Walking into Shin-Sen-Gumi Hakata Ramen for the first time is a little like we imagine it would be like on your first day trading on floor of the Nikkei Stock Exchange: You're surrounded by people yelling in Japanese and you might feel like you're going to have a panic attack, but if you take the right chance, you'll leave very happy.
SSG, as the regulars call it, offers authentic Japanese ramen dishes as well as a full battery of Japanese cuisine in a casual, diner-like setting. As a first-timer, the experience was more than a little daunting: We were presented with a seat, a pencil and something that looked like the dining equivalent of a golf scorecard to fill out. Though the walls were covered in every conceivable type of daily special like some sort of famous Japanese chef's refrigerator, the lunch menu offered some enticing specials that seemed simple enough, so we went that route.
We ordered the Hakata ramen with pork, served with a side dish that threatened to steal the show: a rice ball covered in grilled pork bellies with just the right hint of soy sauce and some sort of token greenery, no doubt added for no other purpose but to prevent us from feeling completely ashamed to enjoy it. After the first bite, our chopsticks were quickly set aside, as well as our shame.
When the main course arrived, it brought back memories of eating ramen as a poor college student -- and then blew those memories out of the boiling hot water in roughly a nanosecond. Chopsticks back in hand, we went from "How on Earth am I going to eat this with chopsticks?" to full-blown hunch-and-shovel mode just as quickly. The broth was divine, and the perfect complement to the perfectly cooked ramen noodles. A generous portion of green onions and pickled ginger rounded out this exceptional Japanese comfort food experience.
SSG is open for both lunch and dinner, and also serves beer and wine. Lunch ran us about $8, but we left feeling not only very full, but also ready to return and experience the rest of the menu.