After hearing whispers and murmurs of a niche, award-winning ramen place nearby (no, not Kajikan), my friends and I made our way to Toki Underground to investigate the rumors. Upon our arrival, we were greeted with friendly smiles, along with an artsy and modern atmosphere: a ceiling covered with broken skateboard pieces, a glass shelf encompassing model cars, a wall enriched with seemingly random photos, low-hanging lights streaming across the polished wooden surface bar and baby Yoda figurines (bonus points!) nestled between cabinets. The soft lighting, coupled with vibrant embellishments, unexpectedly unveiled a cozy feeling throughout the restaurant. Although the interior of the restaurant is filled with arbitrary decorations, they seamlessly harmonize to create a distinct homey and artsy aura.
Immersed in this atmosphere and mesmerized by its aesthetic, we sat down at the bar and observed the variety of items on the menu, which consisted of classic ramen, such as the Toki Classic Ramen, the Tonkotsu Traditional and the Pork Belly, but also some of their own specialties, such as the Taipei Curry Chicken Ramen and the Ramen with Ribs. Their appetizers sounded equally, or possibly more, appetizing: Root Beer Wings, a variety of Bao Buns, housemade pickles, fried chicken, dumplings and more. After ordering wings and fried chicken for our appetizers, as well as some ramen, we sat in anticipation of our food. When ordering our food, our waiter enthusiastically answered all of our questions and, throughout the meal, checked up on us multiple times, which was greatly appreciated.
Despite our astonishment when initially settling into the ambiance of the restaurant, the glimmer of hope for discovering a new remarkable ramen restaurant diminished as the night went on. The portions were generally of good size, and furthermore, the food was presented beautifully, with each ingredient intentionally placed as if the food were a painting: the egg sliced and sprinkled with spices, the vegetables arranged together artistically, the ramen clustered in a ball and a splash of black vinegar. These attributes all indicated the ramen would be delicious and reach the bar of its previous awards and publicity.
The actual ramen, however, though satisfactory, lacked the array of flavors anticipated and seemingly promised in the bowl. Certainly, the meal was enjoyable, but it was indistinguishable from the average bowl of ramen. The ramen itself was a bit harder than preferred and overcooked; the soup and egg were lukewarm and in general, it needed more flavor. The best part of the ramen was, for me, inarguably, the pork belly, which was tender and given in a relatively large portion.
Conversely, the bowl with ribs was slightly off-putting; the texture and flavor of the ribs simply did not compliment the ramen. Moreover, each bowl was at least $17 dollars, with some upwards of $20, and this perhaps holds part of my aversion to returning to Toki Underground. Despite the underwhelming sensation of the ramen, the fried chicken appetizer, embellished with flavor and crispiness, was delicious, and maybe ultimately set too high of a tone for the ramen itself.
Most, if not all, Hopkins students are familiar with our beloved ramen place bordering our campus, Kajiken. Kajiken’s ramen is not only significantly cheaper ($13-$15), but my friends and I unanimously agreed that we liked the ramen at Kajiken better than at Toki Underground. Perhaps part of this bias stems from the sense of comfort Kajiken brings — past memories, a mere two-minute walk and the surrounding of Hopkins students — and exploring more of Toki Undgeround would likely come with finding more flavors seemingly suited for us; yet, from the texture and quality of Kajiken’s ramen to its affordable prices, I am not sure Toki Underground can truly compete with our old standby.
No aspect of Toki Underground’s ramen was truly unforgettable and, consequently, would not drive me to distinctively choose their ramen over other local ramen places. Ultimately, good nearby Baltimore ramen exists and is definitely enjoyable. Furthermore, it is recommended for a quick outing in an effort to escape the Homewood campus for a couple of hours. But perhaps the real lesson to be learned is that Kajikan is irreplaceable.