Back in the wee 2010s, an era we’ll call First-Wave Nood, ramen snobbery was a complicated game. It was a boldly indie, gently elitist, bananas-but-worth-it time when the three dreamiest bowls in town were as readily categorized by hassle factor as broth style.
You are forgiven if you never chased date, place, and guest-list space for the next impetuous popping up of Guchi’s Midnight Ramen. You are forgiven if you never braved Uni’s after-hours chaos to wrangle seats at the crammed bar. And if you never endured hour-plus lines in Porter Square outside Yume Wo Katare—to be herded into school desks, served a gaping trough of liquid pig fat, then publicly hazed by staffers for early-onset fullness—for this, too, you are forgiven.
Standard-bearers still, all three. Go try them! (It’s actually fun.) But ramen nirvana’s come a long way, baby. Suddenly, user-friendliness is a feature, not a mark of counter-countercultural shame. You can get your Guchi’s on at cofounder Tracy Chang’s Pagu in broad daylight. Regional specialists such as Brookline’s Ganko Ittetsu Ramen are moving in, as are chef-driven ramen-izakaya hybrids like Newton’s Little Big Diner. Welcome, fair nood-ists, to Ramen 2.0.
Into this exhilarating next-wave milieu bursts Ruckus, armed with instant street cred but from-scratch noodles. It’s the latest spinoff by restaurateur Brian Moy, whose Shōjō introduced edgy hipsterism to Chinatown. Mike Stark, a Coppa, Toro, and Tiger Mama alum, runs the kitchen, which slings a tight 10-item menu of soups and small plates. Order and pay up front, take a number, and find a spot at the 27-seat cubbyhole, brightened with Murakami originals, and natural (by day) or neon light.
When the stars align at Ruckus—which is a good, though not risk-free, bet—there’s a heightened energy. Beneath the thrumming hip-hop, you can just make out the metronomic snap of details popping cleanly into place. Deep-fried pork-belly onigiri ($5), rice balls filled with unctuous rillettes, distilled everything magical about bao buns and arancini into a single molten knob. Hamachi crudo ($8) held its own against potent red-curry-crab vinaigrette, with help from radish sprouts and lime. And you may find yourself sneaking extra hits of the Dirty Bird Salad ($7), starring smoky grilled chicken thighs, plus Taiwanese lettuce, charred tomatoes, cilantro stems, chili oil, and both softened and crunchy rice noodles.
When Ruckus is at its best, the Dope Yolk ($6) will be at its proverbial dopest. Cured overnight in dashi, soy, and sweet mirin, the viscous duck yolk won’t so much spill out when jabbed with a chopstick as languidly subsume anything in its slo-mo path—first pillowy sea urchin, then delicate hillocks of flying-fish roe—before seeping into every exposed crevice of its sushi-rice bed, swaddling garlic chips and crisped-up ground Chinese sausage.
And when all cylinders are firing, the ramen will be exceptional. Stark’s noodle-craft is excellent. (The broths I found less remarkable—though usually very good.) From-scratch, mind you, isn’t compulsory, thanks to reliable commercial availability of the artisanal stuff. But for finicky geeks, the nuances of fresh-made—superior springiness, delicacy, customizability—are the measure of the master. My favorites at Ruckus are the thicker, chewier coils featured in the black-garlic mazemen ($15), a “brothless” style (technically a shallow pool of reduced pork broth) studded with tender piles of togarashi-dusted braised lamb shoulder, a soy-cured egg, grilled nori, and chili threads. For $1, Ruckus Paste, a heady house-made chili condiment, rockets this bowl from rock-solid to extraordinary.
Most Ruckus soups are built on an 18-hour collagen-rich stock powered by pork necks, chicken feet and backs, and dried mushrooms. Classic shoyu ramen ($15) is topped with bok choy, tofu skin, scallions, a soy-cured egg, and what may be the city’s best chashu, pork neck sliced into ribbons of marbled silk. Stark’s broths run a tad lean, but for another buck the “umami bomb” (whipped pork fatback redolent of ginger and lemongrass) will nudge it a couple notches toward naughty.
Also strong is Miso Lit Ramen!!! ($14), a balanced (if over-punctuated) Sapporo-style soup bulked up with ground pork, spicy broadbean paste, and white miso, then garnished with grilled scraped corn and a shimmering splat of Ruckus Paste. The thicker consistency maintained heat like a champ. Of all the soups, when Ruckus is in the zone, this one comes closest to achieving the sensual pleasure that ramen at its best embodies.
Then one day. Without warning. Zone mojo runs dry. The icebox-cold Dope Yolk doesn’t so much ooze forth sumptuously as shiver in place. Raw hamachi shows up looking chunkier than on your last date. The Dirty Bird has lost its chili oil and you’re sidelining grape tomatoes for mealy, frigid innards. And on the night you bring in your best ramen snob to meet the new fling, his Miso Lit!!! noodles go limp in 60 seconds flat (!!!), your shoyu broth is sweet and anemic, and, yikes…did Wu-Tang Clan just flub a beat?
For this review, I had 10 meals at Ruckus (more than twice my usual), 80 percent of which were fantastic. Thus, my one knock on the place: consistency—which isn’t wholly a slam. At the risk of speculating, I’d rather be the guy stuck tightening the bolts on a menu of 9s and 10s that randomly present as 5s than the one staring down a recipe binder of magic-deficient 7s. In any case, if kicking up the OCD factor another notch (batch testing, weighing, whatever) made these issues mostly vanish, I wouldn’t be astonished.
Speaking of obsessive, at press time an udon noodle the chef had been sweating over finally got the green light—and soba’s next! Which reminds me of another one of the Ramen 2.0 era’s finer aspects: Dedicated shops with daily hours provide more creative opportunity than event ramen for growth, learning, and exploration of the genre’s exhilarating possibilities.
And not just for the ramen maker. This, my fellow noodleheads, is the round you don’t wanna miss.
★ ★ ½
5 Tyler St., Boston, 857-305-3129, ruckusboston.com.
Dope Yolk ($6)
Pork-belly onigiri ($5)
Black-garlic mazemen ($15)
Critic Jolyon Helterman’s work has also appeared in Hemispheres, Cook’s Illustrated, and Coastal Living.
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No Stars) Poor
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