Rediscovering Ramen: A Chat with Toki Underground’s Chef-Owner Erik Bruner-Yang

By Karen Shih

Photo by Hannah Colclazier

Erik Bruner-Yang may have opened Toki Underground in Washington, D.C. two and a half years ago, but lines at the modern ramen shop haven’t gotten any shorter. A casual survey of Yelp reviews shows three or four hour waits on weekends—and customers willing to stick around.

“We’re lucky that we have such a good clientele and that we’re busy every day,” he says. “We’re still super wet behind our ears here… and we’re just figuring it out as we go.”

Opening Toki wasn’t easy. After being delayed by a year because of financial and bureaucratic issues, Erik also struggled with cooking consistent, balanced soup in large quantities. But he and his staff streamlined recipes and their system to overcome that hurdle and satisfy their legions of fans.

So how did the former guitarist and successful touring band member end up opening one of the most popular restaurants in D.C.?

Even while he played music, he was always working in restaurants, Erik says. “Bartending, cooking, you name it,” he says. His stint as general manager of Sticky Rice, a sushi place a couple doors down from where Toki is today, taught him the ins and outs of the restaurant business.

The Taipei-born Erik and his family lived briefly in California and Japan before settling in the D.C. metro area in middle school. He reconnected with his roots in his mid-twenties, when his grandfather fell ill and he started visiting Taiwan every year.

“I was really interested in where I came from and I fell back in the love with the city and wanted to bring those memories back to the United States,” he says. “I definitely take great pride in being Taiwanese. There’s not enough of us proclaiming our ethnicity and taking pride in it and it’s important that we should.”

He was inspired in part by Eddie Huang, a fellow self-taught chef who opened Baohaus in New York in 2009 and author of “Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir,” which was released this year.

“Asian people cooking Asian food should be getting more recognition than non-Asian people cooking Asian food,” says Erik, who’s now friends with Eddie and has even had him do a pop-up at Toki. “He’s definitely a guy who paved the way and he’s not afraid to speak his mind and have an opinion. It’s not the path our parents wanted us to take, so it’s nice to see people take the leap.”

Now, Erik’s making his next big move. Not content to just expand Toki or bask in the glory of the plethora of awards he’s garnered for himself and the restaurant, including being nominated by Food & Wine Magazine as “Best New Chef” in the Mid-Atlantic and winning “Best Restaurant” by Eater DC, he’s planning to open an indoor-outdoor night market-style eatery right down the street this fall.

Maketto, which will fit around 300 people, will feature a lineup of the “greatest hits” of Taiwanese street food, including beef noodle soup, stinky tofu, shaved ice, steamed buns and more. He’s also going to do Southeast Asian food, inspired in part by his wife, Seda, who is Cambodian.

“Somebody’s got to cook for her, right?” he jokes. For those unfamiliar, he says Cambodian food uses a lot of the same ingredients as Thai or Vietnamese food, but with different flavors.

“I want to give people a sense of discovery,” he says. “I’m into creating new visions, and I want to make something unique and special that lasts for a long time.”

If you go:

The H Street restaurant is a bit of a hike from the nearest Metro station, and its upstairs location means it’s easy to miss from the street. Look for a bright blue mayflower symbol marking the door, which leads you inside, up the stairs and past a black light, into the tiny space that seats about 20.

The menu’s not huge. Ramen, of course, is key—but it’s a Taiwanese joint, not a Japanese one, so the options include Taipei Curry Chicken and kimchi, as well as traditional tonkotsu and red miso. The bowls vary, but usually come with a gloriously creamy soft egg, seasonal vegetables, pulled—not sliced—pork, and a lightly balanced piece of nori on top.

Rotating appetizers might include stinky tofu (not stinky enough for your stinky tofu-loving writer, but a popular choice among customers, Erik says), housemade pickled cucumbers, seasonal ramps stir-fried with pork belly, or sweet short ribs.

The drinks, of course, would be familiar to any Taiwanese person.

“Hey Song [Sarsaparilla] and Apple Sidra are two of my favorite sodas in the whole world,” Erik says. “We wanted to have something that would identify us as Taiwanese right off the bat.”

He’s put his own modern spin on the food, but incorporates Taiwanese flavors and methods, learned in part from his mom and grandparents, into every step of the process, from the way he cooks the pork to the way he marinates the fried chicken.

“People in this city are still learning about ramen,” he says. “We’re not cooking it Chinese style, we’re not cooking it Japanese style—we’re just cooking it the way that works for us and honors where we’re from.”

Toki Underground
1234 H St. NE
Washington, DC 20002
(202) 388-3086
tokiunderground.com

Karen Shih loves trying new restaurants and is an avid Yelper. If she had more money, she’d nom her way around the world. She’s a University of Maryland journalism graduate and in her day job, she writes for the university’s Terp alumni magazine.

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