We tried N.J.’s best ramen spot, now a nonprofit serving pizza and chicken – nj.com

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Unlike many New Jersey restaurateurs, who have seen their business decimated by the coronavirus and its restrictions, Luck Sarabhayavanija can barely keep up with demand.

His supply of chicken, meant to stock his new Jersey City eatery through its first weekend earlier this month, was sold out by Friday afternoon. The dinner rush is madness, with deliveries flying out the door all night. He was even able to hire back a quarter of his staff.

Sarabhayavanija’s secret to success? It’s simple, really — all he had to do was completely reinvent his restaurant, menu and business model.

It took a team of six people working 12 hours a day, six days a week for a month to transform Ani Ramen, the popular Japanese restaurant, into a non-profit that combines two entirely new menus under one roof — and has already served more than a thousand donated meals to medical professionals.

The Hudson County spot is now making a difference seven days a week, but it wasn’t easy, its owner assured.

“Trying to open a restaurant remotely was definitely not as easy as we thought it’d be. It took a lot more hands on deck and it probably took twice as long,” Sarabhayavanija said. “So it was a definitely a heavy sprint. But it felt like a marathon.”

Ani Ramen was at the forefront of the ramen craze in New Jersey, with its first location opening in Montclair in 2015. Now with six locations in five towns through North Jersey, it is synonymous with the Japanese staple. But as popular as their ramen is, they knew the delicate noodles and tender meats wouldn’t lend themselves to takeout and delivery.

But instead of closing for good, the Jersey City location is now home to Rock City Pizza and Bang Bang Chicken, two restaurant concepts that were originally planned for their own storefronts but were fast-tracked to open during the coronavirus crisis. Rock City serves Detroit-style pizza — think Sicilian meets a pan pie — and Thai-spiced rotisserie chicken is Bang Bang’s speciality. Both opened April 24 for takeout and delivery.

Customers are encouraged to donate meals to first responders and public servants on top of buying their own. Pizzas range from $11 to $13, but a pie can be donated to first responders and public servants for $6, while whole chickens with rice cost $17 and can be donated for $8.

More than 5,000 meals have been donated by customers — so many that they haven’t all been distributed to Jersey City-area hospitals yet and the restaurant is now looking to expand to even more medical centers for donations. They’ve also launched a Kickstarter, with the hope of donating even more meals.

On top of donating to local hospitals, those in need can get a meal for free from 8 to 9 p.m. every day.

“This is literally for anybody,” Sarabhayavanija said, noting the idea was originally meant for out-of-work service industry folks, but has since expanded. “If you’re going to come out between 8 and 9 p.m. and you need a free meal, if you’re craving our pizza and times are tight because your landlord is being a jerk or you have credit card bills? We’re not even gonna question it.”

The cause is unassailable, but how is the food? I sampled both the pizza and chicken to find out.

Rock City Pizza
A pepperoni pizza from Rock City Pizza in Jersey City, which the owners of Ani Ramen opened along with Bang Bang Chicken, as a non-profit restaurant. (Jeremy Schneider | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

The pepperoni pizza was as pretty as a picture soaked in grease (a compliment!). Those small, thick pepperoni cups are the best type of ‘roni for pizza — they’re basically saucers of salty, meaty flavor and the edges curl up and get perfectly crispy. The pie was elevated by its drizzled with hot honey, an en vogue artisan pizza topping similar to what you’ll find on the locally acclaimed Honeymoon pie at Brooklyn Square Pizza and the Beekeeper’s Lament at Talula’s.

The crust was soft but not too bready, and the crispy, cheesy edges are just as Sarabhayavanija described when he first announced the project — like the ends of grilled cheese sandwiches when the cheese has overflowed onto the crust. Yum.

Rock City Pizza white pie
The white pizza from Rock City Pizza in Jersey City (Jeremy Schneider | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

I’m not normally big on white pizza — we’ve got the best tomatoes in the country in Jersey, let’s use ’em! — but I was intrigued by the idea of the sauceless take on the dish on a Detroit thick crust. And I think it might have changed my mind about white pies. A rich, creamy garlic parmesan sauce topped with a blend of mozzarella, Monterey Jack, cheddar, Parmigiano Reggiano? It’s just cheesy enough to work. Combining it with the side of garlic butter gives it another level of flavor, and I’d definitely order it again.

Thai rotisserie chicken from Bang Bang Chicken
The Thai rotisserie chicken from Bang Bang Chicken, along with Massaman curry. (Jeremy Schneider | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

I was most curious about the Thai rotisserie chicken — a full bird seasoned with garlic, lemongrass, pepper, palm sugar, coriander root, and Thai chilies. I’ve had plenty of rotisserie chicken, but never prepared like this. The meat was so tender it was practically falling off the bone as I served it, and the blend of spices made for a very flavorful but not overpowering taste. The savory peanut sauce was good, but the sweet chili sauce was incredible. The bird was so big that my roommate and I couldn’t take it down in one meal — we’ve been munching on leftovers for days.

The Massaman curry was ordered as a side, but it was so good I’d order it again as the main course. It’s a sweet, brothy curry with tomatoes, green onions, peppers, potatoes and pineapples, accentuating the sweet and tangy flavor profile. Paired with the chicken and fluffy jasmine rice, it felt more like a feast than a takeout meal.

Bottom line: the new food is killer. But even if it wasn’t, Ani Ramen’s new venture is unquestionably admirable. Completely switching their cuisine in the middle of an economic crisis was a massive risk that appears to so far have paid off. A Rock City Pizza location at the Montclair Ani Ramen is planned for the last week in May, while the Summit and Maplewood stores will hold Bang Bang Chicken locations weeks after that.

Sarabhayavanija and three of his partners are not taking salary while the restaurant is non-profit. As proud of his of his team’s efforts, he understandably can’t help but wonder when he’ll be able to open up his original Ani Ramen locations and get the business profitable again. But at a low moment, his three sons gave him a handmade card that provided perspective.

“We know that you think you’re at the bottom of your career, but you’re really at the peak, because you made a nonprofit pizza chicken restaurant when Ani shut down,” the card read. “That’s the best thing you’ve ever done in your career.”

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Jeremy Schneider may be reached at [email protected].

Source: Thanks https://www.nj.com/coronavirus/2020/05/we-tried-njs-best-ramen-spot-now-a-nonprofit-serving-pizza-and-chicken.html