The internet – or at least the specific niche more concerned with Michelin stars than celebrity gossip or this year’s inflation rate – was abuzz a few month’s back about Noma’s “closing”. And between the wide spectrum that ranges from exclaiming “good riddance” to bemoaning never having gone, this singular restaurant seemed to be all that was on anyone’s lips regardless of if they’ve been graced by reindeer penis or whatever other moss they happened to be fermenting. Never mind all the other restaurants that have closed in the last few years; one is a tragedy, hundreds of thousands a statistic. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Noma and this isn’t a piece of whataboutism. A restaurant mentor told me in the days I had the energy to hold such dreams, that even if I were to pursue excellence as a chef, the most probable sphere of influence I would have are just those in my immediate vicinity and so if a restaurant can garner so many words written about it, more power to it!
I mention all this because a restaurant far more influential to me personally has closed recently. You likely wouldn’t have heard of it, especially if you don’t live in Queens, much less New York City. It has no Michelin stars, only a modestly active online presence, and nothing earth-shattering in terms of its cuisine. It doesn’t have a podcast-worthy backstory nor is it located on a particularly happening part of town. If you think this will veer into the cliche obituary of a mom-and-pop shop that’s been forced to close after decades of gruff service, it’d be a fair thought. But this was a ramen shop. A young one by neighborhood icon standards but old by food industry ones. It served several basic ramens, some snacks, simple kakigori during the summer months, sushi specials as of late. I’ve contended since its opening that it served NYC’s best ramen.
Amidst a city swimming thickly in tonkotsu, here was a place that served a lighter, more saline asari yuzu signature. But what made it the best wasn’t so much the ramen than what the ramen came with: the bowls, plates, and furniture made by one of the owners, the year they served oversized onigiri that had no resemblance to their konbini brethren save only by shape, even the time the chef decided it would be a good idea to serve “frozen” ramen by shaving frozen broth a la kakigori and topping it with shrimp (he never put it back on the menu after that year). It was the best because the broths and kuromame-cha were elixirs in the winter while the cool stone floor and lo-fi hiphop were balms in the summer. It was the best because you could walk in and be surprised by a particularly good batch of fat, creamy uni or amaebi for a sushi special but still rest in the confidence that the tebasaki chicken wings weren’t going anywhere.
There are restaurant closings that matter in an academic sense. The ones whose legacies are dissected in critics’ columns and Instagram comments. I would warrant though that the only ones that truly matter are the ones whose nourishing moments accumulate over time to mean something to us.
It was for a while, my Saturday ritual: tea, onigiri, ramen, kakigori, on the low round table in the corner. Stuffed to the point of needing a nap.
It was the pandemic lunch to look forward to, tsukune for my roommate, chirashizushi for me.
It was the only restaurant I can claim I introduced to a chef friend of mine with the kind of pride you feel when you introduce a film critic to a hidden gem of a movie. I can still taste the pumpkin ramen they served during a collab pop-up.
It was where I hugged a friend departing America for good and had the courage to utter the seldom said words “I’ll miss you”.
It was where, during a summer of despair, I found some semblance of salvation in the chef letting me come in a few times a week unpaid to prep the ingredients for the weekly sushi special under the pretense of wanting to learn. Oily tuna collars that perfumed my fingers for hours, learning to filet mackerel without sawing the flesh, red snapper whose skin would curl under a quick douse of hot water, cucumber cut into a thin sheet in one go. It was where I spent my remaining savings, insufficient in hindsight against the full length of the pandemic, to buy myself a celebratory birthday sushi set to pair with champagne on my roof. The same roof that a few weeks prior, I had been contemplating its distance to the ground below. Perhaps it was deciding the distance was too short or fine bubbles easing over the satin tuna that I allowed myself the hopeful thought: “I think I’m going to make it”.
Such was the anchor that little ramen shop on Broadway was for me that when my now current employer came calling years ago offering a six-figure salary and a move to Europe, it took a much firmer call from another mentor to actually convince me that said offer was an objectively better choice than remaining on unemployment and slicing fish twice a week.
As restaurant closings go, I’ll leave the headier reflections on celebrity chef culture, industry fragility, and culinary legacy for a different person to write. For me, Shuya Cafe de Ramen closed. And all I can say is: Gouchisousama deshita, Shuya-san.