Tuesday, March 31, 2009

らーめん30 (Ramen 30)

Last week, spring finally hit Tokyo in a big way. It's since left again and the cold has rolled back in, but there were a few brief days of beautiful sunny t-shirt weather. I knew I had to take full advantage of the weather while I could, so I hopped on my bike to take a long ride. I headed north then pedaled along the banks of the Arakawa river, working my way clear to the other side of town before working my way back through central Tokyo.

Northeast Tokyo is a very different world from the glitz and high-rises of areas like Shibuya and Shinjuku. If you look closely at a map, Tokyo is a very riverine city, especially on the east side of town, with the Arakawa, Sumidagawa, Edogawa, and other smaller rivers winding their way between lowlying tidal flats. Perhaps the most salient traditional geographic distinction in Tokyo is between the higher land west of the imperial palace (yamanote), and the "low city" (shitamachi) in the north and east. The lowlands by the rivers have been and generally still are among the poorer parts of town, and have been the first to burn the many times Tokyo has gone up in flames in the last 400 or so years.

On my ride, I passed factories, waste processing plants, corrugated shacks, homeless tent cities, sidewalks layered in garbage, and other such sights not generally associated with the squeaky clean image that Tokyo tries to project. The reality is that Tokyo (and Japan at large) is in fact a class society, and those classes are becoming increasingly stratified in the present economic climate. As I've talked about in past posts, ramen began as street food for the people and has made a long climb to the top. We now live in an age of "ramen dining," boutique shops, 3,000 yen bowls, and other such extravagancies, but sometimes you need a reality check to remind you where ramen really came from and what it's all about.

So it was perhaps fitting that I ended up at Ramen 30 for dinner. Ramen 30 is located on the west side of Meiji-dôri, just south of Waseda-dôri a bit past Menya Sou. The contrast between the two couldn't be more distinct - Sou prides itself on luxury ingredients in a high-design environment; Ramen 30 is a spitting image of a "classic" neighborhood ramen shop.

When I stepped inside, I found myself the only customer save for a middle aged man with a cap pulled down low over his brow, absorbed in his Playstation Portable and appearing to have been camped out drinking beer for a not insignificant period of time. The cook, having nothing to do, was leaning against a wall on one side of the shop, watching a variety show on a tiny TV perched on a bracket in one corner.

In addition to ramen, Ramen 30 functions as a kind of neighborhood-style Chinese restaurant, serving old-school Japanese-Chinese standards like "Tianjin-style" rice (mock crab omelette in brown sauce) or stir fried liver and onions, as well as a decent selection of more complicated Chinese dishes and beer snacks, conveniently scrawled on white paper and taped to most available surfaces. I got the vibe that the place serves as a kind of izakaya pub for a certain salaryman set. I can't remember if the ramen soup options ran the whole gamut, but this is the kind of place where you're best off ordering simple soups like shôyû (soy sauce) or shio (salt); after a moment of debate I got the latter.

Sitting there watching the middle-aged cook and his pock-marked, splotchy-faced (sorry, she was) Chinese wife bustle around to prepare the bowl for me, the only customer, I started to feel a little depressed. Are they making enough money to stay in business? How much longer would this place be around? The twin openings of Garasha and Kitarô right across the street must have caused significant gnashing of teeth for the couple running Ramen 30. Those are both high-concept, fashionable shops that people travel from across the city to eat at. I would be shocked to ever see an O.G. joint like Ramen 30 in a ramen magazine or on a TV program.

A few minutes later, the noodles came up. And you know what? They were really, really good. With each bite, my mood started getting better. Slightly wavy, yellow, medium thick noodles, light, orthodox, thin chicken broth soup, a mound of crunchy bamboo, a mound of bean sprouts, a mound of sliced onions, a couple sesame seeds, and nothing else. Totally normal in every way. But in a town like Takadanobaba, that somehow makes Ramen 30 special. Every other shop is trying so hard to put their own spin on the classic bowl, and there are less and less shops like Ramen 30 that come correct in canonical style.

Every aspect of Ramen 30's bowl was completely standard and completely well-executed, and I realized that it had been a long time since I tasted ramen like this. These days I'm always digging some store doing something crazy, but Ramen 30 reminded me what the ramen I first came to love tasted like. It had been too long, and I sorely needed a reality check. And besides, at only 550 yen a bowl, it's one of the cheapest games in town. Another 130 yen gets you a mini fried rice on the side, which I regret not taking advantage of. And despite the lack of PR, Ramen 30 gets overwhelmingly positive reviews on the Supleks Ramen Database. Ramen 30 is ramen of the people, by the people, and for the people, and I hope it does not soon perish from this earth.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

七福家 (Shichifuku-ya)

I've eaten at a pretty good number of the ramen shops of the Takadanobaba / Waseda area, if I do say so myself. I'd gamble there's about 80 or so shops in all, and I've probably topped 50 at this point. I've definitely still got a long way to go, but I feel like I can see the remaining task in front of me, and it feels manageable. Geographically speaking, the zone I've covered the least is probably the Tsurumaki-chô area in the back streets east of the university near the Waseda subway station. I have to pedal down (and then back up) a decent-sized hill to get there, so I feel less inclined to head in that direction when I set out. But from here on out, I'm making an active effort to cover that territory...beginning with Shichifuku-ya.

To the well-informed noodler, the kind of ramen that Shichifuku-ya serves can be hermeneutically deduced through the presence of the final kanji in its name - 家, read "ya" or "ie." This character is a general indication, but not a sure-fire give-away that the shop in question serves what is colloquially known as 家系 (ie-kei)"house-style" ramen. At first, I was under the mistaken impression that "house-style" meant "homestyle" ramen, perhaps a simple shôyû broth reproduceable in the average kitchen. However, the "house" of "ie-kei" refers to a very particular house, in particular the "House of Yoshimura" - Yoshimura-ya 吉村家, an immensely popular and influential ramen shop founded in Yokohama in 1974.

Unlike most ramen shops that carefully guard their secret recipes, the owners of Yoshimura-ya (who are in fact named Yoshimura), allowed their recipe to spread. Spread it did, and now there are hundreds of shops nationwide serving similar bowls of pork bone and chicken soup in the style of Yoshimura-ya. As a kind of homage, these shops almost always attach the character 家 (house) to the end of their names, and thus the term "ie-kei," "house-style" ramen was born. Among those, there are direct and indirect lineages, of which I believe Shichifuku-ya is the latter.

This, however, was all information I gleaned after my visit to Shichifuku-ya (House of Seven Good Fortunes). This was my first experience with "ie-kei" ramen, and thus I had no standard of comparison, and was not aware of how ritualized a bowl I was in for. When I ordered the basic ramen, I was served up a bowl topped with spinach, menma bamboo shoots and an unusual three sheets of nori seaweed. I took this variation as inventiveness and generosity, but little did I know that spinach and exactly three sheets of nori are standard operating procedure at ie-kei shops. Not knowing about the ie-kei standard chicken/pork broth, I mistook the soup to be a modified, light tonkotsu shôyû.

But before I tucked into the ramen itself, I got served up my side dish of negi gohan, rice topped with crisped bonito shavings and a forest of tiny onions. It wasn't bad, but the tare (essence) used to give it flavor had a strange tart, almost tangy taste that I didn't care for. So, if you go to Shichifuku-ya, pass on the negi gohan...

...but don't forget to properly trick out your ramen before you get down to chowing down. On the counter are a few small ceramic containers holding minced garlic, ginger, and tôbanjan Chinese-style hot pepper paste, as well as a fresh sesame grinder. My first sip of the soup was less than satisfactory, but in retrospect, I think I just still had the tangy onion taste in my mouth from the negi gohan.

A few small dollops of the garlic, ginger, and pepper, and the whole bowl came together. Since the soup uses a substantial amount of chicken and not pure pork bone, the broth is far less oily and greasy than the average tonkotsu shôyû (pork marrow soy sauce) bowl. This means its also a bit less rich in flavor, but that's where the ginger and garlic come in. A bit of blending makes for a much more complex bowl, kind of like how a good bowl of Hakata ramen functions. I had wrinkled my nose and committed myself to a mediocre bowl after the first bite, but after the additions, the taste kept growing and growing - Shichifuku-ya's is a bowl that gets better with each bite.

As for the noodles, they are apparently in classic ie-kei style as well, being a bit thicker, wider, and flatter than average. Fat noodles always work for me, and no exception here. In the topping department, the menma (bamboo shoots) were better than average, extra nori was a nice touch, and I'm always a sucker for spinach added to any dish, so checks across the board.

By the end, I did something I hadn't done in a long time - dump the rest of my rice into the remaining soup to eat "ramen rice." I used to do it all the time in Kyoto, but have since phased it out for health-consciousness reasons. In any case, take it as a good sign that I kept spooning the rice and broth down my gullet until it was nearly gone.

No small wonder then, that Shichifuku-ya got a full-page write up in the 2009 Ramen Walker magazine, which they display proudly at each seat. Shichifuku-ya also brought to my attention the ie-kei a whole style of ramen I didn't know existed, and for that, they get mad props.

らぁ麺やったる (Ramen Yattaru)

Last week I was heading home after my buddy's house party, and, having filled up primarily on potato salad, potato chips, mashed potatoes and potato croquettes, I was in the mood for...not potatoes. Despite having already eaten way too much for the day, I had a hole in my stomach that could only be filled by...do I even need to say? While reading the following review, I recommend the following as background music - a great clip from "Tapeheads," which was on at the party, and which stands the test of time admirably.

I got off the train at Baba station and it was pissing down rain, so I didn't want to go far.

Drawn in by the white lantern, I ducked into one of the few remaining shops on the backstreets northeast of Baba station - Ramen Yattaru.

"Yattaru" might be roughly translated as "got it goin' on," and there was a lively atmosphere in the shop, with a young man and a young woman cheerfully working behind the counter and cracking jokes with the mostly young customers and each other. Yattaru takes pride in both their light tonkotsu shôyû (pork bone and soy sauce) ramen as well as their abura soba (soupless noodles) - I hadn't done abura soba since Bubka a couple months back, so I decided to go with the latter.

One of the nice things about Yattaru is the wide variety of toppings on offer - in addition to standards like extra sheets of nori seaweed, soft-boiled eggs, and extra onions, they've got bean sprouts, raw egg, mentaiko (cod roe), kimchi (!), and regular as well as mentaiko-spiced mayonaise (!!!). I say grab it while you got it goin' on, so I topped off my bowl with some kimchi and a raw egg.

When I went to Bubka, I compared abura soba to a something like Japanese nachos - a big pile of carbs with all colors of savory toppings laid out on top. Way back in the day, a friend of a friend used to always turn her Taco Bell nachos into what she called "chaos nachos," mixing all the ingredients together into a salty, delicious mess. That's the way to do it with abura soba too - you start with something like the picture above, with your naruto fishcake, shredded nori, egg, onions, and sprouts, laid out all pretty...

...and then you turn it into a heaving mass of chaos like this. And then you get down to business slurping. Chaos business. Unfortunately, Yattaru's abura soba didn't quite make it to the full-on we-mean-business level. Everything was in order, but it just didn't have that strong of a taste. It was oily enough, and I left with the classic tonkotsu shôyû film on the inside of my mouth, but the package was missing some punch. It was tasty enough, filling (too filling) comfort food, but there was nothing to really make these noodles stand out. The kimchi was a bit on the bland side, and I slurped away a bit disappointed, especially after my last abura soba bowl at Bubka had left me posting up images of giant flaming hands flashing the devil horns.

I did catch a couple of glances down the counter and the plain ramen actually looked and smelled real nice. For now, I'm withholding a recommendation for Yattaru, but I may get back around to going back and trying their basic ramen, which I'm still holding out hope for. For my Japanese chaos nachos, I'm sticking with Bubka.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

七志 Nanashi

It was another beautiful day, so I planned another long bike ride, cruising out along the Chûô Line to the suburb of Kichijôji. But I needed some pre-departure sustenance, so before heading out of 'Baba I turned down the bustling little alley called Sakae-dôri just west of the station.

Even though I've upped my ramen consumption in the last week or so, I hadn't done a solid bowl of tonkotsu in a while, so I thought I'd give Nanashi a try.

It looked a bit chain-store-y and corporate, but I had read decent things, so I came in with a pretty open mind.

Inside was pretty bland too, extra clean with lots of tables and no distinguishing characteristics. Nanashi opened ten years ago in Yokohama and has about 10 shops in the metropolitan area. The name means "Seven Ambitions," which I guessed to be some kind of archaic Confucian reference, but instead it refers, rather lamely, to the seven principles of corporate guidance that the company follows - stuff like "maintaining a professional position in the food service industry" and "protecting the safety standards of our products." Ramen itself doesn't even appear in one of them. Laaaaaaaaaaaaame. Can a shop this corporate serve good ramen?

I took a gander at the glossy full-color photo menu and decided to go with my default of basic ramen with a soft-boiled egg. What I got was, thankfully, definitely ramen with some distinguishing characteristics. The thick tonkotsu broth is balanced out with two different kinds of tare (flavor essence) - a basic shôyû (soy sauce) and a special homebrew of ground up sesame and fresh garlic; and then you've got the generous helping of mâyû, the dark brown burnt garlic oil. Rather than the standard toppings of menma bamboo shoots and onions, you get crunchy green kuki wakame seaweed shoots and mysterious brown slivers that it took me a minute to realize are thick cuts of ginger.

Although it doesn't say so anywhere, all signs point to Kumamoto ramen as the starting point for Nanashi's menu. It's definitely Kyushu-style tonkotsu, and the slightly thick noodles, generous helping of mâyû rather than fresh garlic, and the presence of seaweed put it out of the Hakata category. More than anything else, Nanashi's ramen closely resembles that of Kumamoto-style standby Keika, if Keika's noodles were being served by the corporate Kômen chain. I added a dash of the tableside red ginger (another Kyushu necessity) and dug in.

Not surprisingly, the garlic was intense. Rather than the sharpness of fresh garlic, Nanashi's broth had an almost bitter taste, but in a not unpleasant way, if that makes any sense. The broth was rich and dense, and somewhat "rustic" tasting and rough around the edges, not unlike at Higo Noren, another quality Kumamoto ramen shop. My experience at Nanashi was also similar to Higo Noren in that at first the broth tasted almost pungent, but blended to become smoother and tastier with each bite, until I wanted to slurp down to the last drop. The ginger worked nicely to give a bit of a sweet bite to offset the strong garlic and briny seaweed. In the end, you've got a bowl that has a lot more character than the shop serving it.

Plus, Nanashi gave me enough fuel to make it all the way out to Kichijôji, where I tracked down the newly completed house of everyone's favorite fey and cartoonish 70-year-old horror manga artist, Umezu Kazuo. It looks a little something like this:

And would you believe that his neighbors tried to sue him for "inflicting visual violence upon the neighborhood." The nerve!

べんてん (Benten)

Conventional wisdom in the Tokyo ramen world is that "you can't talk about ramen in Takadanobaba without talking about Benten." So I guess it's time for me to talk about Benten and allow the legitimacy to rain down upon me. It's been said that Benten is to Waseda University as the original branch of Ramen Jirô is to Keio University, which is to say a beloved institution beholden to local students. I don't know exactly how old Benten is, but apparently it's the kind of place alumni always stop by when they're stomping the old haunts.

Benten is located off the main drag of "ramen street" Waseda-dôri, tucked away on an alley corner facing the concrete canal that passes for the Kandagawa river.

I rolled up a bit after 1 PM on a sunny afternoon and there was a line about 10 deep, which is apparently par for the course. Rather than wait by the door, the line formed along the riverside, as a mix of students and businessmen chatted and read manga while sitting perched on the guardrail.

The beat up old awning says "noodles - fat, dense, tasty, and a lot of them," and the emphasis at Benten is definitely on the "a lot of them" part of the phrase. Although Benten is in the upper echelons of renowned tsukemen shops, that reputation lies largely on the sheer volume of noodles that they serve. Benten's namesake is the goddess Benzaiten, and it would probably take an act of divine intervention from her in order for the average mortal to be able to polish off the largest size of noodles, which clocks in at a whopping kilogram - 2.2 POUNDS of noodles.

After about a ten minute wait, I slipped open the clattering glass door and took my seat. Benten is old school all the way, with ratty off-white walls, a cramped counter, and a huge whirring ventilation fan as the only musical accompaniment. It always makes me smile to sit down at a place like this amidst the sea of cleaned up high design shops. I decided to go with the "small", which is still a respectable 350 grams - the better part of a pound. For another 100 yen you can go up to 600 grams, but a small sign asks first timers not to even try ordering the large. I was somewhat surprised to find myself sitting next to that rare species - a fashionable single girl at a ramen shop; not so surprised when she sheepishly asked the cook to make her helping "extra small."

Benten serves ramen as well, but everyone I saw ordered the tsukemen. Rather than make each bowl to order, the hefty cooks make whole huge batches then dish out noodles to the whole room at once. The weights of each portion are approximate at best, since service essentially consists of a fat middle-aged man grabbing handfuls of noodles and filling a small salad bowl. The noodles are basically chewy and spaghetti-like, just a wee bit curlier than the similar ones at Taishôken across town. The important thing is that there's a fucking lot of them. Even for tsukemen they're served a bit on the lukewarm side, since the cook runs the lot of them under water before serving.

I ordered my cup of broth extra spicy with an egg, which I ended up regretting. Spicy just meant a dumping of cheap chili powder on top, and the egg was boiled a bit too hard and on the bland side.

I had heard that Benten's broth was sweet, but it didn't seem as sweet as Taishôken's. In fact, every aspect of the broth was similar to Taishôken's, but a bit inferior in my opinion, being a bit fishier and lacking that perfect balance of sweet, spicy, and suppai (sour). If it wasn't for the huge portions, I'm not sure Benten would be so well loved. That said, the near bottomless bowl did make for an enjoyable eating experience - it felt good to be able grab huge hunks of chewy noodles and just fill the mouth over and over again. The only sound to be heard was the beating of the fan and the slurp as all conversation ceased so the mouth could be devoted to eating. Benten is definitely worth it once for the experience, but since I'm not such a big tsukemen fan to begin with, I'm not sure I'll be back. I would like to dare someone to eat the 2.2 pounder though...

Friday, March 20, 2009

ババ番外地、その十五:ちゃぶ屋本店 (Beyond Baba 15: Chabuya Honten)

Last weekend I went over to my buddy S's place for beer and fried foods and ended up spending the night. We got up early and took a long drive out to the coast in Ibaraki, listening to the Kinks and checking out the waves at his favorite surf spot. But we couldn't stay long, since we had promised his wife Y to be back in time for "ramen brunch." Y is at least as big of a ramen freak as I am - the first time we met, the three of us were looking for a place to eat when she whipped out a pocket-sized ramen guidebook and quickly found a store. Every time I see them we exchange info on new shops we've tried and want to try.

The weather was perfect and it was a lazy Sunday, so we decided to go somewhere walkable. After a few stymied attempts and shuttered shops, we ended up wandering over to Gokokuji to try out the famous Chabuya. Chabuya is actually one of the best known ramen shops outside of Japan, due to a popular branch in West LA. Located on Sawtelle Blvd. in an area packed with hip Japanese stores, restaurants, karaoke bars, and the headquarters of the inimitable Giant Robot empire, Chabuya LA apparently commands long lines, but has gotten mediocre reviews from the likes of Rameniac and other US ramen bloggers.

But Chabuya in Japan is a different story altogether, a veritable mini-empire of classy ramen. The head cook, Morizumi Yasuji, spent years working as a classically trained French chef before decamping to the ramen world and opening the original Chabuya in 1996.

In addition to the LA shop and the original shop that I visited in Gokokuji, there's Chabuton in Akihabara and a super-high end shop called MIST, located in the uber-snobby Omote Sandô Hills shopping complex and serving ramen-centric full course meals for upwards of 50 bucks. Chabuya definitely falls firmly into the category of "celebrity ramen," with noodles available by mailorder and regular TV and magazine appearances.

The Gokokuji shop definitely feels less like a ramen shop than a nice French restaurant, which is not to say that I've ever been to a nice French restaurant. The shop is outfitted with a finely shaped wood counter, polished steel surfaces, and of course, cooks in crisp chef's whites carefully arranging each bowl. Every movement was at odds with your average "populist" ramen shop - rather than slap the noodles dry, each batch was delicately lifted, sifted, and slipped into the waiting white china bowl. (Apologies for the weirdly-oriented pics, I used S's cellphone and they don't seem to rotate).

Interestingly, Chabuya offers a different menu during lunch and dinner - at lunch they serve "1996-style shôyû (soy sauce)" ramen, "1997-style miso ramen", while dinner brings "2007-style" shôyû, miso, and shio (salt) ramen, which presumably are based on a slightly different recipe. Chabuya takes pride in using seasonal, organic ingredients to make a tonkotsu (pork marrow)-based broth that is creamy without being the slightest bit oily, or even very porky-tasting at all, simply rich in flavor.

We all ordered the same thing - miso ramen with onions and soft-boiled eggs - and were all very pleased with what we got. The soup had almost nothing to do with a standard Sapporo-style miso broth, and tasted almost like a Korean miso chige stew - spicy in the sense of well-spiced rather than "hot." The slightly sweet soup had the perfect complement in the generous helping of thinly cut stewed onions which had been dipped in chili oil before serving. It was easy to grab a few soft slivers with each bite of noodles, taking the whole thing to the next level. The egg was perfectly gooey and orange in the middle; maybe its the French anality about food that demands such high standards of execution?

The noodles ran on the thick, white, and flat side, though not too flat as to prevent each clump from picking up plenty of the tiny green onion slices scattered across the bowl. My only complaint was something that most people would probably see as a plus - when I got close to the end of the bowl, I discovered a large helping of minced meat that had been hanging out at the bottom. While it's easy to set aside big hunks of châshû pork, its hard for my non-meat-eating ass to pick my way around tiny pieces of ground meat, so I spent the last third of the bowl trying somewhat fruitlessly to separate the last strands of noodles. After finishing our bowls mostly in silence, S, Y, and I stepped out into the sun and compared notes. We all agreed that it was tasty, but all wanted just a little bit larger portions - S and I got the large ômori bowls and still didn't leave quite full. I guess next time we should try the side dish of rice with pickled turnip greens (nozawana). All in all, a tasty and recommended bowl; maybe not pure ramen ecstasy, but definitely worth a try.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

高田馬場大勝軒 (Takadanobaba Taishôken)

Some figures stand large metaphorically. And some stand large physically. And some do both at the same time. In this camp is Yamagishi Kazuo, legendary inventor of tsukemen (dipping noodles) and towering personality in the Tokyo ramen scene. Yamagishi, veritable godfather of Tokyo ramen, lost his own father in the war and moved to Tokyo and opened the first Taishôken (House of Great Victory) in Nakano in 1951, at the tender age of 17.

Business was good and he opened up a few more locations, opening Higashi Ikebukuro Taishôken in 1961. This was where Taishôken took off, after Yamagishi perfected the recipe for what he called tokusei morisoba, (now generally known as tsukemen) - noodles served apart from the broth to be dipped and eaten. The line stretched around the block for almost 50 years, until the original location was shut down by a development project in 2007. In 2008, Higashi Ikebukuro Taishôken moved down the road and is now commanding long lines again.

Along the way, it looks like Yamagishi (in the middle) ate more than a couple bowls of the stuff himself. The story goes that Yamagishi first invented dipping noodles as a simple meal for himself to eat on the job. A customer convinced him to serve it as a regular menu item in 1954, and the rest is history. Fastforward 50 years and tsukemen is all the rage, even outstripping traditional ramen on many critics best-of lists. So how do these tsukemen stand up?

I was biking home along a backstreet southeast of Baba station one day and I stumbled across a strange building draped with thick linked chains. That's the Tokyo Braille Library.

Takadanobaba Taishôken is next door. There are numerous branches of Taishôken that trace their lineage back to Yamagishi's original shop, and although I had eaten tsukemen at a number of places, I had yet to try the ganso, the originator, so figured now was good a time as any. Taishôken lineage is possibly even more complicated than Jirô's - only three shops are "directly run" by Yamagishi, and others are presumably opened as franchises by former cooks with his blessing - the Takadanobaba branch is one of the latter. I ducked inside, bought a ticket, and made my way all the way to the back of the long, long counter, separated by glass from the cooking area.

Standard ramen (chûka soba) is on offer as well, but why would you order anything but tsukemen at a branch of the shop that fucking invented it? All sizes are the same price, I think about 700 yen, which is quite a deal considering the sheer volume of noodles that you can get - up to almost a full pound.

In addition to the regular, room-temperature morisoba, you can also get your noodles atsumori style. This is not an oblique reference to the 12th century boy warrior of the Taira clan of the same name, but rather an option to have the noodles served piping hot, which is definitely the way to go in my book.

You get the noodles, medium-thick, uber-straight, and slightly yellow, not unlike a boxier spaghetti...

...and you get the broth...

...and you put that shit in that other shit and then you eat that shit!

Yum, man. These tsukemen were functioning on a whole other level than any of the other seemingly similar bowls I'd had thus far. Most of my previous tsukemen experiences (like Aoba or Takagiya) had been passable, but I ended up wishing I had just eaten standard ramen instead. But with my first bite of Taishôken's tokusei morisoba, I felt like I could understand tsukemen's appeal for the first time.

The broth hinged on the three tastes that I am told are the pillars of Taishôken - sweet, spicy, and vinegary. Not so sweet as to be cloying, not so spicy as to make the mouth sting, and not so vinegary as to be sour, the three came together like the fucking Triforce in my mouth. I couldn't get enough. The noodles were chewier and all around better than average, and I joined the rest of the counter in near-silent dunking and slurping. As toppings you get a few tasty slivers of bamboo, sliced onions, a few small pork pieces I skipped, and a nice little pink and white naruto fishcake. The broth was rich and left my mouth almost slick, with just the slightest hint of a buzz from the chili in the broth. My complaint is singular - the chopsticks provided are way too tapered and way too slick, making it difficult to pick up the straight noodles. So bring your own sticks and go enjoy the fuck out of these noodles!