Call it unconventional. Call it over-the-top. You can even call it greasy. Just don't call the ramen burger "college food."
The burger, an all-beef patty stuffed between fresh, chewy ramen noodles in lieu of a bun, and served with a variety of fillings and accompaniments, has captured the appetites of New Yorkers since its debut a month ago, with hundreds of people standing in line to get a bite at Brooklyn's Smorgasburg on Saturdays. For the mashup's mastermind Keizo Shimamoto, it's proof that the American palate has a soft spot for good ramen.
"The ultimate dream is that I want to teach Americans about real ramen, not just instant ramen that we're used to," Shimamoto, 35, told TODAY.com. "Most people in America think 'Oh, college food, instant ramen, cheap,' but real ramen is actually a little more healthy for you than instant ramen and it's actually really good. People take good care in making it."
The ramen aficionado, who blogs about the noodles, can count on at least one new fan—Marilyn Hagerty, the 87-year-old food writer who became a viral sensation because of her Olive Garden review.
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"You just wonder, who would ever think of a ramen burger?" she told TODAY.com after taking a taste. "It is a good combination of flavors with the ramen flavor and the burger ... a very clever way to serve a burger. It does hold up well ... it's a tiny bit oily, you need the napkin, but I think it's got to be the way it is to taste as good as it does. It would be something that would make it for me at lunchtime or maybe in the middle of the afternoon when you're just about ready to eat something, at 4 o'clock."
Unfortunately, she'd be out of luck by 4 p.m.
People start lining up at 7:30 a.m. on Saturdays for a chance to get just one ramen burger, which Shimamoto, who is of Japanese descent and grew up in Los Angeles, says is made with fresh ramen from Sun Noodle in New Jersey.
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"I've been surprised by how excited, curious and interested people are about this—their anticipation is really cool," said Michael Fox, who is producing a documentary short about the fervor around the ramen burger for Edit Beach, his video production company. "It's weird—people have decided they want this and they're resigned to waiting—they have a fear of missing out so they make sure to get there early."
To assure that people aren't standing in line on blind faith alone, Shimamoto and crew count up how many patrons they'll likely be able to feed, and give the final person a sign pointing out they are the lucky last customer. Even so, they always sell out, so several hopefuls go home empty-handed.
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The fanfare is encouraging for Shimamoto, who quit his job as a computer programmer and moved to Japan to study ramen for four years.
"Basically, I've loved ramen since I was a kid," he said. "I've been eating it my whole life ... I just wanted a [career] change. I wanted something new and interesting, so I decided to just quit my job and go study it. I took a trip around Japan and in 28 days, I ate 55 bowls of ramen and visited 21 different cities, and every one had a regionally different style so that really interested me and I wanted to learn more about it."
Shimamoto came across something similar to the ramen burger in Japan and fell in love with the creation, which perfectly combines his Japanese and American cultures. He wanted to improve upon it and bring it to the U.S.—making the bun stay together and using a beef patty instead of pork.
Hagerty told TODAY.com that she hopes the ramen burger will make its way to the Midwest. While that may not happen anytime soon, Shimamoto does have dreams of expansion.
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"As long as we can get production up, we'd like to do other markets and collaborate with other restaurants," he said. "And possibly, in the future, open up a restaurant of our own, I'd like to open a restaurant on both coasts."
—By Vidya Rao, Today.com. Matt Murray contributed to this story.