Monday, April 27, 2009

ざ ざ ざ (THE the the)

One of my favorite things about wasei eigo (Japanese English) is how you can attach the prefix za ("the") to almost anything. You can have "za" ramen, "za" single malt whisky, "za" magician, "za" pizza, "za" hamburger, "za" condominium, "za" dash, "za" 21st get the idea. "Za" goes beyond the simple English meaning of "the" and is also more of a "thee", as in "thee" definitive example of whatever it refers to. A pal of mine would always pepper his Japanese with excessive za's for effect; funnily enough, his name is Zane. And then there is "za" whole set of Japanese bands using "za in their names - Za Spiders, Za Tigers, and not least of which, Za Mops, who I recommend as a soundtrack to this post.

Not that any of that helps me figure out the story behind the newest place to open on my block - ZA za za, or as the sign helpfully translates, "THE the the."

Za za za opened up at the beginning of the month, but since it's so close to my house, I'd been saving a trip for sometime when I didn't feel like venturing further afield. Just such a day came about last week, as I had been working at home all day then suddenly realized that I was hooooongry.

I can't say that I was too excited about Za za za, it being a tsukemen (dipping noodle) only shop; it would have been nice to have a proper souped-up ramen place just around the corner instead. But hey, you've gotta eat with an open mind. Za za za's menu is simple - basic tsukemen with a thin fishy broth, yuzu tsukemen, which is the same thing but accented with Japanese citron, double spicy (karakara) tsukemen, and then mega spicy (gekikara) tsukemen. I'm not sure what happened to single spicy soup, but I wasn't complaining either, since my philosophy tends to be the spicier the better. I was curious how Za za za would stack up to Baba's other spicy tsukemen specialty shop, Takagi-ya.

I was the only customer for the majority of my time in Za za za, but that seems to be an unusual state of affairs, as it seems to be packed most days around lunchtime. When my bowl came out a few minutes after sitting down, I was served up what looked a lot more like a spicy Korean chige (casserole stew) than a standard bowl of tsukemen broth. Like a Korean dish, it was served in a clay pot, which keeps the soup piping hot. Floating amidst the bright red broth was a single long green chili pepper amidst a sea of onions. My expectations rose.

And they rose further still when I got my plate of noodles, garnished with a sheet of nori seaweed, a few sprigs of menma (bamboo), and a tiny quail's egg laid on top, in addition to the extra chicken egg I had ordered. The menma turned out to be some of the best I've had so far, super fresh and bursting with woodsy flavor. The egg, while not quite as soft in the middle as I like, was also of high quality, and delicious after a dunking in the spicy broth.

So I loaded some noodles in the soup and started slurping. Tastewise, the Korean connection continued - the taste of the broth was nearly identical to the sweet and spicy pepper sauce you see in a lot of Korean cooking. Za za za owes comparatively little to the classic Taishôken style tsukemen, and it's also a far cry from Takagi-ya, whose broth is much more viscous and vinegary.

The noodles themselves were medium flast, medium thick, and whiteish, again a bit different from the megafat yellow noodles that you often get with tsukemen. Overall, it really really worked for me - the soup was spicy for sure, but just spicy enough to tingle the taste buds and keep you going, definitely not the same level of heat that a shop like Nakamoto packs. I felt like the quality of each of the individual ingredients was high, and that a lot of thought had gone into this bowl - while Za za za is definitely riding on the high tide of the tsukemen boom, their stuff isn't cookie cutter.

As an added service, Za za za dishes up a free bowl of ojiya after you finish your noodles; not quite sure what that meant, I nodded yes, and a minute later was presented with ANOTHER bowl of soup, this time a thinner broth. Apparently ojiya is what you get when you use soup to wash the toasted rice out of the bottom of the pot - if you aren't full from the noodles, you will be after slurping down some of this soupy rice. The taste was a bit thin, but it was a refreshing finisher.

In the end, I drank both bowls down to the last drop, so I guess you could say I liked Za za za. Maybe not worthy of pilgrimage from across town, but a nice place to have around the corner. When the waitress cleared my bowl, I noticed her accent - she was Korean too, so maybe the whole place is a Korean-run business? Tokyo's main Koreatown of Okubo is just one station away, and Takadanobaba is a major immigrant center as well, with lots of students and workers from all over Asia at most shops and restaurants up and down Waseda-dôri. In any case, Za za za is za new kid on the block, so get down there and spend za money on za noodles!

Friday, April 24, 2009

紅蓮 (Guren)

I was hanging out with my friend R the other day, and we had a long conversation about the Tin Tin comic "The Blue Lotus." Naturally, the appropriate place to go after such a discussion would be right down the block to a ramen shop called "The Crimson Lotus" (Guren). Guren is one of the new kids in town in the 'Baba scene, and just opened two months ago.

Guren is located on Sôdai-dôri right near the Waseda main gate - just keep a look out for the huge baroque castle, and it's right next door

Guren may be new, but it's wasting no time in attracting attention, as up-and-coming ramen critic Ishiyama Hayato features the shop in his new ramen guide. The flashy red sign and clean decor definitely caught my eye as I was biking down the road.

When you walk into Guren, you know exactly what you're in for. Shrimp. If you didn't notice the clapboard advertising shrimp tsukemen (dipping noodles) on the way in, you'll figure it out as soon as you slide open the door. The assault on the nostrils by the aroma of boiling pandalus platyceros (or one of its cousins) is intense. But in a good way. If you like shrimp.

Guren definitely goes for the clean and modern aesthetic, with a stainless steel counter occupying the center of a darkish room lined with stone tiles and wood paneling. Guren must be succeeding at something because the counter was packed with that rarest species of all ramen eaters, the young single woman. When we arrived, more than half the seats were filled with well-dressed Waseda undergrads of the type who one does not tend to run into at ramen shops, at least not unless they're hanging on the arm of a cajoling boyfriend.

So, what makes Guren so special? Their tsukemen is unlike any other I've tasted; rather than a sweet, fishy, and vinegary bowl of tsukemen dipping soup in the Taishôken tradition, they serve up a sauce of what tastes like pure, rich, shrimp extract. The soup arrives in a thick, hot bowl, bubbling like a witches' brew. On top are a few flakes of what I presumed to be dried...shrimp. Underneath, the base broth is allegedly made with chicken, pork, and a touch of fish, but trust me when I say that's not what you'll taste. If that doesn't sound good to you, then stay away, since it's the one and only menu item Guren offers.

Special care is taken for Guren's noodles as well; extra thick, extra chewy, and plenty of 'em - up to 300 grams for the base price. These chunky noodles are the perfect kind... dip in that thick, gooey soup. Guren advertises an extra thick and rich soup, and they do not lie. Rather than a light, thin broth, or even a thicker filmy and syrupy soup like some tsukemen shops, Guren serves up something more akin in consistency to curry. The thick soup sticks to the noodles admirably, and each bite is full of flavor. My pal R is not generally a big ramen fan, but we were both digging the hell out of this liquid shrimp cocktail.

Guren has done a good job making a name for itself, and its popularity is as richly deserved as the soup The equally bomb Ebi Soba Keisuke II up by 'Baba station does a shrimp-based ramen, but the two are completely different from each other, and both are worth your yen. And now for the greatest shrimp-related bit of popular culture ever made:

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

稲穂 (Inaho)

Like a good graduate student, I spent most of the day in the library doing research. After a full day poring through thick tomes on Japanese publishing history, I was ready for some ramen. Since I had been the dutiful Waseda student, I figured I should end the day with some a bowl of ramen at a classic Waseda institution - Inaho. Located right in the middle of the block of scruffy old school cafeterias on the road leading to the main gate, Inaho has been dishing out noodles for a full 50 years. The name refers to a mature ear of rice, which is presumably what grows from the "early rice fields" from which Waseda gleans its name.

I could make out a few sets of legs in the light beneath the frosted glass door, so I figured there were customers, but when the sliding door clattered open, no one inside seemed to be eating. At the back table, the cook and his wife sat chatting with a friend, while another old timer sat in the front sipping a beer and staring off into space. I was greeted with moderate surprise, but a big smile, and sat down on one of the squat chairs and ordered a bowl and a beer. The old man slowly pulled himself from his chair and puttered over to the wok, where he got down to cooking.

One of the old ladies brought me a nice cold bottle of Kirin and the other produced a small dish of fried peas to munch on while waiting for my order to come up. While sipping, I drank in the surroundings; Inaho is ollllld school.

The place probably looks about the same as it did when it opened back in 1959, though it's hard to tell what's new and what's old amidst the yellowing clutter. Most available wall space is filled with faded photos of shrine festivals, graduations, and outings past, as well as all manner of Waseda-related knick-knacks. Though the old ladies reminded me more of the waitresses at Ogikubo's Harukiya Honten , the shop felt a bit like Ganso Ichijôryû Ganko in that it felt like an extension of someone's home, with shoes, keys, and the like laying around.

While I sat and waited for my order to come up, the old couple running the place and their friend sat gabbing about which shops in town serve the best sembei (rice crackers) as the phone rang off the hook with friends calling to RSVP for what sounded like an upcoming karaoke party. ("Seven o'clock next Friday. No, no SEVEN. SEVEN O'CLOCK. on FRIDAY. Can you hear me? OK, see you then! What? No, NEXT Friday"). I alternated between sipping my beer, chatting with them about school, and trying to wrap my head around the sensation that I had been transported to some corner of the countryside in 1972. Presumably the prices seem to have been subjected to the same time slip, since a bowl still clocks in at only 450 yen!

I was about to order a bowl of simple shôyû (soy sauce) ramen, but just in time noticed the numerous newspaper clippings tacked to the wall, all of which sung the praises of the tanmen. Tanmen is a japanese pronunciation of the Chinese tang mian (soup noodles), though I'm guessing that the dish has about as much to do with Chinese-style Chinese food as Lemon Chicken does. Tanmen consists of firm, white noodles in a thickish and mild shio (salt) flavored broth, topped with generous helpings of all manner of stirfried vegetables. Apparently its a Kanto (Eastern Japan) staple food, the kind of thing mom might whip up to please the kids at home.

When the bowl arrived, it was huge, laden with bean sprouts, cabbage, leeks, sliced carrots, and white onions. The soup was a milky white, probably based in a chicken stock, though there was definitely more going on. There were a couple small chunks of lamb on top, and the soup tasted like some lamb might have gone into the broth, at least based on my limited exposure to lamb soup while travelling in Northwest China. The noodles themselves were long and densely packed, and there were a lot of them, making it difficult to extract the al dente strands from the tangled mass at the bottom of the cloudy bowl. This is not a bad thing by any means. I can't say I'm the type who regularly gets all my vegetables (what with eating so many bowls of ramen), so it was nice to get some veggies besides bamboo shoots and onions. The package was simple yet complex, and extremely satisfying, like any good old school bowl.

One of the most interesting things on the cluttered walls of Inaho is a banner displaying Waseda founder Okuma Shigenobu's "125 years of life" theory; Okuma, one of the bureaucrat oligarchs of Meiji era Japan, wrote that by properly taking care of oneself and one's health, one can live to be 125 years old. It looks like the crew at Inaho are well on their way to living out that maxim, and here's hoping that the shop makes it another 75. This is the one of the truest bowls of Waseda ramen.

Monday, April 20, 2009

山岡家 (Yamaoka-ya)

Yesterday my buddy D suggested a hanging out in Yoyogi Park and catching a Yakult Swallows baseball game to enjoy the righteously warm weather. I eagerly agreed, but my hangover was having a tough time catching up with the rest of me - I needed fortification before a tough afternoon of sitting on the grass, listening to hippies play the digeridoo, drinking beer, and watching baseball. The closest shop on the way down to Yoyogi was Yamaoka-ya, on the northwest corner of the Babakuchi intersection, right next door to Mitsuyadô Seimen. It just opened a couple weeks ago, so I figured I'd give it a try, as the most important thing was just getting calories in my stomach.

I snapped this pic a couple of weeks ago, when Yamaoka-ya was still on the verge of opening. The 'Baba branch wasn't the only Yamaoka-ya to open that day, however; at least one other franchise opened on the same date, bringing the grand total of Yamaoka-ya outlets to a whopping 91. Cor-po-rate. Everything about this place screams corporate, from the bright red and white signage to the piercingly flourescent interior. When one of your shop's selling points is the fact that it's open 24 hours, wouldn't you want to turn down the brightness a bit so as not to drive out the stumbling drunks that you're counting on for business?

When entering Yamaoka-ya, you're greeted not only by overly enthusiastic yells, but by a chirping video touch screen, through which you place your order. While not as isolating or pod people-y as the cubicles at Ichiran, it's a little bit too Logan's Run for my taste. Though I suppose it's at least considerate that the machine can twitter in English. "Press 1 for thin soup, 2 for thick." Blip. "Press 1 for more oil, 2 for less oil, 3 for no oil." Blorp. "Press 1 for firm noodles, 2 for soft..." Bleep.

I took my seat at the counter and waited for my order to come up...

Yamaoka-ya unsurprisingly serves "ie-kei" (house style) ramen, a fact gleaned from the presence of the character 家 (ie; ya) at the end of the shop's name. Long story short, all ie-kei shops are based on the original recipe of Yoshimura-ya in Yokohama. Mr. Yoshimura may be a man who has been arrested for possession of illegal pornography, but he is a man who invented a kind of ramen that is beloved by thousands. Namely, thick pork bone (tonkotsu), chicken, and shôyû (soy sauce) soup with fat noodles, three slices of nori (seaweed), spinach, and extra onions. Which is exactly what every ie-kei shop serves. For more details, see the post on Shichifuku-ya.

Despite the formula, Yamaoka-ya falls way short. The soup is salty enough, but it's thin and almost watery, with a layer of what looks like vegetable oil splayed across the top. There was barely any spinach to speak of, and the nori was a bit limp. The noodles were the strongest part of the bowl, chewier than average, perhaps since I ordered them extra firm ("katame"). Bleep. I think Yamaoka-ya's problem is that it doesn't properly respect the style it's aping. It's rather baffling that they offer miso and shio (salt) flavors added to the ie-kei soup base, which is traditionally only available in the class soy flavor. Rather than give any shoutouts to the ie-kei tradition or lineage, Yamaoka-ya's website holds nothing but franchise info about the chain's capital base. Laaaaaame.

I feel like Yamaoka-ya is a shop for people who don't know any better or just don't care. They don't have many branches in central Tokyo, but lots all over rural parts of Eastern Japan - I'm guessing it's the kind of shop you stop into when you need to get off the freeway and grab a bite. Come on, what kind of self-respecting ramen shop prints tissues boxes with its logo? I'm ragging on Yamaoka-ya a lot, but in the end it wasn't terrible. Despite it all, it's still perfectly edible, if lacking in any punch. But with Shichifuku-ya down the block serving far superior ie-kei ramen, Mitsuyadô Seimen literally next door, Ippûdô down the street open 'til 4 AM, and a host of other top flight places within spitting distance, I really can't think of a reason to go to Yamaoka-ya.

Oh yeah, and the Swallows beat the crap out of the Hiroshima Carp.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

北海道らーめん 魚らん坂 (Hokkaidô Ramen Uoranzaka)

Continuing my attempt to conquer the shops of the Tsurumaki-chô area near the university gate, I decided to hit up one of the newer places on the block, Uoranzaka. The location used to be occupied by a branch of popular Sichuanese chain restaurant Chinmaya, but in February Uoranzaka moved in. They call it Hokkaidô ramen, but I'm pretty sure it's an outlet of a Tokyo-based chain with about a half dozen shops around the metropolis. Even if the pedigree isn't from the northern island, the taste certainly is, as Uoranzaka dishes out bowls of thick and hearty Sapporo-style miso tonkotsu ramen.

Uoranzaka is just around the corner from the Waseda subway station, across the street from the 350-year old liquor store Kokuraya. Piping hot porky miso might be more appropriate for snowy climes than for the t-shirt weather we've been having recently, but what was I going to do, not eat ramen?

Inside, the shop is spacious, with a few different counter areas and cream and wood surfaces accented with old black and white photos of various famous locales around Hokkaidô. Even though there was plenty of room, the seats were inexplicably small and close together, and I felt a bit too close to my fellow slurpers for comfort. I was surprised that most of the clientele were not Waseda students but local office workers on lunch break. Maybe the place is too new to have registered on the student lunch circuit?

I went with the "orochon" ramen. Orochon ramen generally seems to refer to the spiciest option on the menu, perhaps as a nod to the toughness of the Siberian Oroqen tribe for which it is ostensibly named. I've got a full rundown on the phenomenon from my last orochon bowl at Fujiyama Seimen. I got a free upgrade to ômori (large size), and Uoranzaka definitely delivers on volume. In addition to a larger and fuller than average bowl, the orochon ramen is packed with all kinds of veggies - bean sprouts, nira (Chinese chives), fat menma (pickled bamboo shoots) and thin strips of onion. This is in addition to a healthy dusting of ground sesame and a dab of spicy paste.

The sesame is one of the three "kodawari" of Uoranzaka. Kodawari is a bit tough to translate, but it refers to things that one takes great care about selecting; lots of restaurants use it in reference to the pride they take in selecting the best quality ingredients. Uoranzaka's kodawari, splashed up on one wall of the shop, are their sesame, their water, and their collagen. Collagen? Somehow the gelatinous substance found inside pigs' feet and joints has come to be marketed as a good-for-you food. I guess it's claimed that it gives you softer skin? I'm guessing it's tough to find a good way to convince slim fashionable young girls to eat pork lard. Only in Japan could eating pure pig grease be considered GOOD for your skin.

There'll be more on the collagen later. When this fully loaded bowl appeared in front of me, I got happy. So much food! So many vegetables! So rich and delicious looking! But could it be as good as miso ramen king Junren? The short answer is no, but Uoranzaka still serves up a mean bowl. The tonkotsu (pork marrow) soup is rich and flavorful, and great care has certainly gone into the selection of the miso, giving a cloudy, dark broth tinged orange from the "orochon" spices. A tiny dab of garlic brings it all together. The noodles are orthodox curly noodles, fresh and dark yellow, though I'm not sure if the color is due to the high alkaline content of the kansui water or eggs mixed with the flour. If you asked me, in my pre-ramen freak days, what ramen noodles looked and tasted like, I'd point to noodles like these.

My soft boiled egg was fat and gooey, and the bamboo shoots were way, way above average. Bad menma can have a kind of tinny taste, or no taste at all, but these were bursting with woodsy flavor. Every time I grabbed a hunk of noodles I pulled up a few slivers of one vegetable or another.

But now it's time for my beefs. For being the shop's "spicy" ramen, Uoranzaka's orochon is seriously lacking in heat. Sure there's a jar of tôbanjan (Chinese-style pepper paste) on the counter, but that can't substitute for a solidly spicy soup. But hey, it's not a big deal - some shops' spicy miso bowls end up with the chili overwhelming the taste of the miso, so I can understand erring on the side of caution. But what I couldn't get down with was the collagen. There was craaaaaazy amounts of suspended fat in the soup. Easily the most fat of any bowl I've had outside of Jirô. Suspended fat usually comes in small dots that float around the surface of the soup, but Uoranzaka's bowl had thick, solid chunks of pig fat that would be big enough to pick up with your chopsticks and hurl at an unsuspecting diner. Which to be honest, I find a little gross. By the end of the bowl, it got too be too much, and I was having to dip my spoon carefully so as to not pick up too much of the white stuff. Naturally, the kid sitting next to me drank his soup down to the last drop. And looked like he weighed 110 pounds. Fucker.

I thought about giving Uoranzaka the "highly recommended" nod for the rich soup and great toppings, but the fat got to be too much for me in the end. And then there's the little fat of what it did to my insides a few hours later, of which I'll spare the details. Still, if you can handle a hearty soup and dig Sapporo-style ramen, Uoranzaka is definitely worth a whirl. I bet you can ask them to go easy on the fat when you put in your order.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Jesus Christ

I just recounted, I think I still have 50 shops to go.

麺屋 哲 (Menya Satoru)

I arrived back in Tokyo after a week out of town, and I don't need to tell you what I made my first meal. Continuing my mission to cross off more shops in the Tsurumaki-cho area near the university, I decided to just take a stroll, enjoying the balmy weather until I found a place that looked good. I passed a bunch of tsukemen (dipping noodle) joints, but I wanted some proper ramen, soup and all. I went all the way east on Sôdai-dôri from the Waseda main gate, and was about to give up and turn around when I spied Satoru on the last corner.

Satoru bills itself as a "tsukemen specialty shop", but that's probably just to bring in business, since I only saw one customer order tsukemen, and more than half the menu was taken up by Chinese-style non-noodle standards. I'm guessing that Satoru is basically just an old school neighborhood ramen joint that is pushing tsukemen to put their name on the map in the midst of the dipping noodle boom we currently find ourselves in.

Satoru is definitely neighborhood ramen joint all the way. Stepping inside, it felt more like a provincial shop than a restaurant in the midst of Tokyo's most rugged ramen scene - rural tourism calendars, daytime TV shows blaring, ratty stack of last month's weekly magazines by the door.

Satoru is definitely the kind of ramen shop that women might feel a little uncomfortable entering - cramped, old school, and packed with sweaty salarymen and blue collar dudes in their 30s and 40s on lunch break. It's the kind of shop where you could browse some softcore porn or erotic comics while waiting for your order to come up, if you so desired. Every magazine I flipped through had at least four or five different ads for dating services to meet "horny older women." Satoru is a place of dudes.

Nearly all the basic varietals are on offer - shôyû (soy sauce), miso, tonkotsu (pork bone), tsukemen, tantanmen ("Sichuanese"-style noodles), and even abura soba (soupless oily noodles). I tend not to order miso or tonkotsu unless I'm at a shop specializing in them, so I went with shôyû, which I hadn't eaten in a very long time. I figured that at a neighborhood shop like this, the classic soy sauce taste would be the go to bowl. What I got was a little surprising, bearing more resemblance to current chic shops like Watanabe or Ore no Sora than a thin Ogikubo-style soy soup. Thin, long, straight noodles and a thicker, stronger soup are definitely in vogue right now, as opposed to the classic Tokyo shôyû with a clear broth and curly noodles.

The noodles seemed like they might have been steeped in soy sauce before being layed in the bowl, as they were rather brown from the start. Satoru advertises its noodles as homemade, but they were a little disappointing - I found them overly stretchy and they got a bit damp before too long - in Japanese you would say they nobiru, elongated, meaning lost their firmness. I think the phenomenon has something to do with finding the right balance of water and flour in the making process. There were also way too many of them. I ordered the second largest size (a free upgrade), and am of course by no means against large portions, but there wasn't enough soup to go around. The bowl that arrived seemed to be mostly noodles with just some soup between the cracks.

The soup that there was didn't quite do it for me - too thick and salty, and not very complex. Although the bamboo was thick and better than average and I got a free (nicely cooked) egg in lieu of a pork slice, Satoru didn't hit my sweet spot. Satoru seems to be a neighborhood joint trying too hard to be something it's not - a player in the Tokyo ramen scene. Shops like Mitsuyadô / Fujiyama and Heaven's Kitchen Reon have proved that it's possible to be everything to everybody, but Satoru doesn't pull it off. One of the weaker bowls I've had recently. The inexplicable statue of the naked little kid outside the shop might be a "wee" bit overexcited.

The traditional sweet shop down the block, however, was the bomb. Buying a sakuramochi (cherry blossom rice cake) from a little old lady is the perfect way to finish off a meal. Now that the blossoms have scattered, you better take advantage of your last chance to eat these red bean jam buns wrapped in salted edible tree leaves.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

ババ番外地、その十六:久留米らーめん六っ門 (Beyond Baba 16: Kurume Ramen Mutsumon)

I was leaving Tokyo for about a week, so before taking off, I was in the mood to have a hell of solid bowl of straight up Kyushu-style tonkotsu ramen. I had to run some quick errands in Shinjuku, so I figured I'd swing back through Kabukicho, Tokyo's biggest red light district and home to more tonkotsu ramen per square meter than anywhere else east of Fukuoka. Once you head into the backstreets, it seems like you can't spit without hitting a pork bone ramen purveyor. Kabukicho is a neighborhood of dudes, and Hakata ramen is a food of dudes. I had already had one brutally awesome bowl at Shinjuku Hitotsubo, so I had high hopes for the next one.

I had planned on hitting up the Shinjuku outlet of one of the classic Tokyo tonkotsu joints, Nandenkanden, but it seems like that branch bit the dust a year or so back. Undeterred, I headed down the block, ignoring Nigerian hustlers' invitations for matinee sex shows and searching for a suitable replacement until I stumbled upon Kurume Ramen Mutsumon. To get there from Yasukuni-dôri, go north on the street leading to the now-defunct Koma theater and then make a right down the second alley.

I had eaten a couple of bowls of Kurume-style ramen before, one at Kinmaru, and one at Tatsunoya - both had been among the best bowls yet. Something about the sineage at Mutsumon felt familiar, and I wonder if it might be some kind of sister shop to Kinmaru - similar font and photos, identical garlic press, and a menu that offers the whole gamut of ramen choices in addition to the classic old school pork marrow and soy sauce broth that Kurume is known for. I dug Mutsumon's interior of polished wood and corrugated metal walls - maybe at some point the Kurume city shopping arcade for which the shop is named had a tin roof?

Like at Kinmaru, you can choose between mulitple levels of noodle firmnosity, beginning with yawame (soft), futsû (normal), and going through katame (hard), bari kata (very hard), bari bari (very very hard), harigane (hard as a wire), and finally kona otoshi (with the flour knocked off). Al dente to the max is the canonical way to eat Hakata and Kurume style ramen noodles, but the degree to which customizability on that tip is available is impressive. I started off with bari bari, which was just the right amount of chewy.

As for the bowl itself, Mutsumon brings it really fully loaded with all the trappings - thin slices of green onions and pickled bamboo, a tiny sheet of nori seaweed, and slivers of beni shôga (red pickled ginger) and a sesame grinder tableside.

And let's not forget the spicy pickled mustard greends (takana)...

...or the fresh garlic press. Trick that bowl out! Mutsumon's broth is of course a hearty pure tonkotsu (pork marrow), with just a splash of shôyû (soy sauce) flavor essence. Maybe not quite as over the top rich as Tatsunoya's soup, but very creamy and more "mild" than some of the more rustic / smelly broths plied by shops specializing in Kurume's neighboring areas of Kumamoto and Hakata. Sesame, garlic, ginger, and liquid pig are a match made in heaven. The only weak link was the egg, which wasn't really steeped in shôyû and was cooked a bit harder than I like.

One helping is never enough at Kurume and Hakata-style joints, so I plunked 100 yen down on the counter and got a noodle refill (kaedama), this time screwing up the courage to shoot for the top and get the "kona otoshi" noodles that are only dipped in boiling water for about 2-3 seconds. They definitely taste almost raw, but since the noodles are so fresh and pliant, they're still very edible and not crunchy.

Against my better judgement, I decided to throw down for an unprecedented second refill. My philosophy when it comes to Hakata ramen is that it should look like the inside of a dumpster by the end of the day, with tons of remaining shreds of takana greens, onions, ginger, and all the rest all mixed together at the bottom of the bowl.

A garbage plate is an appropriate thing for a bowl to look like, since all the previous night's trash in Kabukicho was still piled up on the street when I walked out. Mutsumon's ramen might not have been the total revelation that Kinmaru's or Tatsunoya's was, but I think that's more of a result of knowing what to expect at Kurume ramen shop - if I had been to Mutsumon before I went to Kinmaru, I think I would have been more blown away. Mutsumon still whips the pants off the vast majority of other ramen shops, at least if you love Kyushu-style ramen as much as I do. Hit it up!