Once upon a time, there was a 20-year-old girl who had never heard of Facebook or the Kardashians but could tell you everything about who was hooking up with who on the Real World/Road Rules Challenge. She’d spent most of her life smack dab in the middle of the US, where exotic food meant someone’s mom bought goat cheese for 5th period French culture days (but, oh man, how she loved those days). A whirlwind of luck, opportunity, and parental sacrifice dropped her into London, England – a city massive in scope compared to the small town where she went to college. It was overwhelming, incredible, messy, and beautiful. The world was suddenly hers to EXPLORE and EAT, and EAT she did! Enter her new favorite place – Wagamama.
I was a freshly-hatched, wannabe adult and studying abroad meant a whole hell of a lotta experiences all at once. I was always a fairly adventurous eater, but ramen was still years away from becoming every hipster’s hangover cure. Now you can easily find top notch noodles across the US, but in 2001….well, Missouri wasn’t the epicenter of culinary adventuring.
In London, at the time, Wagamama was already an institution with multiple locations across the city. It was the perfect entry drug to a new cuisine. Universally bright, friendly, and affordable, the restaurant chain valued quality, while posing very little threat to an overwhelmed fish out of water (c’est moi!).
Their £5 lunches became a staple of my diet. No matter how lost and tired I got wandering around my adopted city, I knew that there was a Wagamama nearby who would take me in, smother me with smiles, and fortify me with hot broth and fresh juices* (pre-juicing fad).
When I returned home from London, back to my tiny college town in the middle of nowhere, I pined for my lost love. I dreamt of noodles and fish cakes, no longer content with the low-grade, sugary-syrupy Chinese takeout that was our only semi-comparable choice at the time. In true Overdramatic Girl fashion, I composed an epic email full of pain and lamentation. I sent it off to some vague email from their website and resigned myself to a fate of Cup of Noodle.
True to their corporate character, though, I got the most charming and personal email back from a woman on Wagamama’s team. She thanked me for being loyal and gently let me down – their extensive upcoming roll-out across Europe would put my dreams of having a US Wagamama on hold for a while. She also promised that some day, if and when a US store did open, my first meal would be on them.
Now, I’m pretty sure that email survived my migration through a few poorly-thought-out email addresses. I was determined to take them up on their promise (and, generally, pretty broke and always happy for a free meal!) Unfortunately, by the time Google became Google and my email became standardized, that little digital promise was long gone.
However, the Gods of Food are JUST and TRUE. While it took 15 years longer than I had hoped, finally, Wagamama has arrived. As the food gods would have it, I actually live in NYC now and, true to the company’s promise, I received an invitation to be their guest for the soft opening of their first location. Granted, I’m pretty sure this is because I am signed up for their email list or something, and NOT because some woman across the sea remembered that once-upon-a-time, 20-year-old, heartbroken girl and her deep need for noodles.
Regardless, I was IN.
The OFFICIAL opening day for NYC’s first Wagamama location is tomorrow – November 16th, 2016, although you can check out their menu online here.
Things haven’t changed much all these years later. They still offer the fresh juices, as well as a variety of other noodle preps for people who prefer their meals curried or stir-fried. It isn’t spectacularly new or innovative. This isn’t that kind of food.
But it is the perfect food after a long, crazy-difficult, frustrating, and kind of scary week. When I confirmed my reservation, I had no idea that the election would gut me and the only cure would be drowning myself in rich broth, tropical cocktails, and some friendly conversation. It is comfort food, pure and simple.
There were three of us in my party, and the invitation included any main with the choice of a side or a dessert. Naturally, we split this up to share. They also kindly provided us 2 cocktails each.
Now, dearest Wagamama, I have a confession to make.
All three of us had a lovely cocktail downstairs at the bar (phenomenal and friendly bartenders, by the way) while we waited for our table (because we were late, not because the restaurant was behind). Then, when we were shown to our table in the upstairs mezzanine, our server offered us two drinks to go with our meal. Now, I know the invitation was two drinks total but we weren’t going to say no to a third drink! So, Wagamama, my sweet, forgive us for extorting you out of a third drink each instead of coming clean to our server. Even though I am not that sorry! ‘Cause those cocktails were TASTY.
In fact, I didn’t even manage to get a photo of my first or second Lemongrass Collins before I sucked them dry. All their specialty cocktails seem to veer to the sweet and tropical, although they have a fun variety of spirits, beers, and other unique libations for people looking for something different.
This post is not meant as a review and they did not invite me for that purpose. It’s impossible to be objective about something that has such a fuzzy, happy place in my life. Especially my pre-social media life. I don’t have a digital, Instagrammed history of my time in London. While there are a handful of out-of-focus, drugstore photos from that time, they are mostly shots of castles and cathedrals, not the day-to-day institutions of my life there. And yet, that is where my daydreams stray.
New York is (duh) not (duh) short (duh) on (duh) good food, including ramen. And if you are the sort of person obsessed with the real thing, you have plenty of options (albeit rather crowded ones). However, as corny as it sounds, I had a shit eating grin on my face from the moment I saw that familiar logo and I have a feeling Wagamama is going to be a familiar haunt for me in NYC from here forward. And every time I go, a little, tiny bit of me will be 20 years old again and, as I slurp my noodles, the world will seem just a little more vast, exciting, and achievable, just as it was back then.
Wagamama’s first NYC location is in Madison Square Park at:
210 5th Avenue, NYC, 10010 (212) 920-6233
They’ve ALSO got new locations opening in Boston this week, as well as several other NYC spots on the horizon.
FOR FURTHER READING:
The Untold History of Ramen, by George Solt
as well as this New Yorker take on that same book.