Toque of the Town: Toki Underground’s Erik Bruner-Yang
Most chefs would profess to pouring a little heart and soul into every dish they make. Erik Bruner-Yang adds something more: a dash of DNA. “I taste every single bowl of ramen that leaves the kitchen,” he says. Consider it a kiss from the cook. “Everyone gets a little backwash,” he laughs.
Lately, the guy’s been sampling a lot of soup. Since his 20-seat ramen shop, Toki Underground, opened on April 1, the hugely hyped H Street corridor venue has sustained a soup-slurping stampede of diners.
The wait times to get into the place are already legendary. On opening weekend, some patrons reportedly lingered for up to three hours. Two weeks later, the average thumb-twiddling time was a bit more reasonable: a shade under two hours this past Sunday, for instance. Around 9 o’clock that night, some 40 names had yet to be crossed-off the list and Bruner-Yang was beginning to run out of broth. “Weekends are retarded,” he says.
It might all sound like tremendous puffery, until you actually try to snag a seat for yourself. (Even on a Monday night, it took about an hour for me to finally secure a spot.)
“It’s not because the kitchen’s slow,” says Bruner-Yang, who holds court behind the restaurant’s three-seat chef’s table, usually sporting a baseball cap with a long black rat tail protruding out the back. (“I put it in a ponytail one day during dinner service and I was like, ‘This sucks.’ I felt like Steven Segal,” he says.) “The average dine time is 45 minutes. We do, like, seven turns a night, with 20 seats. We get ’em in and we get ’em out. But it’s just a lot of people.”
On its Twitter feed, which is prolific, the restaurant boasted of racking up 1,000 covers within its first 10 days, meaning that on any given night, the chef could be sipping from 100 bowls of soup. The Toki toque tends to cite an even higher figure: 200 bowls daily. “That’s a lot of salt,” Bruner-Yang says. “Maybe that’s how I make it. I’m salt-preserved.”
Even in his wildest noodle dreams, the 27-year-old ramen meister never imagined such a turnout. Of course, he figured he was filling a gaping hole in the D.C. food scene. “I’m the only shop doing Taiwanese food in the District,” says Bruner-Yang, a Taipei native who spent his teenage and college years in Northern Virginia. He just underestimated the demand. The onslaught has already prompted some major changes in the operation.
Located above The Pug pub in a creaky wooden loft space adorned with skateboards, Taiwanese toys and anime-style illustrations, Toki Underground was originally envisioned as a spot for late-night noshing, churning out noodles and dumplings from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. But the kitchen can’t make it to the wee hours. “I can’t make that much broth,” says Bruner-Yang. “It’s just not possible.” Noodle aficionados are now cut off at 10 p.m. on weekdays, midnight on weekends, provided the briny stock even lasts that long.
“The business plan was to make that many bowls from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m,” says Bruner-Yang. “So we’re doing that capacity now from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. I mean, I could make 400 bowls of broth. Then I’d have ramen until 3 a.m. It doesn’t mean it would be good. For the purists, it has to be good.”
The amount of hype might suggest otherwise, but the restaurant’s marketing director is Bruner-Yang’s live-in girlfriend, Alexis Thornlow. She’s responsible for designing the ramen shop’s website, menu, and business cards. Bruner-Yang, meanwhile, has taken it upon himself to keep the restaurant in the news by any means necessary. “We’re successful now because it took us forever to open,” he says. “Everyone knows about it because it took so long, and we never stopped doing press on it.”
Even while the ramen shop lingered unopened for months—delayed by construction and regulatory rigmarole—the chef still managed to promote the place.
In a town where connections are everything, being something of a scenester certainly helps. Playing guitar in a rock band (the former Pash) and toiling in various D.C. kitchens, notably including Kushi and Sticky Rice, makes for a pretty solid network of supporters eager to spread the word. (Having buzzworthy investors on board, including Brian Weitz from experimental pop troupe Animal Collective, doesn’t hurt, either.)
“Erik’s known in the nightlife and food scene and he’s a nice guy, so it’s no surprise that he has people in multiple circles checking for him,” says Jesse Tittsworth, co-owner of the U Street Music Hall. Last summer, while Toki was just a construction zone, Bruner-Yang partnered with the venue to unveil a new bar-food innovation: the pho dog, a beef or tofu frank bathed in a broth of homemade pho, served on a toasted bun and topped with Szechuan slaw and Sriracha.
“We thought it would be cool to develop a bar-friendly handheld tribute to one of our favorite foods,” says Tittsworth, an Asian-American himself. It turned into a huge draw for the venue. “It’s been the No.1 best seller in the U Hall kitchen,” says Tittsworth. “People often ask about it when visiting from out of town. Many beg our bouncers not to charge them cover when visiting late night to eat.”
But the pho dog turned into even better publicity for the forthcoming ramen spot. Bruner-Yang took full advantage. He would go on to tantalize local foodies even further by opening a temporary pop-up taco shop this past winter in a neighboring H Street NE space normally occupied by Philadelphia Water Ice, which had shuttered for the season. Again, food writers took the bait, resulting in even more publicity for a restaurant that hadn’t yet delivered its first dumpling.
Along the way, Bruner-Yang has been more than happy to indulge the local food press in a bit of myth-making, as well. Reading the early reports on Toki, you get the sense that the chef spent a whole year learning the techniques of authentic ramen-making by apprenticing under master noodle makers in Taipei. In fact, he wasn’t there that long. And his limited proficiency in Mandarin meant he spent most of that time observing and figuring things out on his own.
“I only learned how to do ramen for a small period of time,” Bruner-Yang says. “The press has expanded my length of time there.” Still, he’s not demanding any corrections. “I like the creation of the myth, you know? It’s fun. It’s like a game of telephone.”
Bruner-Yang’s experience overseas did provide the inspiration for certain menu items. Toki’s kimchi ramen and curry chicken Hakata, for instance, are tributes to the Taipei noodle shop where he briefly worked.
The ceaseless promotion has certainly built up some big expectations for what amounts to pretty simple fare. And Bruner-Yang admits that some patrons walk away disappointed. A common misconception, he says, is that Toki is attempting to come off as a traditional Japanese ramen joint; fundamentalists tend to balk at his Taiwanese interpretation. “I’m not a Hakata ramen shop,” he says. “I do a Hakata-style ramen. There have been a lot of people that come thinking this is a super traditional Japanese ramen shop. And they’re right. That’s not what it is. But it wasn’t supposed to be. We never changed our message.” The critics, he says, are “only reading half the menu.”
Whatever its shortcomings in the kitchen, Toki’s arrival on the scene has undoubtedly been a boon to neighboring bars, particularly The Pug, located downstairs, where diners are apt to drink away their lengthy waits. The downside for Toki is that those same customers quench their thirst long before getting a chance to try the restaurant’s sake or signature cocktails, such as the smoky peat scotch with pork belly skewer. “They all get so drunk everywhere else, I don’t have any alcohol sales,” the chef complains.
Naturally, the buzzworthiness can’t last forever. It’s just noodles and broth, for Chrissakes.
But Bruner-Yang will savor his success as long as he can. “I mean, I owe a lot of money,” he says. “So I hope it doesn’t settle too soon.”
Toki Underground, 1234 H St. NE, (202) 388-3086
Photos by Darrow Montgomery