Sunday, January 4, 2009

ババ番外地、その九:蒙古タンメン中本池袋 (Beyond Baba 9: Môko Tanmen Nakamoto Ikebukuro)

Today, four days after New Years, the New Years store closure was finally lifted, so I decided to celebrate by riding my bike up to Ikebukuro to cross the first of my New Years Resolution shops off the list - Môko Tanmen Nakamoto. However, upon pulling up, it didn't take more than a moment to realize that I was far from the only one who wanted to celebrate the new year with a bowl of good noodles.

Môko Tanmen Nakamoto is a famous shop, and this was their first day back in business after a week-long hiatus, so the line was substantial. I estimated it to be about 25, maybe 30 deep, when you considered that the queue stretched down the stairs and around the corner, plus another 8 or so heads waiting inside to be seated. It had been a while since I've waited in such a long line, and there's something to be said for the extra enjoyment that you get when the bowl finally arrives and quells the long building hunger and anticipation.

This Nakamoto is located in an interesting part of town, just a bit west of the gargantuan Ikebukuro station complex; it's in the middle of a neighborhood that's about one-half low-end red light district packed with cheap and dingy love hotels like this one...

...and about one-half up and coming Chinatown. A far cry from the Disneyfied "Chinesey" atmosphere of the nation's largest Chinatown in Yokohama, Ikebukuro West feels more like a grittier New York Chinatown, with lots of little restaurants and shops tucked down gray alleys. In the midst of all this, it's pretty easy to spot a two-story line of people snaking around the corner. I made mental notes of a couple other tasty looking Chinese-style noodle shops and Sichuanese restaurants in the neighborhood, but it seems like Nakamoto draws a fair chunk of the local Chinese clientele, in addition to pulling customers from all over Tokyo, including buxom celebrities like Sugimoto Aya.

Maybe it's because Nakamoto started out as a Chinese restaurant - way back in 1968, Nakamoto Masa opened his restaurant in the northwestern suburbs out past Itabashi. He loved spicy food and developed a unique menu of noodles and other Chinese-influenced dishes that highlighted his love for the hot stuff. "Chinese Restaurant Nakamoto" developed quite a following, but Mr. Nakamoto's health wasn't in the best of shape, so he closed the store about 10 years ago. The story goes that one of Nakamoto's best customers, Shirane Makoto, begged Nakamoto to allow him to reopen the store as a proper ramen restaurant and continue running the business. Nakamoto agreed, and Shirane turned this suburban Chinese restaurant into a city-wide chain of 7 shops. Mr. Nakamoto himself is still quite healthy by the way, as photos inside the shop attest; that's him on top of some of Japan's tallest mountains, in short sleeves.

The new master Mr. Shirane is something of the tough dude to be recokned with himself, as his website makes no bones about:

So what's with the tough guy shtick? Granted there are plenty of macho ramen cooks, but the Nakamoto guys take it to the next level. There's a good reason why - Nakamoto claims to serve the spiciest bowl of ramen in Tokyo. When Nakamoto re-opened under Shirane's guidance in 2000, the name had been changed to "Môko Tanmen Nakamoto," or literally, "Mongolian Soup Noodles Nakamoto." As in the older post on Fujiyama Seimen, I'm not really sure where the connection between spiciness, badassness, and Mongolianness comes from, but it seems to be a similar alignment of signifiers.

My impression is that Mongolian cuisine consists primarily of mutton, mutton, and fermented horse milk, and not so much of ramen and Mapo Tofu (the shop's other specialty), but in any case, Nakamoto has more of a "Chinese" influence than the average ramen shop. Nakamoto has a larger than average menu, almost none of which resembles bowls that can be found at any other ramen shops in Tokyo or elsewhere. The most famous dish, the titular Môko Tanmen (Mongolian Soup Noodles), consists of a spicy miso broth with plenty of veggies, a hardboiled egg, and a generous helping of Mapo Tofu spooned on top. The dish has a reputation of being spicy, but it only ranks about halfway up the heat scale at Nakamoto - at the top of the pile is the "Hokkyoku Ramen" (North Pole Ramen), allegedly named because "people eat spicy food in cold climates, so this is what you would want to eat if you went somewhere as cold as the North Pole." Duh.

I had waited in line for 45 minutes, so I figured I had better go for the gusto and get the spiciest thing on the menu. Apparently they toss about a pound of grated dried Chinese hot peppers into the broth. For an extra 170 yen (just under 2 USD), you get a teishoku (set meal) that includes rice and a small bowl of the aforementioned Mapo Tofu. The menu also includes some non-spicy shôyû and reimagined Cantonese-style mild soup noodles, in addition to a full gamut of tsukemen somewhat confusingly referred to as hiyashi ramen, a term usually reserved for chilled summer noodles.

I took a first spoonful to taste the broth, and immediately started coughing. This ramen was definitely no joke in the spice department. As I started eating, however, I realized that the coughing was more of an uncontrollable physiological reaction to that much pepper being sucked down my throat, rather than a reflection of the actually spiciness. Nakamoto's North Pole Ramen is spicy, sure, but it didn't lash my lips and mouth as much I expected, and didn't make me sweat the way the Shan noodles at Nong Inlay do.

Spice aside, Nakamoto's soup really did taste good - since the peppers are cooked as a part of the broth, as opposed to merely added late in the cooking process or after serving (like at Shitennô), the sweetness and flavor of the chilis really comes out in the soup - a really well roasted and high quality Sichuanese red pepper has a distinctly delicious taste of its own that often gets overlooked. Nakamoto calls it "karaumai" (spicy delicious), and I would tend to agree. Miso is definitely the ideal choice to match with the thick oil, and the further down I got in the bowl, the more I could see the base soup beneath the thick top layers of pepper product.

A nice bonus for eaters of the Hokkyoku Ramen is the fact that a regular bowl is the size of a large bowl of any other item, with the "jumbo" being equal to an extra-large of a lesser noodle bowl. The heat forces you to eat slowly, and so Nakamoto's ends up being a bowl that you can take the time to savor and enjoy, much to the chagrin of the waiting and huddled masses subjected to tantalizing whiffs of fresh garlic and peppers drifting out of the store. Eating at Nakamoto is a physical experience as much as it is a meal, and I felt my hands shaking ever so slightly as I kept slurping. When I finally polished off the last of the noodles, I surprised myself by scooping up spoon after spoon of the broth. I couldn't help but want to leave as much of that tantalizing and tingling taste on my tongue as I could. I'll have to take another trip to Wantsûchi to see how their "Spiciest Tantanmen in Japan" stacks up. Either way, next time I come back to Nakamoto I'm getting the jumbo!


rabuho said...

You're a masochist starting off with the Hokkyoku! More sane folks go for the Miso Tanmen first.

Nate said...

what can i say, i like the spicy stuff? if i'm gonna wait in line, i want to crank it up to 11. if you really want masochistic, then check out Yagura-tei...

stanklez said...

I eat at Nakamoto Ramen in Shinjuku every day I can, every time I am in Japan. The comment about shaking while eating it is quite correct. You end up with this mild, weirdly pleasant trembling. I reckon it's caused by endorphins coming in en masse as pain killers, with no pain to kill. Seriously.

It's like crack. I am drooling now just thinking about it.

Nate said...

@stanklez - if youre eating Nakamoto every time, then you have great taste! it really is a full body physical experience, quite pleasant if you can hang with it. oh man, i know what you mean about the drool!

stanklez said...

Nate, I just saw the New York Times piece. I never knew you were an international Ramen celebrity. Great site. How's this for dedication:

I am literally flying to Tokyo in May with the SOLE purpose of eating Nakamoto Ramen. I'm not shopping, not doing business, not being a tourist. Just eating ramen.

Do you have any recommended MUST EATS with a tight schedule? I arrive friday night, have all day Saturday and a few hours on Sunday morning. I think I can eat four bowls, maybe five.

Nate said...

@stanklez - funny, i didnt know i was an International Ramen Celebrity either!

and yeah, that is truly, truly dedication. i bow to your maniacness and love for Nakamoto. I ate there again recently (post coming soon...hopefully), and it was just as good as the first time. you should try and go check out the original shop in itabashi if youre flying all the way out for it.

for must eats, might be fun to try to eat 4 or 5 bowls from different styles, so as to balance it out. for miso, i still like sapporo junren or nidaime mentoku tsujita miso no sho, for hakata tonkotsu, goten in sendagaya might be my favorite. god there are so many good ones. i should put in a plug for bassanova in shin-daita with thai green curry might be nice to try a really old school shoyu bowl like merci or milk hall sakaeya too, just to get a sense of perspective. rahmen yahman, which i recently posted on was also very excellent. let me know when youre in town, maybe i can join you for one of the bowls...

stanklez said...

Fantastic advice, and I will follow through on as many as possible. I'll be there on May 7th through 9th and would happily buy you some Ramen and beer in exchange for your tourguide expertise. I can also get you free Halo stuff, for what that's worth. Drop me a line at and I'll give you my real details (I am a mildly public figure who has to semi-avoid "fans") in case you're available for a bowl or two.