Thursday, May 14, 2009

早稲田大学戸山キャンパス学生食堂 (Waseda University Toyama Campus Student Cafeteria)

This blog is ostensibly about Waseda ramen, yes? About the act of eating ramen in Waseda, yes? About all the places where one can eat ramen in Waseda, yes? But the bowl of ramen most deserving of the name "Waseda Ramen" had been sitting under my nose (mouth?) uneaten all ths time! This is not necessarily to say the most representative bowl of "Waseda Ramen," and certainly not to say the best, merely the bowl that, on one level of meaning, has the most claim to be labeled "Waseda" ramen. I speak, of course, of the ramen served at the Waseda University school cafeteria.

Like any self-respecting research university of substantial size and student body, Waseda has numerous cafeterias and cafes at which students can satiate their biological needs for calories between bouts of drinking...I mean studying. The particular cafeteria in question here is that located on the Toyama campus of the university, which houses the faculty of literature (bungakubu). My reasons for selecting this particular cafeteria to eat my bowl of Waseda's ramen are mainfold, or at least three: it is closest to my department's library; it is filled with a disproportionate number of cute girls; it is the the deliciousist.

From the Waseda subway station, head west on Waseda-dôri, but instead of going straight up the hill, veer left at the intersection with the takoyaki (fried octopus balls) stand. Head in the campus gate, and the cafeteria is on your left. The food service area is small but jam packed with options - there's all kinds of soba and udon, a fruit corner, a curry, rice, and meat line, a surprisingly decent salad bar, a case with moderately fresh baked goods, and a cornucopia of traditional homestyle pickled side dishes and tofu. Oh, and a ramen corner.

They take the ramen corner impressively serously at Waseda, perhaps because the university is located in the heart of one of the country's (and, ergo, the world's) biggest "ramen challenge zones." In addition to standard options like classic shôyû and basic miso, Waseda offers a blended pork and fish broth tsukemen option, and even a soupless aemen noodle dish. And then you've got the rotating cast of limited time only options - in the past, the cafeteria has served "Toyama black ramen" (burnt shôyû flavored), Sapporo-style miso ramen, and even something called "Popeye ramen," which featured a green soup. This month is Kyushu and Okinawa month at the dining hall, so there are all manner of southern Japanese specialties on offer, including a rendition of Kumamoto ramen, which is what I got.

I grabbed a couple of side dishes like kabocha nimono (stewed pumpkin), unohana (tofu lees), a nice little salad, a cup of green tea, and checked out - the ramen itself is only about 450 yen, so you can get a fully balanced meal for less than the price of your average bowl at a standard ramen shop. I actually really dig the cafeteria food at Waseda - for a young single dude like me, it's one of my only chances to eat homestyle dishes on the cheap.

I'm a Kyushu-style tonkotsu (pork bone soup) man at heart, and if you asked me to rank my favorite regional ramen styles, Kumamoto ramen would definitely be near the top of that list. In recent months, I'd had great bowls at Nanashi and Higo Noren (as well as a not so great bowl at Keika), so I was curious how Waseda's bowl would stack (can you stack ramen? answer: yes) up. It definitely looked like a bowl of Kumamoto ramen. The milky brownish white soup was topped with generous helpings of finely chopped green scallions and a tangle of kikurage (woodear mushroom slices), as well as an egg hardboiled rather than half-cooked, and mostly crucially, something at least sorta kinda half approximated the not-so-secret ingredient that makes Kumamoto ramen Kumamoto ramen - mâyû (burnt garlic oil).

A tentative first slurp...and it's good! Not winning any awards perhaps, but tasty enough. While not functioning on the same level as the broth at a proper ramen shop, the soup was clearly Kumamoto ramen and nothing else. A bit thin in both taste and texture, perhaps, and a bit cheap tasting, but the essence was there. Considering the fact that we're talking college cafeteria here, a not unimpressive feat. Certainly a far cry from the bland red-jacket potatoes, mushy polenta, and crusty pasta I remember eating most weekdays as an undergrad. But don't enroll in this bowl just yet, because the noodles were as disastrous as the soup was successful. Soft, limp, mushy, and overcooked, these were barely passible as ramen noodles. They were properly white, straight, and medium thin, as Kumamoto-style noodles should be, but man...they boil the soba and udon fine, but the less said about these noodles the better.

So, Waseda's ramen does not get an A+. I'd give the soup a solid B, but the noodles pull a D - someone in the kitchen needs to take some remedial boiling classes. I ain't hating though; those cafeteria ladies work their butts off to feed Wasedians bellies, and if you look at their body of work as a whole, it's pretty impressive. I left full after a balanced meal that added up to less than the cost of yesterday's disastrous Daiô Ramen, so I can't complain. And I'm curious to see what special limited time ramen June will bring...

No comments: