There's something about good ramen that makes Bostonians a little crazy and very willing to wait in long lines to obtain it. Yume Wo Katare, the Jiro-style tiny ramen shop in Porter Square was infamous for its lines.
When Mu Ramen from New York popped up at Alden & Harlow for just one night, people swarmed the place, overwhelming the kitchen to the point that it took three hours for people to receive their coveted ramen. Tickets to Guchi's Midnight Ramen and Oisa Ramen regularly sell out within minutes.
It's understandable why there's so much hype around Little Big Diner. It's the second restaurant for David Punch, chef-owner of the very popular (and excellent) restaurant Sycamore in Newton. For this "East Asian soul food" concept, Chef Punch is partnering with Chef Daniel Scott (former Sycamore sous chef) to serve bold and flavorful comfort food influenced by Japan, Korea, China, and Thailand (just to name a few).
Ramen is heavily featured on the menu, which adds to the hype.
People know Sycamore's reputation for good food. I personally know Chef Punch is obsessed with ramen, noodles, and Asian food in general (he keeps telling me I have to try Uncle Boon's, a Thai restaurant in New York). Chef Punch says Chef Daniel Scott makes a mean kimchi and draws a lot from his Korean background (especially from his mom, who is an incredible cook).
We knew the lines would be long. In fact, we heard they were crazy long. Chef Punch would later tell us that for one week straight, they had a 2-hour deep line out the door for the entire time the restaurant was open (11AM - 11PM). The staff worked continuously with no breaks. They were putting in 18-hour days.
We arrived at 11AM (right at opening) for the first seating. They had pushed opening time to 11:30AM, but let us wait inside (it was cold and snowing out there!). The chefs looked exhausted. Chef Punch was doing tai chi off to the corner in preparation for the next day's service. Cans of Red Bull were present.
"We've decided to open at 11:30AM instead, and take a break between 2PM - 5PM. It was just a bit too crazy."
At 11:30AM we sat down and perused the menu. Within minutes, we put in orders for some appetizers and several bowls of steaming ramen.
We started with the Crispy Berkshire Pork Ribs ($13), served with Korean BBQ sauce, scallions, and sesame seeds. These were fall-off-the-bone tender yet had a really nice crisp on the outside. The flavors were phenomenal, and everyone really enjoyed these.
You'll be warned that the Green Papaya Salad ($7), which comes with toasted garlic, peanuts, chili, and citrus is spicy, and it is! Most Thai restaurants tone down the heat, but this was one of the most authentic Thai papaya salads (som tam) I've ever had in Boston.
I appreciated seeing Chinese long beans in the salad, an ingredient I never see in Thai restuarant here in the U.S. even though I saw it in every papaya salad I ate in Thailand. The toasted garlic, arguably the only ingredient I didn't see in traditional som tam, added an element of flavor and texture that I loved.
Be forewarned, it is VERY spicy. Much closer to Thai spicy.
If that's not enough spice, Chef Dave and Dan have created their own chili sauce, which they call "s#@t that’s hot" bomb. Yes it's spicy, but it's also extremely flavorful. It was awesome and totally worth the $2 they charge for it (it is one of the many sides you can get with ramen).
In fact, there are many other "Ramen Extras", all costing between 50 cents (Butter Cube) up to $3 (Pulled Chashu Pork or Smoked Honey Corn). Other fun add-ons include Ajitama Egg ($1.50), Chili Crisp Oil ($1), and Kimchi ($2).
The Shio Chicken Ramen ($15) is made with a clear, salt based broth and served with a grilled chicken thigh, ajitama egg, shaved cabbage, "funny daikon," and schmaltz. The broth is light but has good flavor. Some might consider it slightly under-salted, though the very salty ajitama egg balances it out. The chicken is tender, and the noodles are perfect.
Miso Ramen . . . Spicy or Not ($15), consists of a deeper, richer miso-based broth and comes with a wealth of toppings, including ground Berkshire pork, nori, ajitama egg, bean sprouts, sweet corn, mayu, and scallions. The broth is very flavorful, the noodles are great, and overall it's really good.
Forest Mushroom Ramen ($14) comes with a grilled Heiwa tofu, watercress, sesame, and marinated Shitake mushrooms.
If you don't feel like ramen and prefer rice, you can order one of their Little Big Bowls ($12 - $16), which is essential a rice bowl topped with aromatic herbs (hello Thai basil, mint, cilantro!), crispy shallots, house pickles, and a choice between "namuls" hot and spicy sauce or sweet soy sauce. For protein, you can choose between charred Heiwa tofu, shoyu chicken, grilled flank steak, grilled pork belly, or "Max's daily fish."
On the day we went, there was a Grilled Arctic Char special, which came with rice (I chose brown), grilled broccolini, Meyer lemon, chopped mango, a green Sriracha sauce (so good!). The fish was extremely tender (I loved how it was almost rare on the inside) yet beautifully crispy on the outside. I loved the boldness of the green Sriracha, tartness of the mango, and umami from the fried shallots complemented the dish.
There was also a Berkshire Pork Shoulder & Kimchi Stir Fry ($14), which came served over rice and pressed cucumbers on the side.
The space is small and cozy, with only 19 seats. At one point in the meal one of our dining companions pointed at the steamy window and said, "a sign of a good ramen place, fogged up windows from all the steam!"
Steam or not, Chef Dave and Dan are pumping out some really great Asian "soul food." The ramen is excellent, the rice bowls are flavorful and inventive, and the ingredients are top notch. It's no surprise there are such long lines here. If I lived closer, I would totally make this place one of my regular haunts.
The place has only been open for about two weeks, so they are still figuring stuff out. Expect tweaks to the opening hours, menu, and other things. This is normal. Despite all the craziness of the past week, they are focusing on what's most important, churning out some pretty amazing Asian casual eats.
I can't wait to come back.
Little Big Diner
1247 Centre St
Newton, MA 02459