Rai Rai Ken ramen was one of the first Japanese noodle shops to open in the city when it debuted in the East Village well over a decade ago and now has eyes on Harlem. A Bespoke reader mention mentioned that a ramen-ya had set up a new storefront on Amsterdam Avenue just south of 133rd Street and we walked by this afternoon to take the above photo. Everything looks pretty much in place outside but the interior is still a work in progress. With an apparent opening date coming soon, the arrival of Rai Rai Ken is really notable in three ways since it will really test if uptowners will embrace authenticity.
First off, we are really excited about having a true Japanese owned ramen spot in Harlem . Rai Rai Ken was around years before most folks in the city knew the difference between the instant stuff found in the supermarket from the real deal that is on the corner of every block in Tokyo. Jin Ramen by 125th Street does a good job but a purist will know right away that this is not a true Japanese spot. The flavor balance tends to be just a bit more heavy handed which is somewhat closer to a Chinese palate for those paying attention. This works for Jin since a lot of the restaurant's customer base are Chinese foreign students from Columbia University but die hard ramen fanatics will probably note the difference when Rai Ra Ken opens uptown.
Our second observation is that Rai Rai Ken was a pioneer in the East Village and could have chosen anywhere in Brooklyn or even Queens to set up a new location but now has selected Harlem. As commercial retail shop prices for the outer boroughs increase, it might make a lot more sense now for small startups to just stay in Manhattan in a neighborhood where there is little competition. With its affordable price point and great reputation, Rai Rai will probably establish a loyal following quite quickly.
Lastly, the location is really in the middle of nowhere which might not be too much of a problem. The Japanese are known for high quality and spots such as Mountain Bird in the past have overcome a lack luster address by great word of mouth on the streets. Another issue is that strip of Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattanville also faces the projects and is several blocks away from the nearest subway station. With that said, the aforementioned Jin Ramen also has views of public housing on 125th Street and the City College campus is just a bit north of the newer Manhattanville eatery which could bring in the needed daily foot traffic.