On a late summer’s day, dozens of people slurp steaming bowls of ramen—and nothing seems to stop them. Not the 90-degree day. Not the lack of air conditioning on the enclosed patio. Not the kicky kimchi or the spicy, sweat-inducing “endorphin sauce” on the bao buns. The whole scene is proof positive that, at least for some, ramen is religion, even on the most sweltering of Baltimore days.
A few months later, on a fall day, the space continues to draw ramen revelers who have eagerly anticipated the arrival of this spot thanks, in part, to some cheeky billboards, including one which read, “Goodbye crab cakes, hello ramen?”
As it turns out, there’s room for both in this crustacean-crazed town. And while nothing can ever replace our beloved state treasure, ramen is definitely feeling the love in Baltimore.
Then again, this is not just any ramen spot, but Toki Underground, the white-hot noodle joint that helped kickstart the Mid-Atlantic ramen craze when it first opened in a then-down-trodden D.C. neighborhood in 2011 and, thanks to its combination of quality and affordability, quickly earned a handful of Michelin Bib Gourmand nods.
“Toki D.C.”—as partner Jeff Jetton, along with Olivier Caillabet, and Christophe Richard, calls the noodle shop’s first foray—took over an attic space on the second floor of a popular H Street dive bar packed with containers of Utz cheese balls and transformed it into a world-class ramen restaurant.
Toki 2 has similarly scrappy roots in the Harwood section of Baltimore. The partners chose Baltimore in part because Jetton has family here. This second location, on the site of the former Bottom’s Up Bagels, has three times as many seats as Toki D.C., so snagging a reservation is less of an ordeal, and wait times for walk-ins (and carryout) are kept to a minimum.
Designed by Christophe Richard, son of the late James Beard Award-winning chef Michel Richard, the space is a visual wonderland with its kinetic skate deck ceiling, shokuhin food samples on display, stickered walls, and tiny Japanese toys and trinkets. Replete with a yellow “Violation” placard affixed to a restaurant wall—a souvenir from when the Baltimore City Health Department mistakenly shut them down for operating without a license (before they had even opened)—the space exudes a kind of oddball anarchy.
The whole effect is Pee Wee’s Playhouse…if it had been set in Asia.
“Toki is more than a restaurant—everywhere you look there is work by amazing artists and fabricators,” notes Jetton. “We’ve been so lucky to tap into that incredible community,” adds Richard.
Toki celebrates Baltimore’s creative scene with 20 or so local artists—KC Corbett, Evangeline Gallagher, and Ainsley Burrows, among them—contributing everything from murals to motion graphics to furniture. Even the indie playlist was curated by local rap band Infinity Knives. (Fun fact: Jetton also recruited his friend, Academy Award-nominated special-effects designer Tony Gardner, to help flesh out the playful vision.)
The menu, which Caillabet says focuses on “simplicity and seasonality,” is similarly spirited. Toki is not a traditional noodle house but more izakaya-style—think Japanese tapas—with small plates of pickled things, bao buns, root beer wings, and other items for sharing.
In addition to a slate of pork-based ramen, there’s also a delectable vegan version made with a tasty mushroom-soy broth and a gluten-free option using Japanese yam noodles. If you don’t want to slurp, there are two broth-less noodle dishes, including shiitake and cashew dan dan noodles with miso-chile paste and mazeman noodles entangled with a variety of proteins, a soft egg, pickles, fried shallots, and various vegetables that are liberally doused with a sweet soy and black garlic sauce.
Of course, you must get at least one bowl of ramen, whose foundation is ladled from a 100-quart pot of rich tonkotsu broth that simmers for 18 hours. The bowls (classic, curry chicken ramen, kimchi, vegan, or red miso ramen) are built with thick, toothsome Japanese Myojo noodles and a rich pork-bone elixir that clings to each noodle, resulting in a happy marriage of taste and texture. Ramen hallmarks like tender chashu pork, a half-boiled seasoned egg, pickled ginger, and a scattering of scallions also add harmony to the one-bowl meal.
Before you tuck into your soup, consider the ethereal cloud shrimp served with kimchi-Kewpie mayo, or the fried chicken steamed buns paved with a sweet chile sauce and Japanese mayo—these were actually my favorite items on the menu.
Wash it all down with the signature Toki Monster cocktail, which you should get for the garnish alone: a skewer of grilled pork belly teetering across a rocks glass filled with Japanese whisky and a splash of vanilla-orange syrup.
One thing you won’t see on the menu, jokes Jetton, is crab cakes. “After the fun dust-up, I said, ‘What if we actually did make crab an enemy and said, No crabs on the menu!’”
TOKI UNDERGROUND 2731 Greenmount Ave., 443-449-5392. PRICES: Starters: $4.50-18; ramen; $15.50-22; dessert: $7. HOURS: Wed.- Thurs. 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.; Sun. 5-9 p.m. AMBIANCE: Skateboard chic.