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.

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