There are far worse places to be on a summer Saturday morning than the Smorgasburg food festival in East River State Park. You have a view of Manhattan from the Midtown skyline to the Williamsburg Bridge. If you're bored you can chat with other people in line, most of whom recognize the inherent silliness of queueing up for food when most of your friends are sleeping off hangovers. There's an esprit de corps among everyone—a pair of women behind me are surreptitiously sipping champagne while a couple in front of me are sunning on a beach blanket. And we're all talking about whether the ramen burger is really worth the wait.
It could taste fantastic. Most people know of ramen as a dorm room staple, but assuming that all ramen tastes like Cup of Noodles is like assuming all beer tastes like Bud Ice. Ramen noodles are versatile and abundant, and in Japan they're a staple of upscale dining. And since the Japanese were right about eating raw fish with rice and seaweed, you can trust them to make noodles for you.
Upscale ramen is making inroads into American dining. There's even a stall at the Bowery Whole Foods (the Death Star of imperial foodie-ism) that serves a delicious ramen dish with thick cut bacon and a poached egg. Smorgasburg itself has had 2 or 3 different ramen stands in the past few years. And the practice of swapping a foreign carbohydrate into a domestic dish is nothing new: The banh mi, for example, marries Vietnamese ingredients and a baguette, one of the only good relics of French imperialism. On the other hand, professional dudefood clown Guy Fieri hamhandedly crams sashimi into a hard shelled taco, one of the many bad relics of idiot imperialism. So if the idea of combining ramen and a hamburger makes you salivate, there's reason for excitement—and also reason to be wary.
The summer of 2013 has seen the food-crazes of the cronut and the ramen burger, characterized by images of New Yorkers standing in long lines waiting for these food oddities. These are jarring to outsiders: New Yorkers are supposed to be overworked, impatient, always in a hurry. How does that square with standing passively, like cattle, in a Soviet-style food line?
The composition of the line offers clues. It's almost universally 20-somethings. New York certainly has its share of lifers, but many of us are just passing through. I live here because I got a good job here, then another good job here. I'm open to leaving if the opportunity should arise, and many others feel the same way. The thought of lugging a stroller up the subway steps, or completing a ten-page nursery school application, is daunting (just ask Deadspin's editor emeritus), and a deterrent to putting down roots.
And you don't feel the need to put down community roots if you're just passing through. I'm not a part of any civic clubs in Brooklyn. Why would I join a neighborhood association when my lease is month to month? I could live anywhere from a building two blocks away to San Francisco come October.
But transients like me still need to be part of a community; even if we don't want to be here forever we still want to belong somewhere right now. So we meet in bars and kickball leagues, even when it's to the consternation of lifers who hate the idea of young people congregating on their turf. And we hang out with each other in line waiting for zeitgeisty food. The cronut and ramen burger lines are just another manifestation of the very human desire to be a part of something.
There's a lot of friction to living here. Standing in line with a bunch of strangers waiting on a ramen burger is just one way of lubricating yourself. It's a reminder that, for all of the indignities of daily life that New Yorkers suffer, we're in it together.
I got in line at 9:30 and finally handed over $8 for my burger a little over two hours later. There certainly are worse burgers that cost more. The beef patty is fatty and juicy and the soy-based sauce and scallions add a nice little kick. Oddly, given its provenance (creator Keizo Shimamoto is something of a ramen wizard), the only issue with the ramen burger is the ramen itself. It's bland. Top Ramen sodium levels might have been excessive, but ramen is salty, and a hamburger bun made out ramen noodles should have some salty flavor. Instead, you get the same flavors as if you'd had the burger on a regular bread bun, only with a different texture. I'd give it a B+. It's fine as a hamburger, but disappointing as a showcase for ramen.
Notably, the texture isn't as offensive to the palate as a sashimi taco. It reminds you, surprisingly, of eating spaghetti and meatballs. And the ramen bun has the same structural integrity as a bread one: as with most bread buns, it starts falling apart toward the end (you can see as much in this Vine of the burger's progress).
Of note, you don't get much for $8; the ramen burger is about the same size as a quarter pounder. I was hungry again four hours later. It was 4:30 and too early for dinner, so I just grabbed a Clif bar and ate it alone in my apartment. When that's the alternative on a breezy summer afternoon, go stand in line somewhere.
Image by Sam Woolley