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!