Saturday, November 29, 2008

ババ番外地、その三:肥後のれん (Beyond Baba 3: Higo Noren)

I had some errands to take care of in Shinjuku, so I brought my ramen guide along with me to see what looked good. Despite having downed a fair amount of tonkotsu recently, or perhaps because of it, I was in the mood for more Kyushu-style porky goodness. The seal had been broken, and now all I wanted to do was get down with Hakata-style white broth. For this bowl, though, I went a little bit outside of the box and decided to give Kumamoto style ramen a whirl - Higo is the old pre-Meiji Restoration name for Kumamoto Prefecture, and Noren are the cloth curtains that hang in front of shops and restaurants.

It was pouring down rain and I was cold and damp, and by the time I found the shop in the warren of small streets near the East Gate of Shinjuku station, I was extremely ready for some hot ramen. The vibe was pure old school ramen joint, the kind of place you would expect to walk into somewhere out in the countryside, say, Kyûshû for example. White walls, no frills, a bit run-down, but in a good way. I can't recall the exact date, but the shop advertised that it had been opened sometime in the Showa era, so it has weathered its share of ramen-world trends in the last several decades. There were two big youngish guys who looked like what one would imagine a burly young ramen cook to look like working the store, or rather, hanging out and reading comics while waiting for customers. There was no one else inside, but it was 3 PM on a weekday and pissing down rain, so I wasn't too surprised or dismayed.

As is clear from both the Kyushu pedigree and what appears to be a drawing of a pig scratching its ass on the store sign, Higo Noren deals in tonkotsu, but to be perfectly honest, I couldn't really tell the difference between Kumamoto ramen and Hakata ramen, though allegedly there is a bit more salt stock mixed in, and kikurage fungus is a mandatory rather than optional topping in Kumamoto. I ordered the takana (spicy mustard green) ramen, and upon first sip it tasted a little weak. However, upon adding a touch of garlic and mixing in the greens to give it some spice, the full flavor of the soup came out.

Some bowls of ramen are great over the first few sips of soup, but then you seem to lose track of the flavor as you keep eating - Higo Noren was the opposite: the more I ate, the deeper the flavor seemed and the more I liked it. The noodles were of course thin and white, but a bit thicker than the uber-thin Hakata style threads, which I liked. I ended up getting a small bowl of rice to dump in the soup to polish it off. I'll be back to Higo Noren when I'm in the mood for ramen in East Shinjuku.

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