Saturday, July 25, 2009

武道家 (Budôka)

Budôka had been catching my eye for a long time - how could it not, given the fact that it's located about 10 meters from the gate of the Waseda subway station and always has a line out the door? My pal R told me how good she thought Budôka looked, but that she probably would never get around to venturing inside unless accompanied by a ramen eating dood such as myself. As it turned out, she never got around to going at all, and had to return to L'America, leaving me myself and I to try the place on my own.

Budôka means "House of the Warrior", but given that most of the shop's customers are the students and faculty of Waseda, the only battles Budôka's patrons are fighting are with their exams and with the large portion sizes that the shop offers. The shop is probably 20 meters from the front gate of Waseda Middle School, so I'll bet there are plenty of students who make the place a regular afterschool stop. Some Wasedians have even been known to proudly name Budôka as their all-time favorite ramen shop.

So I poked my head in one late afternoon after the line had died down, eager to try Budôka for myself. From the use of the character 家 in the name and the out front repping of Yokohama-style ramen on the sign, its no surprise that Budôka offers one kind of ramen and one alone - classic "ie-kei" style. Like every other ie-kei shop, Budôka traces its recipe to Yokohama's Yoshimura-ya and features the following determinants of ie-kei-ness: strong tonkotsu shôyû (soy sauce and pork bone) soup, thick chewy noodles, adjustable levels of firmness and oiliness, three sheets of nori seaweed, stewed spinach topping, and tableside options of garlic, ginger, and chili paste.

The vibe inside is about as Platonic ideal of ramen shop as you can get; cramped and cozy with 80s pop music blasting, a row of students and salarymen with ties tucked inside their shirts, and dudes in wifebeater undershirts and head towels bellowing out orders.

The back wall is covered with the business cards, train passes, and assorted bureaucratic detritus of the shop's customers; I think you might get a free bowl of rice if you add your own existence-validating scrap of paper to the board. Though free rice might not be much of an incentive, since all you can eat rice only runs 50 yen at Budôka. While I'm sure this contributes to the shop's popularity with students, be careful what you wish for: you can eat as much rice as you want, but if you leave any behind in your bowl, you'll be assessed a 500 yen penalty charge. Oh, Japan.

With ie-kei ramen, you know exactly what you're going to get, and that's exactly what you get at Budôka - the aforementioned classic set up. There's just one difference: Budôka is really, really salty. A sign posted on the counter warns you that the soup is extra strong, and is meant for flavoring the noodles rather than for drinking alone. I'd take this advice to heart, as it steeps the noodles nicely, but a straight sip from the spoon might make you pucker.

Toppings were all in order, all well-executed, but none remarkable. A little ginger, garlic, and spicy chili paste definitely helps balance the soup out and smooth out the salty tang from the broth.

Budôka definitely knows their strong point, and that's the noodles, which are indeed firm, toothsome, thick, and excellent. All in all, Budôka was a solid bowl if you are an ie-kei fan, but I think I prefer the slightly milder Shichifuku-ya around the corner or maybe Chiyosaku by 'Baba station. With the big portions, cheap rice, ideal location, and fun atmosphere, I can see why this place is an institution, but I think I'll leave it to the institutionalized.

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