First thing first: You walk upstairs to get to Toki Underground. This could be found a bit confusing and certainly uncomfortable for the archetypical fine diner, but Toki, like Wonderland, is an Alice-esque culinary adventure. Toki lends itself as a medium for a cross-encounter experience of street food from the Shilin night market and anarchy of Gleaming the Cube. Chinese checkers flash from their grave within the bar, spliced skateboards line the wall and anime figurines challenge you from inside their transparent prison. It is a skater boy’s wet dream accompanied by a close-knit and quirky cast. The sounds of Toki are that of grill popping and a rock steady rotation of eclectic iPods including that of DJ Smudge on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
There are no tables at Toki, and if you are lucky enough to find a stool upon your arrival, be prepared to feel a wee bit cramped but in turn also very welcome. This unassuming hole in the wall gets crowded by 6:30pm. It is first come, first serve and there is no lunch option. Despite what may appear to be restaurant chaos, Toki Underground is a destination spot for food-lovers and local celebrities.
You go to Toki for ramen and dumplings. Yet, while the menu may seem small, the ever-changing specials and add-ons are what gives this dining experience a larger than life reputation. My recent visit to Toki was enlarged by a special Asian twist on a popular American BBQ summer favorite: ribs and corn on the cob. I was immediately urged to try the pan seared Berkshire pork belly ribs stacked above shrimp chips, garlic duck fat mayo and a vinegar BBQ sauce. Coming from someone who prefers a tidy meal, I must admit it was hard not to suck the life out of those bones. I later found out, these babies were sold out in an hour. Toki’s interpretation of corn was half a cob doused in a sticky Togarashi compound butter topped with crumbled cojit cheese and green onion. During this meal, face, teeth, hands and clothing did not make out unchallenged. Think napkin in shirt.
Ramen $10: I chose the infamous Kimchi Ramen, a Tonkotsu noodle soup with sliced pork loin, a scatter of vegetables, ½ soft boiled egg and of course a topping of locally made kimchi. Keeping it Kosher, I selected two piggly add-ons of pork cheek and pork belly. Both were delicious, but the broth, oh the broth! Toki’s ramen is an overloaded sensory experience of taste, smell, sight and, well, hot splatter. While it’s not the best “first date” food, it will definitely be the bowl that either makes or breaks the level of comfort between you.
Dumplings $5 for ½ dozen: I chose the pan-fried beef dumplings plated enthusiastically upon an artistic dribble of Tare sauce. The beef recipe in particular is a trickled down family tradition brought to us unaltered by Chef Erik Yang. Yet, for your savoring pleasure there are a variety of fillings such as chicken, pork, vegetables, and seafood. Ask for them how you want them cooked either steamed, pan fried or fried. For dumpling lovers such as myself, Toki may as well be heaven.
Next to devour and compliments of the Chef, a fried and gooey okonomiyaki filled with a gelatinous blend of octopus, shrimp and pork belly followed by an aftertaste of ginger. The Japanese name for this street food styled dish derived from the word okonomi which means “what you want.” I definitely did not need any coaxing for this sticky pile of oozing flavors, it was all my pleasure to consume.
For dessert, if you can manage, I would recommend the Dessert Bento Box. Though mine ironically arrived in the shape of pig, after hearing my squeals of delight, the on-looking couple next to me promptly received their own in the shape of a rabbit. This box hides an array of desserts inside and can only be described as the emo lovechild of a pâtissier and a Tamagotchi. My mini treasures consisted of four small portions of amazing. I first snatched the apple gelée which was tangy, sweet and wonderful. I assume inspired by the Tamagotchi, and in the shape of its excrement, I also found a chocolate wasabi truffle. Break that apart alongside the coconut sorbet in the box and it’s like a Harajuku oreo in your mouth. In some regions of the world a caramel made from the drippings of pork fat could get you shunned, stoned, exiled, but here at Toki this sinful creation left me drooling for more. Besides the Bento Box, you may also be served up some warm cookies and milk for dessert. While I could never pass up the surprise of what would be in the box that evening, I adore that this was made room for on the menu.
Scott Carder, GM of Toki, gave me the full run-down on how to order sake at Toki. It is clear Carder takes sake seriously. To accompany your meal you will find only the very best and most exclusive sake selections. Don’t know what to order? Ask. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly. Scott’s top picks: Demon Slayer, Kikusui Karakuchi Honjozo, Noble Crane. Follow Toki on Twitter to get the latest news on sake additions to the menu and for an upcoming late summer Sake Session tasting.
Toki: a chain? Talk at the end of the bar appeared to be nudging Chef Yang in that direction.
Read Chef Erik Yang’s Eat Me DC profile here