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!