It's been a hectic couple of weeks with deadlines and assorted matters to attend to, but I managed to fit in plenty of bowls, so let's work through this backlog! A couple weeks back I went with my buddy M to go see the new movie "MW" (read "MU"). It's an adaptation of manga master Osamu Tezuka's classic 70s terrorism thriller / gay romance comic, which is one of favorites fo sho:
Unfortunately, the original story had been bowdlerized pretty badly (it's tough to pull a gay romance story without any gay romance), and the film was basically a sloppily done (yet still entertaining) summer blockbuster type:
The theater was in Shinagawa, the terminus for southbound trains in Tokyo and home to one of Tokyo's "Ramen Roads", the Shinatatsu ramen plaza. What was I going to do, NOT show up half to hour early and down a quick bowl before the show?
From JR Shinagawa station, take the Takanawa exit towards the Shinagawa Prince Hotel, then make a left before crossing the street; just when you think you've walked too far, the Shinatatsu ramen road will be on your left.
The Shinatatsu ramen center is nowhere near the size of the Yokohama Raumen Museum, but it's a nice little boardwalk featuring seven shops and a gift shop. There's a branch of the ever-popular Nantsuttei, a location of the ever popular Kumamoto-style Higomonzu, a Setagaya, which recently opened up a shop in New York, an old school "Shina-soba" shôyû (soy sauce) shop called Kibi, a second location of Takeda Keisuke's original Hatudai Keisuke serving black miso ramen, a branch of the massively popular tsukemen (dipping noodle) purveyor TETSU, and a currently open storefront vacated just last week by Asahikawa Ramen Saijô. Decisions, decisions...
At first I was leaning towards TETSU, since tsukemen sounded good on a hot summer night, and I thought the line here would be more reasonable than the famously long waits at the original location in Sendagi. But just as I was about to walk in, a group of 8 salarymen loosening their ties queued up, so I decided to go with Higo Monzu instead. Though the original location is in Nishi-Ogikubo in western Tokyo, Higo Monzu serves Kumamoto-style ramen in the classic model, rustic, porky, and garlicky.
As a quick reminder, Kumamoto is in the central west part of the southernmost major island of Kyushu, the dirty south of pork bone tonkotsu ramen. The old name for Kumamoto prefecture during pre-modern times was Higo, from whence the shop draws its name; as for "Monzu", your guess is as good as mine, but I'm guessing it means something in Kumamoto dialect. Some other Kumamoto-style shops I've hit up thus far include Higo Noren, Nanashi, and Keika.
Nantsuttei is based on Kumamoto ramen as well, but that's the gussied up version. Higo Monzu's rendition is classic all the way, with a thin brown mâyû (burnt garlic and sesame oil) and woodsy and soft yet crunchy strips of kikurage (wood-ear mushrooms). It seems it is derigeur for tonkotsu soup places in Tokyo to advertise that their soup doesn't reek of melted pork bone, and Higo Monzu is no different, but their broth has a bit more of a pungent (in a good way) taste than silky smooth Kyushu-style joints like Ippûdô.
And of course, no bowl of Kyushu ramen is complete without adding a few tableside toppings - crush in a clove of fresh garlic and pile on the fresh (yet sadly unspicy) takana mustard greens. And look at that the way the yolk is just oozing out of the egg! As always with Kumamoto ramen, it seems like the further you get down into the bowl, the more all the flavors come together, as the garlic plays off the tangy yet creamy marrow based soup; I think Higo Monzu also uses a bit of chicken in the broth, as opposed to the pure pork of many Hakata and Kurume style places.
The noodles were of course straight and white, and a bit fatter even than at Nantsuttei, rather than the thin threads at Hakata-style joints. They seemed to maintain their firmness a bit stronger than Nantsuttei's, and are close to what I'd call the ideal of Kumamoto-style noodles. All in all an excellent bowl, and, despite the lack of a true Kumamoto pedigree, one of your best options in Tokyo for this style of ramen. But before you leave...
Don't forget to check out the goods at the gift shop! Shinatatsu has a well-stocked little store featuring boxed home-prep noodles from famous shops all over the country, ranging from Kyushu to Hokkaido. I managed to keep my money in my wallet...this time. But you can bet that when I move back to America I am gonna stock up for the long haul!