It’s a little embarrassing, but for most of my life I didn’t know ramen as anything other than the cheap noodles I bought by the dozen in college. You know the kind: “Top,” “Cup,” “Laced with sodium.” You can imagine my surprise upon my first visit to a real ramen restaurant. The bowls were complex with depths of flavor. Delectable broths and meats, heaps of interesting vegetables. No styrofoam in sight.
Toribashi brings such bowls to downtown Monterey. In a hip, casual setting, passersby can order at the self-service counter and people-watch at the open window bar seats. Thick, dark wooden tables almost mirror the tone of the ramen: warm, robust and soothing in cloudy weather.
On a rainy Saturday, people mosey in and out all afternoon. Friends and families, couples and singles alike – everyone seems to know the comfort of cozying up with hearty broth, filling noodles and spicy heat.
You can order your heat on the side (a ramekin of chili paste), or you could just order the spicy shio. The shio comes traditional with a hunk of chashu – braised pork belly that is mouthwateringly tender. Standard accompaniments include seaweed, bok choy, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts. Marinated soft-boiled eggs are common, too, although here they’re an add-on. Each ingredient plays an important role, whether it’s contributing crunch or a touch of the ocean. The different flavors remain impressively intact, particularly impressive set against the sweat-inducing chili broth that tingles as it goes down.
Another spicy option is the tan tan, a twist with ground pork instead of belly. Or you can get the shio without spice, letting sea salty broth be the focus. There’s the shoyu, enhanced by soy sauce, and then there’s tonkatsu, with a heavy emphasis on pork.
Even vegans are happy here, with ramen based on veggies.
With so many varieties to choose from, it’s hard to even consider straying from the ramen list; however, Toribashi also offers rice plates and noodle bowls (more like salad), and several appetizers like the highly recommended fried chicken karaage – super juicy nuggets, super delicious dipped in spicy mayo.
For a change of pace I decided to veer far from the meaty soups and order a spicy vegan rice bowl. For veg heads, this bowl is a win: Brown rice arrives loaded with seaweed, carrots, zucchini and onion, plus a few spoonfuls’ worth of lightly spiced chili sauce. (It costs extra to add tofu and avocado; the extra for avocado I can accept, but the protein add-on seems unfair.)
High prices are something to consider about this place. One has to order many of the toppings separately, and before you know it you’ve spent almost $50 on a soup lunch for two. And though the ramen is usually appetizing, once in a while it seems watered down and just not as rich.
Still, it’s more of a hit than a miss. And for its unique offerings, definitely worth a stop.
TORIBASHI 487 Alvarado St., Monterey. 11am-3pm, 5-9:30pm Tue-Sun. 643-9556, toribashi.com