Editor’s Note: Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants around the country that define their cities. Here now, a look at how one Great pivoted for the pandemic.
Some foods are meant for takeout. A great sandwich, a slice of pizza, a burrito, or a well-fixed salad might be just as good on a park bench as in the restaurant where it’s prepared.
Ramen isn’t one of those foods. A bowl of ramen made right has four pillars : fresh noodles cooked to order, tare (a concentrated sauce), stock, and flavored oil. None of these elements is meant to sit for long after it’s finished. Each requires its own rigorous preparation, and they’re all put together quickly and meant to be eaten fresh, ideally within 10 minutes.
That’s the overview from Daisuke Utagawa, one of three owners of Daikaya Group, which operates Daikaya ramen shop in Washington D.C.’s Chinatown, Izakaya on the second floor of the same location, and a handful of other critically acclaimed restaurants around the District.
“Imagine basically everybody’s working toward one point in time that [the ingredients] all converge, and that’s a bowl of ramen,” Utagawa says.
When the pandemic hit, Daikaya faced a difficult question: How does a restaurant survive when indoor dining is heavily curtailed and its signature dish isn’t naturally meant for takeout?
“When we first opened Daikaya [in 2013], we were quite adamant that we would not be doing any ramen to go,” Utagawa says. “We were one of the first to introduce real Japanese ramen in the area. And we didn’t really want people’s first experience to be from a to-go cup and think, ‘Oh, so this is ramen.’ It’s completely different. What if your first experience of pizza was cold?”
In that moment, shortly after the start of the pandemic, the beloved D.C. ramen hub made a series of decisions that have kept it thriving through an exceptionally challenging time, nimbly adapting to COVID-19 restrictions by remaking its classic ramen into something diners could get the most out of no matter where they ate it.
Given the premium the owners place on having an authentic, dine-in ramen experience, Utagawa feared people trying the dish for the first time wouldn’t get a true ramen experience out of plastic containers and microwaves. Informal instructions on how to best prepare a bowl at home weren’t working — the owners were hearing feedback from people that they thought the instructions were complicated. “So we said, ‘You know what? Let’s just make a video and show them how easy it is,’” Utagawa says.
Daikaya’s kitchen staff posted detailed instructional tapes, clearly showing how to get the most out of ramen at home. There were two options along with the video: raw noodles that people could boil in their kitchens, with easy guidance on how to cook them best, or partially cooked noodles that take less time to prepare at home, but guard against the sogginess and loss of flavor that might sometimes occur when a dish spends a lot of time in transit. A third video details how to heat aromatics on the stovetop to bring out the most flavor. None of the videos is longer than two and a half minutes, and all are easy to grasp.
Utagawa prefers the uncooked noodle option — “It’s just night and day different,” he says — but Daikaya realized some customers might be taking ramen back to an office or a place without much cooking equipment. With Daikaya’s system, those diners have options, too. Feedback on to-go ramen has been positive, Utagawa says, including from many regulars who had become accustomed to eating in the dining room.
Ramen options aren’t the only way Daikaya responded to the pandemic. In September, the restaurant launched a Japanese convenience store, “11-7 at Daikaya,” that sells Japanese pantry items and drinks. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., as the name suggests, and diners can shop online.
“We get to kind of showcase some fun Japanese snacks, as well as it could be kind of an outlet for bento items and so on,” Utagawa says, referring to the home-packed Japanese meals.
Daikaya Group is also selling take-out orders from the first floor. Meanwhile, it’s condensed and combined the typical menus from Daikaya (the ramen shop on the first floor) and Izakaya, the intimate second-floor bar that also offers small plates. Limited dine-in seating is available at Izakaya, which now offers the ramen that was previously only sold downstairs at Daikaya.
In normal times, Utagawa says he and his partners aim for their physical spaces to have an “intimate, low-key, fun, democratic feel.” It’s been a big lift for Daikaya that its community has shown such an openness to takeout ramen, and that the restaurant has been able to offer help to make a bowl cooked partially at home taste as authentic as possible. But Utagawa looks forward to the day his dining rooms can fill once again.
“We’re social animals,” he says. “In a sense, we’re selling that happiness in the dining room.”
Hopefully, people who have loved takeout ramen in the pandemic will stop in for a bowl in person then, too.
“When people have takeaway ramen,” he says, “we want to be sure that they know this is not what the ramen can be.”
Alex Kirshner is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.