From secret pop-ups to brick and mortar, Neighborhood Ramen continues bringing the people together over ramen
I first met Lindsay Steigerwald and Jesse Pryor - together the masterminds behind @NeighborhoodRamen - in October this year at the Ramen Expo in Dallas. After arriving at a ramen meetup at a local BBQ joint, I stole a seat right next to Lindsay. Soon after introductions, she revealed her and Jesse’s Instagram identity to me. And much like their low-key online presence, I found Lindsay and Jesse to be very laid-back. As our first night in Dallas got increasingly rowdy, the two maintained a calm that served as a fine counterbalance to the night.
It is with that same unconcerned tone that the occasional pop-up announcement would be published to their Instagram feed. Past announcements appear to have been posted without much fanfare. Take for example a caption that reads “Made a hard to read flyer for our next pop up bc it's our style. Garage Fishtown, Wednesday 6.6.6:00pm pizza boy is dropping a cool beer they made for garage. We are gonna do some cool stuff that will be good for a hot day. Come out show some love!” posted on June 1, 2018. Often, the captions accompany a cheeky, irreverent photo of scrawled details of the night’s menu. It’s not hard to imagine these cryptic invites catching the interest of Philly ramen-lovers. In fact, Philly Mag contacted the pair early in their pop-up days to try and cover these secret dinners, which the duo ignored (initially, at least). And like the law of juvenile romance dictates, Philly Mag redoubled their efforts - because what fuels your desire more than being ignored the first time?
Exclusivity may have been an unintended consequence of Neighborhood Ramen’s runaway success, but despite it all, Lindsay and Jesse are undeniably warm. I barely got to spend more time with them in Dallas, but over the course of our interview their energy and openness to share their story shone through. Neighborhood Ramen’s story is about two restaurant veterans whose experiences in Japan and expertise with the cuisine (a combined 10 years of Japanese restaurant experience - not to mention the fact that Lindsay grew up in a Japanese household) sparked an aspiration to bring their community together over ramen in a way that’s true to them - whether at their apartment pop-ups or their soon-to-be-opened brick and mortar. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
JL: How did you two meet?
LS: Two and a half years ago at an izakaya. I was a bartender at CoZara in Jesse’s neighborhood where he was a regular. He’d come in, we’d start talking, we’d bond over a love for Japanese food and then we eventually started dating. I've always dreamed of opening a restaurant and Jesse's always wanted to be a chef. We found ourselves traveling to other places specifically for ramen. DC, NY, Baltimore - anywhere that had ramen. We felt there was a deficit here and decided to try it ourselves. So we started making it in Jesse’s apartment and inviting our friends.
JL: Why was it ramen specifically, and not another Japanese dish?
JP: The first time I tried ramen, I was like, “Damn. This is good and this is what I want to make.” It’s a cuisine within itself. I was jokingly like, "Let's do ramen dinners at the house" and it went from a comment to reality.
LS: We’d hear from a lot of people who’d say, "I don’t like my job. I want to do something else." We realized that we could choose. Why not work hard for ourselves and make something of it?
JL: Describe to me what those first pop-ups were like.
JP: The first one was in June, so it was hot as shit. We were really ambitious with serving five-course meals. I think people were just trying not to be rude but they would leave so full!
LS: We invited our friends but only had room for 10 people. We decided to make an Instagram for it and called it ‘Neighborhood Ramen Social’ because it was literally that. Our Instagram started blowing up and people were asking “How do we come to the restaurant?" "Can we get a reservation?” So that’s when we opened it up to other people. A lot of people didn’t realize what it actually was: eating hot ramen in an apartment in West Philly with no air conditioning.
JP: [Getting an invite] was like selling drugs or something - you had to just know somebody! That part kind of sucked because you can’t blow your spot up but it felt bad to turn people away for no reason.
JL: How did you market the pop-ups?
LS: All Instagram. Philly Mag’s Foobooz hit us up early on but we avoided them for a really long time - what we were doing wasn’t quite a legitimate operation… The first time we operated outside of our house was when a friend asked if we wanted to do something at Res Ipsa Cafe on a day that he was closed. So that first event was a ticketed 30-seat dinner that sold out almost immediately.
JP: They had just gotten nominated in Bon Appétit’s list of best new restaurants in America so the event got a lot of attention and it gave us a new audience.
LS: After the event we thought, "Wow this is cool, we’re kind of good at this." Our next event, we found a bar where you could rent out their pop-up kitchen and we went for it. Only we didn’t think anybody would trek up to Fishtown!
JP: We made paper flyers and drove all over the city putting them on every post we could find.
LS: On the night of service, we pulled up the window and saw that there was a line from the window all the way to the other side of the building. As soon as we opened, we didn't stop making ramen. We put out over 220 bowls of ramen in two hours and sold out.
JP: Again went with an ambitious menu. We said, "let’s do vegetarian, shio, shoyu, yakisoba." But people were ordering two of everything! After we sold out, we had to turn away the last 50 people or so.
JL: Walk me through how you both felt after doing that event.
JP: We thought it'd be the people who regularly hit us plus our friends. We were prepared for 100 people but it turned out to be mayhem. Those are numbers that just aren’t realistic at a restaurant. There wasn't a point where the tickets stopped. It was one of the craziest services I’ve ever worked.
JP: Seeing so many chefs and industry people enjoy what we were doing gave us the confidence to continue. But the garage pop-up was crazy, we almost wanted to go back to house dinners.
LS: In a week, we got 800 or 900 new Instagram followers. After that, we moved to invite-only and posted pictures after the fact.
JL: Transitioning now to your brick and mortar location. What were the beginning stages like?
LS: It was a lot of heartbreak.
JP: We were riding this high from the pop-ups because they felt so natural but this is a totally different thing. You don’t know what you’re doing and nobody can tell you the answer. We didn’t want to jump right into renting a space. In general, people told us you shouldn’t start paying rent until you’re ready to open. A lot of restaurants fail because they spend so much money just getting ready.
LS: And we don’t have investors. We are using the money we raised from our pop-ups.
JP: We want to do the hard way because it has more heart. And blood, sweat, and tears.
LS: We want to be the only reason why it succeeds or fails. One of the biggest challenges was where to start. There’s a lot of trial and error. For example, I would just google ‘real estate’ or search Craigslist. Then we just started hitting the pavement. Jesse would take a different route to work every day to look for empty spaces and I’d drive around looking for places to rent. We did find a place that was too good to be true. It had a brand new, fully-equipped kitchen with very cheap rent in a thriving neighborhood. We were like, “This is it. Let's do it.” So we got in contact with the owner. After meeting he told us that we were good but we didn’t officially sign anything.
JP: We even made an announcement at a pop-up that we had found a place. Then this dude just ghosted on us.
LS: We called to ask on the status and he’s like, “Oh sorry, I forgot to tell you guys. I rented it to someone else.” That toughened us up and we learned to not make agreements on a handshake.
JL: How did you find the location that you’re in now?
LS: It’s funny, I was at our favorite coffee shop that we go to all the time but I happened to notice there was a 'for lease' sign across the street.
JP: We’d seen it before but never thought anything of it because it just looked too big.
LS: We called the realtor, who also said that it is way too big for what we're looking for. But we decided to take a look at it anyway and after one walkthrough we were like, “This is it." There was already a kitchen set up and a dish area. The dining room was just bigger than we wanted.
JP: At 20 seats, it's double what the apartment is but now we have a full kitchen to work out of. Though it does have the 'neighborhood ramen' vibe.
JL: What will the Neighborhood Ramen menu feature?
JP: Our bowls will be semi-traditional. The menu format will be typical for an American ramen restaurant because, unless we're somewhere like New York, we can't get away with being a shoyu-focused shop. People might come in as a four-top so we have to cater to different tastes.
LS: Our miso will be a little funky. A standard pairing of clam and miso with a pork-based soup. Kind of like a miso clam chowder. We'll also have Hakata-style tonkotsu, shoyu, shio, tan tan, and vegan. We also just made a batch of tsukemen that's very reminiscent of a bowl we had in Japan. We'll work on it throughout the week to serve it on the weekends.
JL: How do you divide the labor between you two?
LS: Jesse is the chef and manages the back of house. I handle front of house and administrative duties.
JP: Lindsay is also the pickle and gyoza queen.
JL: What elements of your pop-up days do you want to preserve in the new space?
LS: Our original name on Instagram was ‘Neighborhood Ramen Social’, because we wanted people to come out, for everyone to be friends, and we wanted to be friends with everyone.
JP: At our apartment, people would hang out until 3AM. We’d all be talking and someone would go on a rant about jazz or rap. Next thing you know, you’re like “Who is this guy and how’s he my new best friend?”
LS: There isn't a lot of ramen culture in Philly yet so we love educating people on the food we’re making and the ingredients going into it. Our space needs to be welcoming and we want people to feel comfortable asking us questions. And of course we’re very happy to explain.
JP: A lot of people may feel like it's daunting to order ramen because they aren’t sure what it is or how to eat it. Something else we think is important is that we want to be able to share our knowledge. These are things that shops here aren’t really doing.
JL: Do you think you'll continue with secret pop-ups?
JP: Probably never again in the sense of what it was. Though, we might have a night with all of our friends on days that we aren’t open.
LS: We'll be closed Monday and Tuesday, so it’d be nice to have an outlet to do pop ups and industry nights. We want to give other people the opportunity that we had.
JL: How do you think Neighborhood Ramen will advance ramen culture in the US?
JP: A lot of places here could be more chef-driven. In Japan, a lot of places have a ramen master who is responsible for the shop and menu. It feels like a lot of shops in America are cashing in on a trend. You’re like, "Who’s the chef here?" and there’s no chef, they ordered a bunch of soup bases. We want to be the place where you can walk in and you know Lindsay is half of the business and I am half of the business. And that we are accountable.
LS: When we were doing the pop-ups, we decided to take the profit and put it into a fund to go to Japan. When it got to the point where we decided to open a ramen shop, we considered putting that money towards the shop. But we realized that we needed to go to Japan before we opened a shop. We want people to be educated and understand because it’s a whole culture and we’d love to see more of that here in America. We want to do our part in building that ramen culture.
JP: We also want to create a place where people are happy to work. If we could take our staff to Japan and have them see what we saw that’d be the coolest thing. We also want to continue traveling to Japan and having that translate into new styles here.
JL: What are your favorite ramen shops?
JP: On Keizo's recommendation, we went to Genki Ippai in Fukuoka.
LS: There's no sign outside but when it's open the chef just puts out a little blue bucket.
JP: It was the first thing I ate that gave me that ‘Food Network moment’ where I was blown away and making weird faces. We just crushed it and didn’t even want to hang out. We just sat down in a Lawsons and then had a drink.
JL: What was it about the ramen that made it so good?
JP: We’ve eaten so much tonkotsu but we couldn't figure out what it was about that bowl and that’s why it was so good. The menu only had two or three items. Nothing fancy. Such a simple bowl that blew us away. These noodles had more chew, a little thicker. It was cool to see them breaking the mold. We also ate at a couple shoyu spots. Menson Rage outside of Tokyo had a young, cool vibe. It reminded us of Neighborhood Ramen.
LS: In Japan, young people are putting their own style on ramen. It’s not meant to be this strict cuisine. But in America, we’re always like: “this isn't "traditional."
JP: You can go to Japan and find a ramen that has tequila and cilantro. It’s a cuisine that you get to be fun and creative with and that’s ok.
Neighborhood Ramen is slated to open in January 2019 and is located at:
617 S 3rd St, Philadelphia, PA 19147