Outside on this July afternoon it’s hot, hot, hot, but you feel as if you’re in a cool womb within Jin, the ramen bar on upper Broadway at 125th Street.
This is Harlem, a Harlem of changes. Every neighborhood in New York experiences flux, of course, but this one is currently in crisis mode as Columbia University expands its holdings, spending $6.3 billion dollars to cut a gigantic swath across 17 acres of streets and buildings. It all takes place under the shadow of the IRT Broadway-Seventh Avenue viaduct, now over a century old.
The goal is positive: a series of buildings that will enhance the university’s offerings in science, business and the arts. Unfortunately, the development will cause the destruction of many locally owned warehouses, factories and auto repair shops. And tenements. The old buildings are getting boarded up. There were huge protests over this.
I’ve always liked the old-fashioned structures of the neighborhood, crumbling as they may be. Some still stand, their paint weathered, looking as though we’ve let them down. That’s why they call it New York, because nothing is allowed to grow old here, said a spectator quoted by The New York Times as he watched the demolition of the glorious old Pennsylvania Station.
Some buildings have already disappeared, even before this latest chapter, like the diner I used to go to at the terminal point of 125th Street when I was a student here.
Wedged under the West Side Highway, it was a great, funky place to look out over the Hudson and dream. It was already ancient when I drank my coffee there.
Now when you look uptown from 125th, Columbia’s mammoth cranes hover over the landscape like the skeletons of some futuristic, predatory beasts.
But not to worry, Jin is here to soothe us, just short of where the redevelopment starts, at the base of the steps that lead up to the subway platform. Convenient. The train can drop you off into a puddle of steaming, flavorsome, broth.
New York has a lot of ramen parlors just at the moment. Jin is one of the finest. It’s always crowded, with students and families (babies holding soup spoons as big as their faces), young couples, singles intent upon a book and a slurp at the same time. If I were a student now, with no diner on the Hudson, I know where I’d be.
At the counter we have an up close and personal view of the process in this particular ramen kitchen.
The chef. His name is Joseph. The broth pot, the size of a small boulder. At Jin, they cook the broth to make tonkotsu ramen for hours, pork bones at a high boil, resulting in a creamy texture that’s sort of like a savory gravy. They spoon it into each bowl with a giant’s ladle, then Joseph applies the fixings. The sliced pork belly.
Called chashu, roasted for two and a half hours, it’s smoky, fatty and succulent. They can’t leave it in the heat any longer, Joseph says, or it will fall apart. And the idea is to have intact disks of the meat in each serving. Along with a soft-boiled egg, bamboo shoots, fresh scallion and of course the ramen itself. When you enter Jin, everyone is leaning over their bowls, chopsticks flailing, sucking in the long strands of noodle, which are firm, very thin, straight and white. They are unrisen, and are made with sodium bicarbonate water, of all things. If a diner has broth left over and is still not full they can order extra servings of noodles at a nominal cost. This has never happened to anyone as far as I know.
Now, not because I’m contrary – I don’t usually order the ramen at Jin. You see, the restaurant also offers the rice bowl known as char siu-don, which is one of the more delicious dishes I’ve tasted. It too has slices of pork belly, draped across a mound of perfectly sticky rice, along with a quivering sunny-side-up egg, shreds of bright red pickled ginger, shreds of sliced scallion, sesame seeds and cut nori. I order a side of the spicy garlic paste called mayu to slather all over everything. And then I am excluded from polite company for the next 48 hours.
Jin, if you ask the owners of the restaurant, means “benevolence” and finds its root in Confucianism. The character that makes up the word consists of two elements, with the left side representing a human being and the right side symbolizing the numeral two. Jin is said to depict the way two people should treat one another.
Perhaps enough tonkatsu ramen can help heal the redevelopment wounds under Harlem’s rumbling IRT bridge.