait for a table at Ani Ramen, Montclair Center’s noodle house, I realized I forgot my Tupperware; I didn’t dare return to my car. Even on a Thursday night, I’m not first in line for ramen and I am definitely not last. A meal at Ani Ramen is the antithesis of the microwaveable bags of Ramen with which one may be familiar. One trip to Ani Ramen will have you contemplating running out to buy Tupperware halfway through dinner in order to finish every last bite.
Ani Ramen opened in May 2014 by spouses Luck Sarabhayavanija and Anne Fernando, bringing their cozy, dimly lit eatery to Montclair. Ani Ramen may be fairly new to town, but Sarabhayavanija’s restaurant ties to Montclair go back for years; his family owned Tuptim Thai for nearly 20 years. Sarabhayavanija started at the bottom, dishwashing at Tuptim. After a bartending and serving stint in New York City, Sarabhayavanija moved to Vancouver to open a restaurant with Fernando. The couple later moved to New Jersey, ready to open what Sarabhayavanija characterizes as “a nice Mom and Pop shop.”
Though Sarabhayavanija’s background is mainly in Thai cuisine, ramen was the obvious choice for their New Jersey restaurant. “We’ve always loved ramen,” said Sarabhayavanija. “One day we decided [to] roll the dice. My mother, who [now] owns Spice II, told us to check out Montclair. And when I got here, I knew. It’s not even like Montclair was ready for us; they’ve been waiting for a small ramen shop to open up and add some downtown flavor.”
Sarabhayavanija was right; Montclairians know their ramen. “Half our regulars already go to [NYC ramen restaurants] Totto and Momofuku,” he said. “They’re happy to have something closer to home now.”
However, if you’ve yet to try ramen, don’t be intimidated. From my experience, there is a two-pronged approach to enjoying a meal at Ani Ramen: 1. Sample as much as you can from the menu and 2. Eat only ramen. I recommend trying both ways at least once.
If following the first option, approach your meal at Ani Ramen knowing you may not have more than five bites of everything. Yet, everything you put in your mouth will be well-seasoned, of varying textures and very different from other Southeast Asian culinary experiences.
Depending on how large your party is, you should start with between three and five of Ani Ramen’s small plates, known as “Little Big Bites.” The edamame ($3) is steamed to perfection, charred black in some places and just spicy enough to prompt extra beverage-sipping. Pork buns ($6 for two) are pillows of dough stuffed with tender braised pork, crisp shredded cabbage, pickled cucumber and miso mayonnaise. Voted favorite at my table for both taste and visual presentation were the Gyoza ($6): handmade pork dumplings with crispy bits of thin batter hanging over the top of each bite like a lacy parasol.
Hopefully you still have room, because now it’s time for ramen. Since you selected the first option, I recommend you order one bowl of ramen (all $12) for yourself and be prepared to take home leftovers. For the second option, the “Eat Only Ramen” meal plan, it is unlikely that you’ll be needing any takeaway containers. Though I recommend you exercise caution if dining with vegetarians, as there is only one – delightfully umami – meatless offering (No. 4).
“Most ramen houses are defined as either a pork house or chicken house, but we wanted to cater to our customers,” said Sarabhayavanija “When we first were opening, the majority of our emails were asking if we’d have a vegetarian option, so we knew this was important. It was the hardest one to create, because I didn’t want to just throw a bunch of vegetables into water.” It certainly was worth the trouble; the vegetarian broth is easily my favorite of the three. It seems like a lot of Ani Ramen’s regulars feel the same, as they commonly order the vegetarian broth and then add pork or chicken.
If there is a special for the day at Ani Ramen, you must order it. When I visited most recently, the special was a short rib ramen, its dark broth warm and chili-flaked, featuring beef so tender it will slide right off the utensils of those lacking in chopstick dexterity.
The broth of the Miso ramen bowl (No. 2) features a clean shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) chicken broth that is perhaps a touch too salty and slices of chashu pork, but the dish is terrifically crunchy with the addition of bean sprouts and scallions.
No. 6, the bowl for which Ani Ramen was named, is the only offering made with pork stock, as the broth takes three times as long to make as the chicken. No. 6 is loaded with creamy pork, dark green spinach and kikurage (wood ear mushrooms). The addition of soy tare is likely what sets Ani Ramen’s broth aside from its counterpart. The depth that comes from the thick, sweet basting sauce is due to mirin and the usual aromatic suspects behind Japanese cooking: ginger, scallion, chili and garlic.
If I could study one kind of food for a week, it would be the Ani Ramen’s noodles. “Our noodles come from Sun Noodle,” Sarabhayavanija said. “Their factory is state of the art. They’ve replicated alkaline water, which is how the water would be in Japan.”
Ani Ramen offers neither a takeout menu nor to-go containers – a conscious choice of Sarabhayavanija’s, owed to the fact that ramen is intended to be assembled and then eaten, never left to sit. A righteous ambition, but a natural follow-up concerns the food waste that must occur. While Sarabhayavanija cannot do anything about the ramen that is left in bowls after customers leave except offer a bring-your-own-container option, he is aware of the fact that some members of the community are in need of a bowl of soup regardless of culinary perfection. “We donate a lot of our stock to MESH, [Montclair Emergency Services for the Homeless,]” said Sarabhayavanija. “But we make that fresh.”
While Montclair clearly has his heart now, Sarabhayavanija is planning to expand. Soon, there will be an Ani Ramen house in Jersey City, complete with an outdoor patio and larger menu featuring Japanese barbecue and a liquor license. Sarabhayavanija is confident that the menu and atmosphere of the new place will echo that of Montclair’s Ani Ramen, and only enhance his brand.
Every check at Ani Ramen comes in a notebook – an opportunity to leave final thoughts on your meal, a missed connection or a drawing (I came across particularly charming illustrations of everything on Ani Ramen’s menu on one page). I left a message in the pad that accompanied my check. If you find it, email firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll buy the first person to reach out a bowl of ramen.
Ani Ramen House is located 401 Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair. They are reachable by phone 973-744-3960. Visit their website, aniramen.com, for more information.
Recommended dishes: Edamame; Pork buns; No. 2 Miso Ramen; No 4. Vegetarian Ramen; Daily Special Ramen; additional Ajitama (soft-boiled egg); additional housemade seasoning oils
Drinks and wine: BYOB, but do try the house barley tea and yuzu lemonade
Price: Appetizers, $2 to $6; all ramen bowls $12 with add-ins $1-3.
Hours: lunch served Sundays through Saturdays, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner served Sundays through Thursdays, 5 to 10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, until 11 p.m. Closed Mondays.
Parking: There is on-street parking, metered and unmetered, nearby.
Reservations: Accepted for parties of 8 or more.
Credit card: All major cards accepted.
Wheelchair access: Restaurant is on one level. There is a restroom.
Bonus Tip: Be sure to bring your own tupperware for leftovers, Ani Ramen does not provide to-go containers.