At 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, Sakuramen had a line out the door. The man at the entrance — doubling as both host and waiter — encouraged patrons to come inside so as to protect the tiny bit of relief the air conditioning unit was providing from the sweltering D.C. heat. We followed orders and stood sardine-style in the eatery’s minuscule entry way.
Behind the ramen shop’s red door, below street level in a popular area of the Adam’s Morgan neighborhood, Sakuramen bursts with hungry twenty-somethings looking to satisfy a craving for cheap, authentically Asian eats — and they are certainly in the right place.
The sound hits you first. Classic American beach party songs blasting over the noise of indecipherable conversations — notable titles include “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Build me up Buttercup.” Three individuals dance around the rectangular space — featuring a massive wooden dining table flanked by leather chairs, at its center — taking orders without writing anything down and then delivering cranium-size bowls of noodles and broth. After a fifteen minute wait, my boyfriend and I sat down across from another couple and next to a large party of yuppies. The close quarters make for easy mingling and great people watching. A waiter checked in with us three times before we were ready to order. Our seats were a hot commodity, and though the atmosphere was warm and cozy, Sakuramen is a place of quick decisions, and even quicker service. You come for ramen and you leave knowing that the $11 to $15 you just spent was the best investment you’ll make all week.
I opted for the chosun ramen, which the menu described as a “distinctly Korean inspiration” with kimchi, egg and ribeye. In less than 10 minutes, the host/waiter brought our dishes through the parted black curtain that served as a kitchen door. Steam rolled over the mound of noodles and its distinct piles of sprouts, scallions and meat, with a glowing half of a boiled egg in the center. It was too hot to eat, but the salty smell of comfort food was too delectable to resist. Armed with a small wooden ladle and a pair of chopsticks, I followed the lead of everyone around me — I slurped the noodles, tore the meat and discovered more than I ever expected from this basement level hole-in-the-wall.
It was a meal full of perfect pairs and counterparts — each component was fine on its own, but much like other classic food pairs (peanut butter and jelly, for example, or macaroni and cheese), ramen and vegetables and meat are just meant to be together in one simmering bowl of awesome. The crunchy bean sprouts juxtaposed the silky noodles. And the thin slices of fatty ribeye that fell apart in your mouth were complimented by a tougher ground beef that seemed to replace the kimchi the menu had suggested (notably, the most Korean part of this so-called “distincly Korean” dish). The egg was my favorite part. I ate it bit by bit, savoring the soft center that had absorbed every flavor around it. That one piece of egg tasted like the entire dish in one scrumptious bite, and its softness held the whole meal together. Though the dish I received was slightly different than the one I ordered (or at least the one I thought I had ordered), I rejoined the streets of Adams Morgan that night with confidence that my now constant craving for ramen would get the better of me sooner rather than later, and only Sakuramen would be able to satisfy it.
Next time, I want to get both an appetizer and dessert. The fluffy steamed buns with their shiny crusts, sitting two seats down from me, looked like bread’s version of cotton candy. The same group ordered a tray of bite-sized desserts that included some kind of pink ice cream served with a toothpick — as a lifelong ice cream lover, this is a must-try.
On that Tuesday night, I entered Sakuramen as a skeptic, but once inside I found food with tastable doses of passion and an upbeat atmosphere that consumes you immediately, just to have you back out of that red door before you even realize what a gem you’ve just discovered.