Sunday, November 30, 2008

俺の空 (Ore no Sora)

I had been eating ramen nearly every day for a week, but I was switching up styles regularly enough that I wasn't feeling fatigued at all. Every day I would come home and think "OK, I'm gonna take a break, that's enough ramen for a while." Then every morning I would wake up and browse ramen magazines and sites and think "yeah, I could go for ramen today." Somehow I had even managed to lose weight while on this diet. I figured I had done shio and tonkotsu this week, so it was time to mix it up and try something different again, so for lunch I rode my bike to the other side of the tracks to go check out Ore no Sora (My Sky).

I had heard Ore no Sora can get long lines, but I went on the tail end of lunch, so I squeezed in just fine. I did notice benches out front, a telltale sign of a store's popularity. The shop is kind of tucked away next to the tracks off the main drag, in a little bit of an older neighborhood, so it doesn't get a lot of passerby dropping in. With so many shops around, people make an effort to get to Ore no Sora, even if it is only a few hundred meters off the main street.

Ore no Sora (apparently named after a popular manga) is clearly all business about its noodles. The "menu," as it were, is extremely minimalist, with only a choice between "kake butasoba" and "tsuke butasoba" (literally pig soup noodles and pig dipping noodles). There were buttons on the ticket machine for gyôza and a few other items, but they were all sold out. One suprising thing was the fact that a place like this offered a kaedama. The interior was kind of rough around the edges in an unreconstructed but nonetheless chic way. No decoration to speak of, stained walls and open pipes, but in a way that was more postmodernist architecture than neighborhood dive.

I got the kakesoba (soup noodles), but the cook didn't hear me ask for no roast pork over the blasting radio, so I ended up with several large chunks with my noodles. Rather than standard châshû, Ore no Sora uses kakuni, a thicker, richer chunk of meat. I don't think I've ever had a piece of pork on purpose, but if I was a pork-eatin' man, I have no doubt that these pieces of pork would be delicious. The high quality of the meat must be why prices were on the high side - 800 yen for a basic bowl with no toppings. The noodles were on the medium-thin side, and the soup was a tonkotsu-fish stock blend. But, like Watanabe, Ore no Sora's soup was a bit too fishy for my taste. I got an ajitama egg, which wasn't as totally perfect as Afuri's, but still very solid, or rather, nice and melty inside.

However, it seemed to me that the portion of noodles was a bit smaller than most places, and the whole experience felt kind of rushed. The noodles came fast, I ate them fast, and it seemed like I was only in the store for a handful of minutes total. They must be used to long lines, so they probably try to "turn tables" as quickly as possible. Most people around me had ordered the thicker tsukemen, which I thought looked appealing, but in retrospect it might just have been that I was feeling a bit unsatisfied. I'm still not sure how I feel about Ore no Sora - I definitely didn't love it, but I somehow feel drawn to go back and give it another shot sometime.

麺屋 宗 SOU (Menya Sou SOU)

Menya Sou SOU is not Nagahama ramen. If I were to imagine what the absolute opposite in of my favorite dirty old Kyoto Nagahama ramen stall, it would be Menya Sou SOU. Opposite in every way except one - both are totally delicious. I have to admit, I was pretty skeptical about Sou. It seemed like the ultimate in the fashionable new breed of ramen shops. Highly designed, fancy light soup (or so I had heard), the whole nine yards. I had walked by a couple of times and thought about going in but had always decided against it. I definitely have a bit of a bias against chic new wave shops - as delicious of ramen as they may serve, there's a part of me that wants to scream "this is not what a ramen shop should be! Ramen is food for the common people, so take off your fancy clothes!" Of course, even the fanciest, most high end ramen shop clocks in at barely 1000 yen, which is not bad for a full meal, so all things are relative. But perhaps precisely because of ramen's cheap lowly roots the cognitive dissonance is all the more intense.

Sou had won some kind of award from the ramen magazine Tora-san (named for the Showa-era popular hero of film, who probably wouldn't have been caught dead at a place like Sou), something along the lines of best new ramen shop for 2007, or at least some portion thereof. It appears prominently in other guides and magazines and is definitely one of the current talk of the scene places. The master and head cook is apparently only 27 years old, and is named Yanagi Sôki. Besides the first character of his name giving the shop it's name, the name Yanagi Sô is of a not insignificant pedigree. Sôki is a relative of Yanagi Sôri, a famous product designer who apparently designed the interior of the shop, despite being in his 90s. Sôri is in turn the son of Yanagi Sôetsu, an artist and thinker affiliated with the Shirakaba school of literature and arts in Taisho-era Japan. He was interested in folk art, especially from Korea, and founded the mingei folk craft movement in the 1920s. HIS father was Yanagi Narayoshi, who was a Meiji-era Navy admiral and politician. So the pedigree is there, but how are the noodles?

Inside, Sou is not entirely dissimilar in design to Watanabe, though a bit less minimalist and a bit bigger. There are fashionable hangers (no doubt Sôri's design) for all the young couples to hang their coats - Sou is definitely another "date restaurant" and definitely the first ramen shop I'd ever been to with mouthwash in the bathroom! Sou is also riding the wave of "ramen dining" - besides ramen they apparently have a non-noodle menu, though maybe not at lunch, because I only saw the basic noodle list. They also serve a pretty solid selection of sake as well as the standard ramen pairing of beer.

But what about the noodles? There were noodles in there somewhere, yes? As I said, I was skeptical, but I have to say it felt good to sit down in Sou, probably in part due to the fact that the seats had upholstered cushions. For the soup, you can choose between regular shio and yuzu (citron) shio, and for the noodles between thin noodles and thicker "bokoboko-men" which are apparently hand kneaded into a mild wavy shape. I ordered the yuzu soup and the thick noodles and waited, curious to see what this soup was going to be like.

In short, it was great. The yuzu just so mildly accented the already light and subtle broth, and if the broth was light the noodles even lighter. They were thick in width, but very supple, not dense at all, and a little flat, almost like Nagoya-style kishimen. The garnished fresh greens were a nice touch, and their addition added to my overall impression of a bowl of ramen very similar to and maybe even superior to Afuri's. There was a lot of complex flavor going on for a bowl of shio ramen. As an added touch, the salt and pepper (the only toppings available tableside) were equally fancy - Himalayan pink rock salt and whole fresh peppercorns, no doubt of some equally obscure origin. All in all, I walked out of Sou somewhat blown away and satisfied that this place was the real deal tastewise. It's official: I like shio ramen.

思い出の麺、その二:旭川ラーメン祭り (Ramenmories II: Asahikawa Ramen Festival)

One of the more exciting ramen-related experiences of my life was totally unplanned and unintended. A little over two years ago, I took my long awaited first trip to the northern island of Hokkaido. I was pretty broke, so I took the slow and low route, sitting on local trains all day then taking a ferry over from Honshu. I had two weeks in front of me during which my only plans were to climb as many mountains as possible, eat as much uni (sea urchin) as possible, and bathe in as many hot springs as possible. Ramen didn't really fit into the equation. But sometimes you go looking for ramen and sometimes ramen comes looking for you.

I spent three days hiking across the top of Daisetsuzan (Great Snow Mountain) National Park smack dab in the middle of Hokkaido. The scenery was great, the hiking was great, but it had started raining on day two, and by the time I made it down on day three I was exhausted, dirty, and ready for a hot meal that didn't consist of foil packets of curry held against my stomach to warm up.

My plans to grab a meal in the hot spring village at the end of the trail were stymied since none of the local inns had cafeterias, at least none that were open. One of the proprieters felt bad for me and gave me some free bread and cookies from the gift shop, which was pretty cool, but I was highly unsatiated. I took the bus back into Asahikawa, the nearest city of any size, and was greeted with basically the best possible welcome - the annual ramen festival was in full swing.

In Hokkaido the summers are short and the winters are long, so people like to get down while they can. In my two weeks travelling around I stumbled across 3 or 4 different local festivals. Since Hokkaido was only comparatively recently colonized and settled by Japanese people, the festivals don't really focus on any traditional activity, but are more about just getting drunk and dancing in the street. Asahikawa is, along with Hakata and Kitakata, in the first rank of nationally known ramen centers, and that night every shop in town had set up a stall outdoors where you could get mini bowls of their own famous noodles and soup. I didn't have the first clue which of the shops were any good, so I just lined up in whichever queues were the longest and hoped for the best. In a place like Asahikawa I think it's hard to misfire even when shooting blindfolded.

To be honest, I can't remember the first thing about the ramen I ate that night. I was too hungry to care, and anything would have tasted great. At the time I think I was under the impression that Asahikawa ramen was shio, but I guess it's actually tonkotsu with a bit of a seafood blend. According to Japanese Wikipedia, there's also something unique about the shôyû and the miso, but I guess I'll have to wait until next time I'm in Hokkaido to find out. That night I just focused on getting food in my stomach, getting a beer, and savoring the atmosphere. Walking down out of the mountains starving and tired to find a citywide ramen festival is was like something out of a dream, a very good dream.

長浜ラーメンぼたん (Nagahama Ramen Botan)

It seems like once the tonkotsu seal had been broken, tonkotsu was all I wanted to eat. Yamagoya was good, but it left me wanting some Hakata ramen with a bit more oomph. My map showed that within the vicinity of the station there weren't too many pure Hakata style joints, so it was easy to pick Nagahama. Nagahama ramen refers to (in my understanding) a specific area or neighborhood in Hakata (Fukuoka), but I think Nagahama ramen has probably long since become undistinguishable from non-Nagahama Hakata ramen. Though I wouldn't be surprised that if you go to Nagahama, wherever it might be, that people would argue vehemently to the contrary.

The other reason why Nagahama ramen specifically appeals to me is that my favorite place for ramen in Kyoto was a Nagahama ramen joint. Back then I had no idea that Nagahama referred to a general style or kei of ramen, and just thought the store was named "Nagahama." Actually, I think it was a couple of months before I even knew the store had a name - I and everyone else I knew just referred to it as "that smelly place" or "stinky ramen." The distinctive tonkotsu scent (or stench, depending on who you ask) was particularly strong there. "Stinky Ramen" was near the bridge over the Kamogawa river right as you turn from Sanjo-dori onto Kiyamachi, the main bar and nightlife street, and the smell was thus unavoidable to all patrons passing through this busy pedestrian intersection.

That Nagahama ramen joint was my very first introduction to the Hakata style that would be my ramen mainstay. It was small, dirty, cramped, and open to the street, with all the necessary toppings laid out. This is where I learned to go heavy on the beni shoga, takana, and garlic, and many bowls (and kaedama) were consumed either before, or more often, after, nights of heavy drinking. Lots of my friends avoided the place like the plague, but I loved it. The broth was thick and kotteri, and they also had a kimchi ramen. Plus I vaguely remember there being some topping that was almost like rice krispies that I've never seen anywhere else.

I heard that the Kyoto Nagahama ramen joint might be no longer. Whenever I go back to Kyoto I always try to swing by for a bowl - here's hoping that it's still there when I'm in town next weekend. But, this post is not about Kyoto Nagahama ramen, it's about Nagahama Ramen Botan in Takadanobaba. Definitely in a bit better shape cleanliness-wise than my old haunt, but still straight up no frills ramen shop atmosphere. A counter, a couple small tables, a ticket machine, not a whole lot else. Based on the style of the sign, it seemed like it might be a chain (probably small scale in Tokyo), but the ramen Botan served up was high caliber.

Thick but not quite kotteri white broth, thin white noodles, exceptional kikurage, takana and beni shôga on the table, nothing to complain about. I feel like when it comes to Hakata ramen, it's hard to write about the subtle differences in the soup - more than most ramen places, Hakata joints tend to fit a very specific mold as to style and toppings. One nice thing about Botan is that the ticket machine has separate buttons for how "al dente" you want the noodles. When it comes to Hakata ramen, I know the done thing to do is to get them as hard as possible, but I'm a bit of a wimp that way and like them softer. For my kaedama however, I asked for "soft" rather than "medium" and the noodles were a bit too soft, clumping together. All the flavors blended to get that rich Hakata taste. I'm not sure anywhere could match my Nagahama memories from Kyoto, but I did end up drinking down every last drop of the soup. There was a little bit of grit hanging out at the bottom of the bowl - is that bits of marrow? I prefer not to think about it, but I heard the really hardcore places in Kyushu often leave it unstrained. I went home satisfied, and for some reason my skin didn't even give off the scent of pork fat that night.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

山小屋 (Yamagoya)

After the disappointment of Watanabe, I wanted a bowl of ramen I knew I would enjoy, so I sought out a nice little tonkotsu close to home. Just south of the Babakuchi intersection, on the west side of Meiji-dori is Yamagoya (Mountain Hut), which had some how escaped my attention despite being so close to where I live. With a big red sign out front screaming Kyushu ramen in professionally printed letters, Yamagoya looked to be another competitor vying for the title of national chain restaurant Hakata-style king.

The first thing I noticed when I walked in was the porn, or at least, the softcore semi-nude models on the cover of the weekly magazines and men's comics laid out on a table by the door. This fact, combined with the cheap prices, suggests that Yamagoya is going for the salaryman and commuter student market rather than the hip young women that Watanabe is gunning for. Besides, you don't meet too many women who are big tonkotsu freaks, at least not in Tokyo.

I was the only customer, but it was mid-afternoon and raining again, so it didn't really bother me. The cook was young and a bit talkative, at least for a ramen cook. There was a menu item called "student ramen," so I asked the cook if that meant there was a student discount, or if it was actually a different dish; he replied that the student ramen used a cheaper kind of pork, but was otherwise the same, so naturally I ordered that since I wasn't going to eat the pork anyways. A steal at only 500 yen in this day and age. Unfortunately, takana wasn't free, so I had to shell out a bit to get that topping, but I can't complain. After garnishing the bowl with a heap of ground sesame and plenty of bright red beni shôga, I had a fully loaded bowl of Hakata ramen that was, while not especially "deep" or mind blowing, very tasty and well-executed.

Of course, kaedama noodles were available, but I opted for a small order of mentaiko (pink cod roe) and rice, a steal at only 50 yen (!) Not the fanciest mentaiko in the world, but again, for 50 yen, I can't complain. It seems like this branch of Yamagoya just opened up last month, and it's a nice addition to the neighborhood, especially at such shockingly low prices.

渡なべ (Watanabe)

Having eaten my way through the vast majority of the ramen shops east of Meiji-dori, I felt ready to venture across the street to see what the zone just east of the Takadanobaba station had to offer. It was raining, and I was tired and not so hungry, but I still needed dinner, so I decided to go for a ramen a bit on the lighter side. Watanabe was close by, and I heard they had a wafû (Japanese style) soup, which sounded good, since I was in no mood for something oily after having had a huge mochi and cheese sandwich for lunch.

Watanabe was apparently opened by the young and dashing "ramen producer and consultant" Watanabe Juan, a mere 33 years old. I'm not really sure what "ramen producer" means, or how one becomes one at the age of 33, but Watanabe was clearly going to be a very modern, chic, "new style" trendy ramen shop. I walked right by the store once, not realizing that the totally plain stone decor and backlit sign could hold a ramen shop - it seemed much more "fine dining." Inside, the textured stone walls continued for a very classy, minimalist "design concept." There were less than 10 seats and only one very young, very fashionable young cook manning the pots.

I ordered the plain ramen, no pork and sat down to wait. Everyone else who entered and left the shop during the course of my bowl were young couples - this was definitely a "date restaurant." The soup was a thick dark brown, very kotteri, and very, very fishy. I had caught a whif of the boiling fish broth when I walked in, and knew what I was in for, but this was the fishiest soup yet, with small brown flecks of the dried fish used for the stock clinging to the noodles. The noodles themselves were medium-thick, very straight, and a bit darker in color than the average noodle. The menma were, simply put, huge, just two or three slabs almost half the size of a dollar bill and thick as hell, almost to the point where they were difficult to eat.

It was clear that everything going into Watanabe's ramen bowl was of extremely high quality, but I just couldn't really enjoy it. It was tasty enough, but the fish taste was, at least for me, overpowering. It seems that blended niboshi is definitely "in" among the trendy new ramen shops, but it's just not my personal taste. Eating at Watanabe was like listening to Eric Clapton - I recognize that it is masterfully conceptualized and executed, but I just can't get down with it. I'm sure Watanabe will continue to do good business with well-dressed young men and their health conscious girlfriends, but it's not the ramen for me.

思い出の麺、その一:失われた麺を求めて (Ramenmories I: Rememberances of Noodles Past)

All this writing about noodles makes me think about my first ramen experiences. Like most all Americans, my first encounter with ramen was with the packaged, instant Top Ramen. I remember at some point late in elementary school going over to a friend's house and having his mom prepare the classic Top Ramen Oriental flavor. About all I remember is that those were some delicious noodles, perfectly suited to the elementary schoolers' taste - soft, salty, unchallenging in every way...but with just a hint of exoticism. I talked my mom into keeping the kitchen stocked with Top Ramen, though only the Oriental Flavor - by dint of not being "Shrimp," "Chicken," or "Beef" I figured it was close enough to vegetarian. It was something of a special treat, as being "all chemicals" my mom was reluctant to serve it to me too often.

Never could I have imagined that some day I would be living a mere ten minute bike ride from the Nissin corporate headquarters. Come to think of it, I should see if they do tours. As I grew older, I became able to cook ramen at home myself, and by the time I was in high school, I had developed a kind of "ramen" I am now ashamed to have eaten - "green tea ramen." Concerned about the negative effect of aforementioned chemicals on my health, I took to the custom of boiling the noodles and then serving them in green tea instead of the soup. Never again.

At some point I switched allegiance from Top Ramen to the Korean-style Shin Ramyun, which was my main squeeze all through college. I liked the extra spiciness, I liked the little cubes of unidentifiable quasi-vegetable matter. I experimented with other brands like Sapporo, and some obscure ones I found at the Chinese supermarket, but Shin Ramyun was my number one. By that point, my cooking skills had "developed" to the point where I realized that a little bit of extra work could turn a crappy package into a pretty solid little meal. I would cut up some green onions, toss in an egg, maybe stir fry some tofu as a topping and enjoy my ramen. By that point I had spent a year studying in Japan and had eaten plenty of "real" ramen, but my Shin Ramyun still hit the spot at home.

However, my relationship with Shin Ramyun had a tragic end. I remember being home at my parents house during a break from school and finding a package of Shin Ramyun in the pantry. I cooked it up and after taking the first bite realized something was amiss. I checked the package only to discover that the the noodles were 2 years past the expiration date; I had always figured that ramen never goes bad, but this is not the case. The noodles tasted awful and stale, the soup clumpy. Ever since, I've never been able to see Shin Ramyun, or instant ramen at all, the same way. Maybe I'll feel differently next time I get back to the states and start jonesing for noodles...

七福神 (Shichifukujin)

(NOTE: Shichifukujin is now sadly closed)

After a few bowls away from Baba, I decided I needed to redevote myself more fully to my quest. The last major ramen shop before the Babakuchi intersection of Waseda-dori and Meiji-dori was Shichifukujin (Seven Gods of Good Fortune); there are a few kind of crappy looking cheap places closer to the university, but I decided to save those for the end. Shichifukujin seems to be a fairly well-known store, at least judging by the number of magazine articles posted outside by the door. I think it's a branch store, and the original master seems to be a jolly, hefty fellow who himself quite resembles one of the titular Gods of Good Fortune.

The vibe was old-school ramen place fixed up a bit - old-school and no frills, but not dirty or down at the heels at all - there was even a waitress taking orders, rather than customers calling out directly to the chef. It was nearly packed, with a surprising amount of young single women as well as men. If the atmosphere was fixed up old-school, so were the noodles. Shichifukujin serves up a style of ramen rarely seen these days in the trendy ramen scene, namely straight up old fashioned Tokyo-style shôyû.

Shichifukujin's ramen is basically a slighlty modified version of the almost stereotypical image of ramen that appears in manga, anime, TV shows, and other cultural products all over the world - the classic no frills shôyû ramen found in yatai stalls and local cafeterias all over Japan. Thin dark brown shôyû-based soup, medium thickness noodles, onions, menma, and most crucially for the sake of image, the pink and white swirly sliver of fishcake known as naruto. Being more of a Kyushu / tonkotsu guy, I always took the presence of a naruto as a kiss of death, a sure-fire sign of crappy ramen. However, I had only ever eaten said bowls at places that were not ramen specialty shops, merely shops that served ramen. Thus, Shichifukujin would be my first experience of this style of ramen done right.

The tsukemen seemed extremely popular, and I was almost the only one who ordered ramen rather than the dipping noodles. Shichifukujin did not disappoint. I don't think shôyû will be displacing tonkotsu at the top of my hierarchy, but this was a very tasty bowl of ramen. I liked the thickness of the noodles and there were a lot of them - it took me so long to eat my way to the bottom of the bowl that I started to wonder if the cook had slipped me some extra noodles to make up for my lack of roast pork. I left Shichifukujin full, satisfied, and with a new respect for the humble old-school Tokyo-style shôyû.

ババ番外地、その四:阿夫利 (Beyond Baba 4: AFURI)

My pal was in town and we had plans to visit the photography museum and beer museum in Ebisu, and decided that while in Ebisu we should seek out a delicious bowl of ramen. I had brought my guide, so after a bit of flipping through, we thought that Afuri was close by and looked good, so decided to go for it. I had kind of been secretly hoping to go back to Tsukumo to have their Hokkaido Cheese ramen, but at Afuri shio is the order of the day. The trip to Afuri was a bit further back in time than some of my other ramen shops visits on the list, so I was still feeling a bit questionable about my feelings towards shio.

Even with a map, it took a little while to find Afuri, since it was tucked away on a side street and the sign looked more like that of a bistro than that of a ramen shop. There was no line, but the counter was pretty much packed - definitely a chic place catering towards a young, modern, and health conscious crowd. It was all cream colors and hardwood inside, with sunlight coming in through a small garden in the back. Apparently Afuri is a pretty well known name on the ramen scene and is famous city-wide.

After a few bites I could see why. My instincts wanted me to dislike this ramen - it was fancy, it was shio, it was assari, there were actual raw green vegetable shreds on top. But I just couldn't hate Afuri's ramen, it was too tasty. The shio soup was light and flavorful and the ajitama egg was perhaps the most perfectly boiled egg I have ever eaten, nice and orange inside with the yolk just drippy enough. The noodles were straight and medium thin.

Besides the ramen, we got a side of take (bamboo) rice. The menma were tender and flavorful and delicious, with the juices dripping down to flavor the rice. Afuri is the kind of place were you can tell just by looking that all the ingredients being used are extremely high quality.

I'd say I'd be back to Afuri, but I've already been back - two days later my pal wanted Afuri one more time before hopping on the train. I was too hungover to eat any ramen, but I had a few sips of the yuzu (citron) shio soup and it was extremely delicious. There are more ramen shops I need to try in Ebisu, but I'm sure the craving for Afuri will strike me again at some point.

タイ国ラーメン ティーヌン本店 (Thai Ramen Tinun Honten)

I was a bit under the weather, and so wanted something warm, close, and restorative. They say that Thai Tom Yum soup does wonders for a cold, so I decided to hit up Thai Ramen Tinun, just around the corner from home. Although they offer a small menu of Thai dishes, Tinun is definitely a ramen shop (albeit a fusion-y one), with big vats of boiling soup and fat (EXTREMELY fat in this case) dudes slinging noodles in nets to shake the water off behind the counter. There seemed to be a mix of Thai and Japanese staff.

Tinun seems to be a mini-chain, and the vibe was basically corporate chain ramen / convenient lunch place, with a few Thai knickknacks and posters around for decoration. The lunch special was truly a killer deal, with a bowl of Tom Yum ramen and a side of green curry and rice for around 800 yen (plus a student discount of an additional 100 yen off). The curry came first and was great - a couple veggies in a medium thick green gravy that tasted not unlike green curries I'd eaten in Thailand.

For the ramen, you get the choice between standard Tom Yum or Nom Plaa, fermented fish sauce described on the menu rather euphemistically as "Thai Soy Sauce" though I'm sure they tone it down a bit for the Japanese palette. For the noodles, there is an option of "Chinese style noodles" (medium-thin standard "ramen" style yellow noodles) or varying thicknesses of white rice noodles. As tempting as Southeast Asian-style rice noodles sounded, I had to go with the Chinese-style or else it would just be Tom Yum soup, not ramen. Unfortunately, the bowl was a bit of a disappointment. The soup tasted a bit thin and weak and just didn't have all the flavor that good Tom Yum should. The noodles were fine, and the garnishes of cilantro were nice (most people in Japan absolutely hate the stuff, so you rarely see it), but cilantro alone does not a good soup make.

Tinun's ramen was pretty disappointing, so I don't think I'll be coming back for it again, but I'll probably hit them up for dinner sometime to get some tasty curry and other Thai dishes.

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...

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.

万豚記 (Wantsûchi)

(NOTE: Wantsûchi is currently closed following a recent fire)

Wantsûchi (Chronicle of 10,000 Pigs) isn't a ramen shop per se, but is a Chinese restaurant that specializes in tantanmen and serves other dishes as well. The pronunciation is a kind of weird Japanization of the Chinese pronunciation of the same characters, which would be Wanzhuji. A classmate and I stopped off here after seminar one day to see what they had to offer. It looked tasty, and I am a sucker for tantanmen, but I was still skeptical, since all too often Japanese tantanmen that aspires to be Chinese dandanmian falls short, lacking the punch of the chili, numbing peppers, sesame, and hot oil of the original.

Ive been to Chongqing and Chengdu and I've had more than a few bowls of tantanmen in Sichuan, so I figured the best I could hope for was a poor approximation. Though, the original Sichuanese dandanmian done right is so delicious, so mind-blowing a noodle that even a poor approximation can be pretty tasty.

Wantsûchi offers up an extremely sizeable menu selection of tantanmen, with toppings ranging from extra pork to raw egg to spicy takana greens. They also have several soupless varieties where the noodles sit in chili oil in true Chongqing style. I went with the spicy black sesame basic tantanmen and hoped for the best. The place certainly smelled good, and there were glass jars of different kinds of dried peppers, which was a good sign, but things like that can always be good PR to draw attention away from the poor quality of the food.

These tantanmen were the bomb. Although the noodles were a bit thicker than traditional dandanmian, everything else was right on. A thick, thick layer of ground sesame laid over nice red oil, and, shockingly, I could even feel the familiar buzz of the huajiao, the flower pepper, as I got the numbing taste of ma. It wasn't overpowering, but this was the first time I had ever felt it to any degree while eating in Japan. I almost couldn't believe that these noodles were so good. The cook seemed Japanese, since Wantsûchi is a chain restaurant, but they certainly had some assistance from a Sichuanese chef when they designed the recipes, because I have had many, many, many worse bowls of dandanmian than this in Beijing. After Wantsûchi I don't think I'll be able to eat Shigeru's black sesame tantanmen anymore, tasty as they were. This is a shop I'll definitely be coming back to once I finish the circuit, since I want to be sure and try all their varieties of soupless noodles!

一風堂 (Ippûdô)

After a couple bowls of ramen that were tasty but not quite my style, I decided to go with a bowl I knew for a fact I would enjoy. Ippûdô is a nationwide chain serving a gussied-up bowl of Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen. I remember being taken by some friends to Ippûdô for the first time five or six years ago and being totally blown away, and last time I was in Tokyo I made it a pretty regular stop for lunch and dinner. And now, as it turns out, Ippûdô is literally the closest ramen shop to where I live, barely a few hundred meters away. Perhaps because it's so close, or perhaps because I worried that I had held it in too high esteem, I had consciously avoided going to Ippûdô thus far. Now, 10 or 12 bowls in, it was time.

I put on my slippers and shuffled down the block, waiting under the eaves on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Ippûdô has an amazing lunch special, where for something like 100 yen extra, you get gyoza (dumplings) and unlimited rice as well as ramen, so lines are always long, especially on weekends. If anything, Ippûdô might suffer from a bit of over-hype, as it's praises are constantly being sung, and many people who would not generally consider themselves ramen fans often eat there. It's also expensive, clocking in at nearly 1000 yen a bowl, and was one of the first places to really succeed with the whole "ramen in an upscale atmosphere" strategy.

Ippûdô recently opened a shop in the East Village in New York that is even more high concept, featuring a bar area (with a bar made of backlit dried noodles under glass) with cocktails to sip on while waiting for a table in the very chic dining room. $14 dollars plus tax and tip is a lot to pay for one bowl of ramen, but it was unspeakably satisfying to be able to get a truly delicious bowl of Hakata ramen in New York.

So, after all the hype, I wondered if I could still enjoy a bowl of Ippûdô the way I used to. After the first sip of soup, I knew the answer was yes. The pure white tonkotsu broth was so delicious and creamy, and blended perfectly with the dark black mâyû (burnt garlic oil) laid on top, both visually and tasticulally. I got the richer Akamaru (versus the lighter assari Shiromaru) which also comes with a clump of spicy paste to create a red, white and black tri-color beauty, accented with crisp green onions and slivers of kikurage fungus.

One of the other best things about Ippûdô is the fact that spicy takana greens and beni shôga (pickled ginger) are available tableside. I like my Hakata ramen to look like a garbage can of toppings when I'm done with it, so I layered both on heavily, and used some of the takana to eat with my free rice as well. There is also a garlic press to squeeze on fresh garlic, as well as a sesame grinder for extra garnish. This to me is what the whole Hakata ramen experience is all about - pure decadence as the strong porky soup, garlic, ginger, onion, and spice all blend together to be absorbed perfectly by the thin white noodles.

I couldn't help myself from ordering a kaedama (extra helping of noodles) to get every last sweet drop of broth into my mouth. I felt disgustingly full for the rest of the day, but was relieved to discover that Ippûdô was still delicious.

Friday, November 28, 2008

ババ番外地、その二:青葉本店 (Beyond Baba 2: Aoba Honten)

My pal Kei and I had big plans to spend the afternoon cruising the Nakano Broadway mall and geeking out on all the rad old books, toys, and comics they sell there, but first needed some stamina, or as Kei put it "HP" (Hit Points). Nakano Broadway is the kind of place where you can find mint condition idol postcards from the 70s, crazy guro manga, and a whole store devoted to just Muscle Men toys, some of which sell for hundreds of dollars (!) An afternoon there definitely called for sustenance, so Kei took me to the nearby Aoba (Green Leaves).

Aoba is a ramen shop with quite an interesting story behind it. Apparently, decades ago, somewhere in Tokyo there was an old ramen master and his young, business-savvy acolyte. At some point, the acolyte absconded with the soup recipe that the old master had spent years developing and went on to open his own shop. The shop went on to fame and fortune, opening branches all over and catapulting the young acolyte to nationwide success, while the old master languished in obscurity. Until the old master decided to teach the young whippersnapper a lesson by paying off some gangsters to kidnap, blindfold, strip, beat, and photograph the younger cook. And then the old master went to prison. And the young master's shop continued to command lines around the block. That shop is Aoba, and it's original branch is in Nakano. (For the full story, see

It was a warm, sunny day, so waiting 4 or 5 deep in line was no big deal, and assistants took our order while we waited, so the noodles came almost immediately after sitting down. The shop is open to the street on two sides, and has a large central cooking area surrounded by counter seats. The assistants use an interesting system to keep track of orders, and we tried to figure it out while waiting. There is a miniature map on which the assistants arrange different colored magnets to keep orders straight - yellow for tsukemen, blue for ramen, pink for extra-noodles, or whatever.

This time, I caved in and got tsukemen (dipping noodles) - I hadn't had them in a long time, and it was warm, so I figured what the hell. The noodle portion seemed to be a bit larger than it would be for regular ramen, but maybe it's just that Aoba is generous that way. There weren't really any toppings, unless you ordered separately, so I just enjoyed my thick yellow, slightly wavy noodles dipped in the soup with a few green onions. Aoba is apparently one of the first stores to start the blended niboshi (dried fish) stock soup trend, so the taste was a complex blend of something closer to a Japanese dashi taste mixed with what seemed to already be a blended ramen soup (that is to say, not straight tonkotsu, or so forth). It was tasty and not overly fishy, but I'm glad I got the tsukemen, because I think I prefer for this style of soup to have a supporting, rather than starring role. The fact that the noodles were room temperature by halfway through the bowl reminded me why I avoid tsukemen, but that didn't keep me from slurping down Kei's leftovers too.

All in all, I'm glad I could try the infamous Aoba, but in the end, my lack of interest in blended fish stock soup was reinforced.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

麺屋武蔵鷹虎 (Menya Musashi Takatora)

Menya Musashi Takatora (Noodle House Musashi Hawk and Tiger) is a part of a highly regarded local chain. I think the original is in Shinjuku, but there are 5 or 6 around the city, each designated with a slightly different name (hence the "Hawk and Tiger"). I don't know the full story behind Musashi, but all of the branches are very popular, and apparently the honten can get lines to rival Jirô's. The Takadanobaba branch is just across the street from the main entrance to the JR station, tucked away in a small alley. There was a line about 5 people deep when I came in, but not stretching out the door. In any case, I got a seat in a few minutes and my noodles a few minutes after that.

Takatora is somewhere between your standard ramen shop and one of the new fangled fashionable places in terms of appearance and atmosphere. Straightforward and simple in design, but with black walls, pretty soup bowls, and a better than average bathroom. The big drawing point here is the shôyû blended fish broth soup, with niboshi (dried sardines), konbu seaweed and possibly other fish stock mixed in to a more standard ramen broth to create a wafû (Japanese style) soup. This was one of my first experiences with niboshi broth, and I thought it was so-so. A bit fishy for me, and not quite my taste, but certainly a very flavorful soup. As a nice bonus, the cook gave me a free boiled egg (ajitama) since I asked for no pork. The broth is a dark brown color, with better than average nori, menma (bamboo), and onions. The tsukemen also seemed to be exceptionally popular among the rest of the customers. One nice feature is that at least at lunch, all size of noodles are the same price.

I'm glad I went to Takatora to taste what all the fuss is about, but I don't think I'll be going back. I would recommend this shop highly to anyone who is a fan of blended fish broth ramen, but that's just not me.

和三房 (Kazusanbô)

(NOTE: Kazusanbô is now closed, another casualty of stiff competition)

This was a good bowl of ramen, but maybe not such a good choice after having just eaten at Jirô. For whatever reason, this place didn't look very appetizing from the outside, so I was kind of expecting it to suck, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised. However, as I should have guessed from the bright yellow and black sign, Kazusanbô is a store going for a Jirô-like taste, which has pretty much become a genre at this point.

Kazusanbô, which seems to be a small-scale chain, offers a few basic varieties of ramen, but as is my custom, I went with the basic tonkotsu ramen on the ticket vending machine. This turned out to be a bowl of noodles very close to Jirô in soup style and taste, if not in format. There was the same light brown shôyu-tonkotsu broth, the same bits of floating fat in the soup, and thick (though not overly so) noodles. However, Kazusanbô's ramen was almost completely lacking in toppings. Although several basics such as corn and extra nori (seaweed) were available for extra charge, the basic bowl just had a few shreds of whitish scallion and a few bean sprouts, a far cry from Jirô's veritable mountain. This was perfectly fine with me, as I had no desire to eat a second bowl of Jirô that week, especially caught unawares.

One strange thing about my trip to Kazusanbô is the fact that for the majority of my meal, I was the only customer, despite it being dinnertime, and despite it being a large store with a wraparound counter. That always makes me feel a little strange - firstly in that I imagine I can feel the cook's eyes on me, waiting to see how I like his ramen. Secondly, I always worry that maybe the place is about to go out of business. Takadanobaba is a tough place to make it as a ramen shop, and no matter how mediocre a bowl of noodles, it makes me sad to imagine someone's dream of becoming a ramen master crushed. By the bottom of the bowl, a few more people trickled in and when I got home I found out that Kazusanbô is a local chain, so I didn't feel so bad.

In the end, this was a tasty, if a bit plain bowl of ramen. If I am ever in the mood for something Jirôesque, without wanting to bike down to Jirô, wait in line, then anticipate stomach troubles the next morning, it's good to know that Kazusanbô is close by. Though it still took me almost a full day to get that oily pork taste out of my mouth.

ラーメン次郎 高田馬場 (Ramen Jirô Takadanobaba)

What can be said about Jirô that has not already been said a thousand times over? Perhaps the most legendary (infamous might be a better word) ramen chain in Tokyo, Jirô is like none other, and, according to some, is so different that it cannot even be considered ramen, just "Jirô." I wouldn't go that far, but eating Jirô is certainly an experience unto itself.

Having eaten at the Takadanobaba bracnh of Jirô several times before in years past, I knew what I was in for, and came prepared. It actually took me a while to get around to eating at Jirô this time, since I had to mentally and physically prepare myself before I could sit down for a bowl. I kept telling myself "next week I'll go, next week I'll go," but kept not getting around to it. Then I finally steeled myself to bite the bullet, but when I showed up, my initial delight at the lack of a line quickly turned into disappointment that I had showed up on the teikyûbi, the one day a week when the shop is closed.

Why all the consternation? Jirô pretty much has a grip on the title of being the biggest, fattest, oiliest, most intense bowl of ramen out there. Noodles hand cut, uneven and thick as hell, tons of suspended fat floating in the soup, cooks wearing knee-high galoshes to walk around on the floor slick with soup and oil spilling from the overfilled bowls. Jirô is like the anti-Ichiran (described below). Crowded, raucous, in your face. Also crucial to the Jirô experience are the toppings. As is well documented elsewhere, the cook (generally) asks you "Ninniku iremasu ka?" (You want garlic?) to which you respond with set phrases indicating the amount of each of the four toppings available for free: garlic, vegetables (cabbage and sprouts), extra spicy topping (karame), and just plain old pig lard, layed on top of your noodles. Each of these can be ordered mashi (extra) or mashimashi (extra extra). For an awesomely detailed rundown of everything Jirô in English, see:

Then there's the sheer volume. A small bowl is probably bigger than a large at most other shops, and I've never dared myself to eat the large or (god forbid) the extra large. There's a whole other system of châshû
pork ordering, of which I'm only dimly aware (I think you can get it "W" = double), but I'm pretty sure that you can ask for a sizeable hunk of pig to be placed (balanced ) on your noodles.

I first heard about the legend of Jirô five or so years back from some friends who were students at Keio University, within spitting distance of the original honten, run by Jirô's famously cranky old man of a founder (who is not named Jirô). I remember receiving a text message saying something like "We just ate MONSTER RAMEN. The line was so long. While we were eating, a pigeon flew out of the rafters. It was so oily that we almost vomited on the pavement after we stepped outside."" Naturally, it sounded awesome. Nonetheless, it took me several years before I could find an opportunity to go to Jirô, and I still as yet have not made pilgrimage to the godfather store in Mita from which all other Jirôs are descended. There are now dozens of shops all over the Tokyo metro area, easily identifiable by the bright yellow and black signs. Jirô has even been featured on NPR:

The first time I went to Takadanobaba Jirô, 2 years ago, all I could do was just mutter the word "Jirô" over and over while slowly shuffling down the street. The next time, I used Jirô to replenish my strength after climbing Mt. Fuji. Jirô this time was a somewhat more straightforward experience; There were about 5 people waiting outside, and another 3 or 4 inside at the back of the store, stretching down the stairs to the bathroom. Naturally, it was almost all men in line. Jirô is also shockingly cheap. Considering that sometimes lines at Jirô look like this, a line of ten or so was not too bad:

Within 15 minutes I was at the counter, fully prepared with my own bottle of oolong tea and pack of napkins. Jirô was as fatty and delicious as ever. I got a regular (=huge) bowl with extra garlic and spicy topping, and proceeded to relish it. Time seems to stand still as the bowl of noodles, hidden under the mass of toppings seems to last forever, with the brown oily soup becoming a Felix the Cat like magic bag in which more noodles and veggies can always be found. I took my leave so that the next sweaty salaryman could take my place, taking care to use the towel provided to wipe the oil off the counter. I felt comparatively light after walking out (for Jirô), but still could feel that oily film around the inside of my mouth for about 24 hours after. Plus, I'm pretty sure my pores were emitting the smell of liquid pork.

ババ番外地、その一:一蘭 (Beyond Baba 1: Ichiran)

Every once and a while, circumstances demand that I eat ramen outside of Takadanobaba. There are certainly many, many, many delicious shops demanding to be tried all over Tokyo, and I can't always be near home base to mark an X on the map everytime the urge for ramen strikes. Hence, "Beyond Baba."

Unfortunately, my first bowl of ramen outside of my immediate geographical parameters was a huge disappointment. I hated almost everything about this bowl of ramen, even though all signs pointed to the fact that I should have loved it. I knew I was going to be in Shibuya and picked it out ahead of time after a brief survey, thinking that I was in the mood for some old school Hakata-style tonkotsu.

Ichiran (One Orchid), is located in the basement of a multi-use building right in the heart of the commercial sprawl / urban clusterfuck of central Shibuya, not far from Tower Records. First of all, I should have known something was up from that fact alone - in all these years, I have never been to a ramen shop in a basement. The next wave of confusion came when the door opened to what seemed to be a dead end with a ramen ticket vending machine and nothing else. After a moment, I realized that there was another interior black door leading to the store itself.

After purchasing my ticket for plain ramen, I was confronted with one of the most unpleasant ramen-related sights I have witnessed. Inside the shop, the patrons were lined up at the counter, but between each patron was a small partition about two feet tall, effectively separating each person from the next, making it impossible to see the face of the person sitting next to you. To make matters worse, there is a bamboo curtain between the counter and the cooking area, with just enough space at the bottom to slide tickets in one direction and ramen bowls in the other.

To my knowledge, although ramen is often stereotyped as a food for dudes, and is not particularly high class, there isn't a very strong social stigma attached to it, so I'm not really sure why Ichiran would go to such lengths to make the act of ordering and eating a bowl of noodles a secretive experience. I suppose in the busy crush of Tokyo, especially Shibuya, being able to find a refuge where you can escape the pulse of humanity for a few minutes might be a draw, but it seemed excessive. I felt like a machine who had been slotted in to consume before getting back to work as a drone. If anything, the whole process feels more socially isolating rather than a respite of any kind.

One of the "appeals" of Ichiran is the degree to which you can customize your ramen. You are given a slip of paper to select options such as pork / no pork, thickness of soup, spiciness of soup, extra toppings, firmness of noodles, and so forth. Ramen is of course, for the most part a naturally customizeable food, and therein lies part of its appeal. While always essentially the same dish, every shop's ramen is different from every other shop's, much like a slice of New York pizza. Further changes can be made at a standard ramen shop by simply asking the cook or waiter for "extra firm" noodles, "no roast pork", "extra bamboo" or whatever. But Ichiran takes it too far. Each individual is locked into his booth, unable to see or be seen, and is able to tailor that experience to his individual taste - total fulfillment through total isolation. Since there is no talk between customers and no talk between customers and staff, the store is essentially silent but for the piped in music.

I should probably say something about the ramen itself. It was totally bland, forgettable, Hakata style ramen. White broth, thin white noodles, green onions. No takana (spicy pickeld greens), no kikurage (wood-ear mushroom slices), no beni shôga (pickled ginger). The noodles themselves were a bit more al dente than I like, which is in line with the classic Hakata style), but they mostly just tasted cheap and mass produced, set to be churned out to the masses one pod person at a time. The whole experience made me feel depressed, isolated, administrated, compartmentalized, and processed. I would never recommend Ichiran to anyone.

天下一品 (Tenka Ippin)

I'm not going to lie, I was super drunk when I ate this bowl of ramen. I had been out in Shinjuku until god knows when and had drank a not small amount of liquor. However, I still had enough of my senses about me to realize that 1. for the sake of the next morning, it would probably be a good idea to get as much starch into my stomach as possible, and 2. that this would be a perfect opportunity to knock another shop off the list. Tenka Ippin (The Best Under Heaven) is almost right next door to RYOMA, and is a very different bowl of noodles. Tenka Ippin (or "Tenka Ichi" to its substantial cult of devotees) is a fairly big national chain with its honten (original store) in Kyoto. Apparently it started from a single portable cart in 1971 that only sold 11 bowls the first day and went on to grow into a hugely successful corporation. Although the vibe is in general a bit fast-foody, the ramen is totally decent, and very unique.

When I lived in Kyoto five or six years ago, I seem to remember going to Tenka Ichi a fair amount, maybe because I had a friend who always argued for it when the idea of eating ramen came up, or maybe because it was close to the gate of Doshisha University, where I spent a fair amount of time. At that time, I thought it was basically just regular (if fairly cheap and thus attractive to students) ramen, and didn't realize that the yellow soup and chickeny flavor were Kyoto ramen trademarks. The primary choice is between assari (light or thin broth) and kotteri (thick or heavy broth). While the assari is essentially not too different from your average bowl of ramen, the kotteri is a beast all its own, with the soup so thick that it is almost like a thick sauce, gravy, or gritty curry. The official website calls it healthy, but I have my doubts about that. Toppings are almost non-existent, save for a few slivers of bamboo and some onions.

That night, as always, I went with the kotteri and shoveled it down like there was no tomorrow. Actually, if I hadn't filled my stomach with something to absorb the booze, there may not have been a tomorrow, so the metaphor is perhaps an apt one. I seem to recall always having had a fairly mediocre opinion of Tenka Ichi, but that night it hit the spot. However, I remembered upon finishing my bowl that one of the other reasons I never liked Tenka Ichi that much is because the helping of noodles and volume of soup seems somehow smaller than other places, though it could just be an illusion from the shape of the bowl. I don't think I'll ever be one of the devoted followers that the Tenka Ichi chain has amassed nationwide, but the desire to eat Tenka Ichi is a specific kind of desire that can only be fulfilled by one thing, like wanting to hear a certain song, or drinking a cold Pepsi on a hot day.