Saturday, November 29, 2008

元祖一条流がんこ (Ganso Ichijôryû Ganko)

Now this was a unique ramen experience in every way. It is hard to compare Ganko to any of the other ramen shops I've been to thus far. A few weeks ago at a dinner with some university faculty, someone told me that he had heard a rumor about an "all black" ramen shop on a back street somewhere in the neighborhood. Apparently there was no sign, and the person who told me about it didn't even know what "all black" meant - if it referred to the inside of the store, the outside of the store, or what. In any case, there was a "secret" ramen shop waiting to be found, and my curiosity was piqued.

Whatever this place was, it wasn't in any of my guide books, and initial google searches just revealed more tantalizing clues without a lot of details. I felt like cheating for using the internet at all, that this kind of place should only be found through word of mouth, through some kind of secret oral transmission passed on like the esoteric secrets of medieval Buddhism. Eventually I found a blog that described a store that seemed to match the description I had heard. All black, no sign, specializing in shio (salt) ramen, delicious. Fortunately, there was an address attached, so I used my local map to pinpoint where the address was...right...across...

How could it be that this mysterious ramen shop could be only a 3 minute walk from my own domicile? I went out to search at once. Unfortunately, I forgot my glasses, which makes it difficult to find an all black store at 9 PM. I walked in circles around the block in questions sniffing to try and catch a whiff of the smell of boiling soup and cooking noodles. I found the back door kitchen entrance to Shigeru, but no dice. I had some rice dishes for dinner and gave up for the day.

A couple days later, I checked the map again and hopped on my bike to make for easier searching. I went down the alley where it should have been - lets see, crappy looking pan-Asian restaurant, post boxes, houses, black tarpaulin construction shed with political campaign posters taped to it...Wait a minute! Could it be? There was a huge white animal bone hanging from a chain by a flap in the tarp. My heart beat faster. I opened the flap. A small white piece of paper. Shio ramen - 700 yen.

I slid open the door, and entered a ramen shop unlike any other. I'm not even sure if ramen shop is the right word for it. The space resembled a refurbished kitchen in an old 60s or 70s style house. There was a small counter with four tiny stools and the battered walls were chock full of old newspaper clippings, faded photos of smiling old men, obscure certificates, and what appeared to be convoluted family trees. Apparently the name of the shop refers to its heritage which can be traced to the famous ramen cook Ichijô Yasuyuki, whose ramen genealogy was pasted on the wall. Apparently the black wall and hanging bone are the trademark of stores in his lineage. The old man behind the counter was not Ichijô, but an almost equally elderly man who looked appropriately ganko (stubborn). Master Ichijô:

Given the circumstances, I became concerned about whether I might get kicked out for asking for no roast pork châshû - after there was a posting on the wall describing that this shop used to be kaiinsei - members only with an introduction necessary. But I figured it was better to ask him to hold the pork than to offend him by leaving it in the bowl and wasting it. The master was surprisingly friendly for such a ganko-looking man and there didn't seem to be a problem. The bathroom was also what one might expect to find in an unreconstructed old country house, and the kitchen seemed to be connected to another room - did the old man live there?

The special of the day was kotteri shio, which usually denotes thick soup, but at Ganko, kotteri seems to mean extra fat. The soup was thin and light, but with an amount of suspended fat to rival Jirô, which is saying something. The noodles were thin, straight, and almost shockingly yellow, with almost no toppings to speak of besides some shreds of bamboo and onion. The noodles were nothing special to be honest, but the soup had a long-lasting complex flavor that I can't describe. However, what really made Ganko special was the last do-it-yourself topping. The master went to the back of the room and pulled out a tiny plastic container of minced hot green pepper, almost like a jalapeno. So often, "spicy" dishes in Japan have a very "surface" level spice that is all heat and no taste, just a bit of pepper added at the last minute of cooking. This minced green pepper was sweet yet powerful and was really the coup de grace that made Ganko's ramen special, at least for me. I regretted not ordering the free upgrade to extra noodles.

I'm definitely going to be coming back to Ganko. Not only is it right near my house, but the noodles were good and the atmosphere was one to be savored. I sipped my soup slowly right to the end just to extend my time in that crazy little room. There was also a small piece of paper advertising specials several days a month, where the master brews up special soups - oxtail soup ramen sounds like it would definitely be worth a try...