Welcome to the Neighborhood: Love, Philly, and Ramen with Neighborhood Ramen
In preparing the 2019 update to our Philadelphia City Guide, we met up with one of the many exciting new businesses cropping up throughout the city. Here, we sit down with Lindsay Steigerwald and Jesse Pryor, owners of Neighborhood Ramen.
When you gaze into a bowl of ramen, you can almost feel as it gazes back; probing the depths of your soul and beckoning you to explore the wonders of its creation. In a land known as much for its food as it is for its obsessive niches, nothing incites the passion of the average Japanese citizen quite like ramen. With hundreds of variations and even more opinions on how it should be made, ordering a bowl, slurping it down, and basking in the post ramen afterglow is an almost daily ritual for millions of people but still somewhat rare in Philadelphia.
Enter Neighborhood Ramen. We first caught wind of this mysterious ramen operation back in 2017 when (2018 City Guide pick and harbingers of good taste) Res Ipsa announced they would be hosting them for a night of ramen-fueled debauchery. While we were not able to join them that night, that introduction earned them an Instagram follow and kicked off our mission to try one of their elusive bowls. That opportunity came in February this year when we visited their much-anticipated brick and mortar in the Queen Village neighborhood of Philadelphia where bowl after bowl of meticulously crafted ramen is served up five days a week.
We sat down with owners Lindsay Steigerwald and Jesse Pryor to discuss their humble beginnings in a cramped West Philadelphia apartment to their inviting new restaurant (that was just named the best in Philly).
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Rikumo: Can you describe how Neighborhood Ramen came to be? How did you end up specializing in ramen?
Lindsay Steigerwald (LS) - Both Jesse and I worked in restaurants for like 10 years and always knew we’d open a restaurant of our own. I grew up with Japanese food and Jesse has always been obsessed with ramen. When we had the idea, we would seek out ramen wherever we could find it and realized that there just wasn’t a lot of it around.
Jesse Pryor (JP) - We ate pretty much every bowl of ramen in Philadelphia in about two days before branching out to New York, DC...
LS - Yeah, but we couldn’t just travel all the time, so we decided to try making it at home.
Prior to that, had you ever made ramen, or was this brand new territory?
LS - It was pretty much new territory.
JP - I had one cookbook (Japanese Soul Cooking) that had a ramen recipe in it. That was probably where our first bowl started. It’s so far from that now.
LS - Eventually we were making these big pots of soup. It was way more than we could eat, so we would invite friends over to help. The first time it was only five people. We decided to make an Instagram account for it, and we both liked the name Neighborhood, which was loosely inspired by that cool Japanese brand Neighborhood. We started getting traction through this Instagram account because we linked up with all these ramen influencers and it just sort of blew up. At first, people didn’t know what we were because all we’d post was a date, time, and menu. After a while, it started becoming a twice a month thing.
Had you guys done that sort of supper club thing before?
LS - No, not at all.
JP - I don’t miss cooking like that. It was really hectic. We got that table that we use for our water station, and that was basically our entire kitchen. We would make two appetizers and a ramen like this and then have 10 people over every other week in a cramped West Philly apartment.
LS - We didn’t start with the expectation of this becoming a restaurant. Honestly, we were doing it to get money to take a crazy trip to Japan.
So how did you end up getting into pop-ups?
JP - Eventually, we started getting opportunities to do a legit pop-up. Our first event in a kitchen that wasn’t in our apartment was at Res Ipsa. It was a 30 seat ticketed dinner that literally sold out in minutes.
LS - We put it out there and our inbox was flooded with messages. We couldn’t even remember who we said yes to.
JP - After that, we did some industry events at (the now closed) Amis before our big pop-up at Garage Fishtown. They have a full-blown kitchen that you can rent out, so we decided to give it a shot.
LS - At this point, Philly Mag had been asking to do a write up on us, but we were dodging them because we weren’t really a legitimate operation, but once we had this pop-up scheduled we let them do an article on us.
JP - We didn’t think anybody would come. We were running around stapling flyers everywhere, but that article just blew up. We ended up making 200 bowls in about 2 hours. At that point, I think we kind of knew we were ready for a restaurant.
So then you found this place?
LS - This was the third place we looked at after looking in the Italian Market and on Passyunk Avenue. We found this place because we love Ox Coffee (a fantastic cafe across the street) and would always look at it. It needed work, but we were willing to put in the manual labor.
We love what you’ve done with the place! Who did the murals?
JP - Kyle Confehr! He’s an amazing local artist. As soon as we saw his work, we knew it would be perfect.
Making ramen can be a notoriously time-intensive endeavor. What does a typical day look like for you?
JP - Ramen is 95% prep and 5% execution. Our pork soup takes 24 hours to make, and our chicken soup takes 8 to 9 hours, so we’re constantly juggling things. We have someone here every day from 11am to 1am prepping for that day or even the next day. We have everything figured out now, but when we opened, we’d be prepping until 5 or 6am. Having a team really helps.
There is so much personalization in ramen, and in Japan, there are thousands of different styles and variations. What is Neighborhood Ramen’s style?
JP - We source a lot of ingredients from Japan, but it can be challenging at times. A lot of ingredients are just not even available, like shoyu you can only get if you know the guy who makes it. We use Jidori eggs which are from a breed of Japanese chicken that’s fed a vegetarian diet, but they’re from California. I think if we had to define our style, I would say it is rooted in tradition but open to experimentation. If we were a shop in Japan, we’d probably specialize in the new-wave shoyu style.
LS - Our specials are our outlet for new ideas. For National Ramen Day, we challenged ourselves by making a different special every day that week.
What are your general observations on Japanese food, and ramen specifically, in Philadelphia?
LS - I think Royal (Izakaya, a fellow 2019 City Guide pick) is amazing. Just having a real Izakaya with Japanese bar dishes is great for exposing people to new Japanese flavors. Other than that, I think we have room for more. One of our favorite places in Austin (Ramen Tatsu-Ya) opened a crossover Japanese-slash-barbecue place called Kemuri that is just crazy good. We’d love to see more of that kind of thing here. People are ready.
Can you recall a particularly memorable ramen experience or defining moment in your journey?
What is the one thing you think most people get wrong about ramen?
LS - Eat your ramen faster! While you’re taking pictures, your ramen is slowly dying.
JP - I wish places would stop putting so many toppings on their bowls. It’s all about balance.
Given what you do, is there ever a time and place in your life for instant ramen?
Both - Yeah!
JP - Although, I made a Cup Noodle the other day and ended up throwing it out. Every famous ramen chef in Japan has their own instant noodle.
LS - Morimoto just got one in America! Sun Noodle also makes a really good one.
If you guys made a City Guide what places would you put on it?
Awesome! To wrap up, can you tell us what’s next for Neighborhood Ramen?
JP - We’re looking forward to our next research trip to Japan. We’re also working on a Kare (Japanese Curry), hotdogs, and donuts pop-up. Stay tuned for “Super Curry Fun Club”.
Many thanks to Neighborhood Ramen for talking with us. To get an up close and personal look at Neighborhood Ramen’s bowls, read our review at the link above. Visit them and the 22 other Philadelphia landmarks in our 2019 City Guide!