Tuesday, August 25, 2009

まるしん (Marushin)

For many people who aren't regular noodlers, ramen shops have a certain kind of...image problem, or at least did until recently. Sweaty, cramped, and packed with male regulars speaking what sounds like a secret language with the cook, it could be a bit off-putting for those who weren't used to it. Hence the recent popularity of calm, well-lit, and fashionable shops actively catering to female customers who heretofore would not have deigned to set foot into such a den of men. But there are still some old fashioned battered around the edges shops that give even the regular ramener pause. And that's OK.

Marushin, located just around the corner from Menchintei is one such shop. I don't know how long it's been there, but it’s been long enough that the letters are peeling off the sign. I had cruised by once or twice, but didn’t really feel up to poking my sweaty white head through the door – it somehow gave off the vibe of an old men’s member’s club, of which there are plenty of in Tokyo. But this time I clatteredopen the door and took a few steps back in time.

The walls were clattered with early-postwar era decor like aluminum Disney character cut-outs, old photos, and assorted beer maid posters, and most of the clientele seemed of the age range that would remember when a shop like this would have felt new and hip. I believe the Japanese turn of phrase would be taimu sulippu. It turned out my intuition hadn't been entirely wrong; besides a large menu of ramen staples and basic meat-based meals, Marushin also holds liquor bottles on keep for their patrons. Nonetheless, the vibe was friendly enough, even if it did take the single old cook a while to putter out to take my order.

Pretty much all the standard permutations were available, and then some – shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), tanmen (a different kind of salt...sensing a trend here?), tantanmen (“spicy Chinese style”), and so on, each of which can be loaded up with corn, bamboo shoots, seaweed, kimchi, or any other pickled thing you could think of. I was going to go with the simple shoyu when a special item written on paper on the wall caught my eye – “Miso Curry Milk Ramen.” Whuuuuuuu. Gotta go with that one, homey. Miso curry milk ramen is apparently also a secret special dish of Aomori city in the deep north, but I think Marushin's menu was more of the “we'll toss anything we have in the fridge in your bowl” variety.

Topped with wakame seaweed, onions, bean sprouts, and bamboo, it was your basic homebrewed miso bowl...with curry and milk tossed in the broth. Oh yeah, plus half a stick of butter. Whoever said Japanese food was healthy? The taste was, shall we say, a “testament to its ingredients” – no complex spiced miso blend like at Junren, it tasted like store-bought miso with store-bought cheap curry mixed in. But you know what? Those things taste GOOD. No culinary cumshot, but salty, creamy comfort food that gave me stamina on a sweaty summer day.

The noodles were straightforward, medium thick, medium yellow, medium chewy; pretty much your standard stereotypical image of a ramen noodle. Fine but forgettable.

Plus, for about 150 yen extra, they'll wok you up that other old-school ramen shop standard, the hanchan (half-sized plate of fried rice). For every fresh funky fusion shop, Tokyo has at least two hole-in-the wall eateries of the kind that are sadly disappearing from the US. Waseda is in the northern part of the city, which makes sense because when I was eating at Marushin, I felt like I had gone way, way uptown.

ババ番外地、その三十六:長浜食堂 (Beyond Baba 36: Nagahama Shokudo)

I was heading out to my buddy C’s monthly BBQ, but hunger struck before the flames hit the grill, so I decided to grab a quick bowl on my way out the door. Nagahama Shokudo is officially the closest Hakata ramen shop to my house, so I figured I better give it a shot sooner or later.

I didn’t realize it until I sat down, but Nagahama Shokudo (“Nagahama Cafeteria”) is the upscale family restaurant version of Nagahama-ya, the big chain Hakata ramen purveyor that served up some of the worst northern-Kyushu style tonkotsu (pork marrow) ramen I’ve eaten to date. My excitement faded when I recognized the font, but hey, I’ve got to at least try the place in my own hood.

Nagahama Shokudo has a counter, but the majority of the big, open, well-lit space is filled with tables, which were filled with couples and young families eating lunch. Hakata-style pork bone ramen is by no means a taste loved by all, so Nagahama Shokudo offers more basic shoyu (soy sauce) and miso bowls as well as curry rice, Chinese-style tofu, chicken meals, and a full menu of gyoza (pot sticker dumplings). While gyoza are another Hakata pride item and you see curry rice at ramen shops from time to time, no true Nagahama-style ramen joint would offer miso ramen. Nagahama ramen (named after a neighborhood in Fukuoka) should smell like hell and be wolfed down at a dirty counter!

When my bowl came over the counter, it looked in proper order, a muddy whitish yellow-brown; at least there was none of the weird film that covered the bowl when I ate at Nagahama-ya a few months back. Though not deep and transcendentally pungent and stinky, the soup was still rich and tasty, though I think they may put in a bit of chicken stock, rather than 100% pork bone. The kikurage (woodear mushroom slices) were also nice and crunchy, and some of the best I’ve had.

Then there’s the ‘turn this mother out’ part of the proceedings, wherein one dumps on copious amounts of sesame seeds, garlic, pickled ginger, and spicy takana mustard greens. The takana were hotter than usual, which was nice, and the bowl took on it’s crazy savory complexity.

But nonetheless, it just didn’t quite reach the higher echelons of Hakata-style glory. Maybe it was the noodles – they were firm, but somehow tasted a bit off. I also felt a bit of resentment at not being able to choose from a variety of 5 different al dentitudes ranging from soft to wiry to raw.

I also picked up a bowl of mentaiko (spicy cod roe) and takana (pickled mustard greens ) rice - pretty tasty and salty, but I like my mentaiko sweet and spicy, rather than on the bitter side, which this was; I think the bitter taste actually means it's fresher and less processed, but hey, I like my pickled cod roe the way I like my pickled cod roe.I’m guessing that Nagahama-ya / Nagahama Shokudo are franchise shops, and this branch is definitely superior to the one in Okubo, but I couldn’t shake that chain store taste. Serviceable but not splendid, I’d seek out Barikote in Koenji instead...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

麺友一誠 (Menyû Issei)

Back in ‘Baba to run some errands, I decided to bang out a bowl. Tucked away in a small alley a fair piece west of Takadanobaba station is Menyû Issei, a cozy little place that was next on my hit list.

Head west on the north side of the street until shops start petering out, then keep your eyes peeled for a sign leading you onto a side street. Look for the blue curtain and brown sign and take a seat inside “Issei, Friend of Noodles.”

The vibe is neighborhood ramen joint par excellence, which doesn’t surprise me given the location. It’s a bit cluttered but friendly, with a TV playing baseball and pile of trashy weekly magazines if you feel like a little celebrity gossip, yakuza news, or softcore porn pictorials with your lunch.

But there is something that sets Menyû Issei apart, though it might not be immediately apparent. The staff hails from the Amami Islands, the northernmost archipelago of Okinawa, and they take pride in using products from their home turf. Okinawans have managed to pull off the unlikely feat of simultaneously eating massive amounts of pork and claiming the crown of longest-living people on earth. Issei proudly uses Amami-raised pigs; at night they also serve Amami style pickled papaya, bitter gourd (gôya) , and the ever-popular island staple of Spam. I don’t think there’s such a thing as “Amami ramen” as such, though.

On first glance, Issei’s soup, a tonkotsu shôyû (soy sauce and pork marrow) broth, looks pretty similar to standard Yokohama-style ie-kei ramen, right down to the stewed spinach topping and extra sesame. But Issei’s soup is a bit sweeter, a bit less salty, and for an extra 50 yen, they’ll toss in a layer of (pretty mild) chili oil.

Just look at how the gooey orange egg yolk blends into the yellow soup and ochre chili oil. I guess the Amaminians (Amamanians? Amamaniacs?) are also masters of camoflauge.

The noodles are also straighter and a bit thinner than those found with ie-kei ramen, which is fine by me, because the neighborhood already has plenty of orthodox ie-kei joints. Overall, Issei’s ramen is a simple but solid tonkotsu shôyû that is far less oily than most similar bowls, which is nice in the summer heat.

Just in case you’re still hungry, take advantage of Issei’s lunch special of a free bowl of rice, dump it in the soup, and you’re set for the afternoon. Give these hardworking islanders in exile some noodle love!

ババ番外地、その三十五:弥彦 (Beyond Baba 35: Yahiko)

When I visited Sado-ga-shima a few months back, I made a special stop on the way home to eat Tsubame-Sanjô ramen, famous for such heaping amounts of lard that you can barely make out the soup. When I stopped to ask a portly policeman for directions to the nearest ramen shop, he asked me if I was looking for the fatty stuff or for curry ramen. I supped on the lipidinous soup, but the question of the curry ramen kept bugging me long after I got back home. Well ladies and germs, I done figgered it out.

Cold, snowbound Niigata is known for hearty and heavy ramen, of which the best known is the extra fatty stuff from the industrial twin cities of Tsubame and Sanjô. But the Minato-machi port area is home to another local specialty – curry ramen made with a rich miso base. If you’re looking to try either in Tokyo, you’re in luck…but be sure and check your watch before you head out.

Located under the freeway on Kôshû Kaidô avenue a few hundred meters from Hatagaya station is a remarkable ramen shop; or should I say, three remarkable ramen shops. Occupying the same storefront at various hours of the week are Gamushara, Dokkan, and Yahiko. Unlike in the practice of aidakari, when an established ramen shop lends its kitchen to a young chef during off hours (which is how Shinjuku’s Nagi started), all three of these shops are headed by the same Niigata-born cook. During peak weekday lunch and dinner hours the shop is Gamushara, serving a blended soup made with red snapper stock; weekday nights after 9 PM, the shop morphs into Dokkan, which only serves the extra fatty Tsubame-style ramen to the post-drinking crowd. Then on Saturdays and Sundays, the shop switches their banner to Yahiko (named after a mountain in Niigata), which specializes in extra strong Niigata-style miso. Three shops in one is a great concept that I wish would catch on more broadly.

The basic bowl at Yahiko is a rich and gritty miso soup distinct from the more famous Sapporo style, and is garnished with chopped onions, green veggies, and garlic chips. But I opted for the even more decadently over the top spicy curry miso, which comes with pile of diced tomatoes and a healthy dusting of powdered cheese. Now this, dear readers, is good shit. It would be hard to go wrong with that list of ingredients, but Yahiko really takes the time (it takes over ten minutes from order to service) and effort to do it proper. A savory and delicious calorie bomb packed with different flavors and textures, this is my kind of ramen.

Just to really take it to the next level I ordered a side of Grape Nuts. Just kidding! Those are fried crunchy garlic chips. Honestly though, there was already so much going on in the soup that I barely needed them.

And if that still isn’t enough for you, Yahiko doesn’t just make do with a wimpy bowl of Chinese or Korean-style hot pepper paste tableside, they pull out all the stops. Blair’s After Death Sauce is Fucking Not a Joke. Definitely in the higher ranks of American hot sauces available without a doctor’s note, Blair’s After Death is a force to be reckoned with. I like spicy food and it took me barely a week to polish off a bottle of Blair’s (regular) Death Sauce. But that’s only rated X, and this one pulls a XXX.

Just the slightest dab is enough to make your lips singe and induce hiccups. XXX is an appropriate moniker because you feel this stuff in your Deep Throat (and stomach, and intestines, and colon…). I can’t believe they put this stuff out without warning label for the famously fire-wary Japanese consumer. A little dab’ll do ya!

Plus, somewhere in that dense mix of miso-cheese-curry-tomato-garlic- onion-chili goodness there are noodles too! Nice, chewy, thick noodles that hold up under the heavy and almost gritty broth. I had high hopes for this place, and man, Yahiko passed with flying colors. You also get a bowl of a thin, whitish, and mild fish base soup to dilute the broth to your own taste. Y’know, if you’re a wimp or something.

Oh yeah, and there’s one more thing Niigata ramen is famous for – comically large spoons!

Monday, August 17, 2009

ババ番外地、その三十四:ばくだん屋 (Beyond Baba 34: Bakudan-ya)

Brian from Ramen Adventures once said a wise thing - "y'know I like tsukemen (dipping noodles) alright, but it sort of always tastes the same..." There's much truth in that statement - the vast majority of tsukemen shops offer a similar menu of extra fat warm noodles served with a sweet, salty, vinegary soy and fish-based dipping broth. The style traces it's origins back to the now nationally famous "Ramen God" Yamagishi Kazuo, original head cook at the Higashi Ikebukuro Taishoken.

But who knew there was a different, totally distinct tsukemen tradition originating in Hiroshima? Not me, until a couple weeks ago. Apparently Hiroshima tsukemen traces its origins back to the early postwar, and was developed from culinary traditions brought back from wartime China. The dish didn't become "Hiroshima tsukemen" as such, however, until the mid 1980s, when it gained national attention on television. It seems like the number of shops serving Hiroshima tsukemen has been on the rise of late, buoyed by the general nationwide tsukemen trend of the last few years.

Perhaps the best known purveyor of Hiroshima tsukemen is "Bakudan-ya" (House of Explosions), a nationwide franchise of about 50 shops. I am guessing that the shop's name is a reference to the fact that you can order your tsukemen extra spicy, but did they really think it was a good idea to put together the words "Hiroshima" and "explosion" as a marketing ploy? I visited the branch on Otakibashi-dori near the West Gate of Shinjuku station, in a nice little pocket of ramen shops that also includes a Jiro, a Nakamoto, Curry Ramen Cocoichi, and 10 or so other tasty looking shops.

So, just what IS Hiroshima tsukemen? Unlike in mainstream Tokyo tsukemen the noodles are served not room temperature or warm, but cold, and are topped with a veritable mountain of freshly cut veggies, primarily cabbage, green scallions, sliced cucumbers, and crunchy seaweed. It's almost more like a light summer salad than a bowl of ramen.

The kicker (emphasis on the "kick") is in the dipping broth, which is necessarily extra spicy and packed with red pepper and chili oil, as well as a healthy layer of fresh sesame seeds. At Bakudan-ya you can order the spice factor to your taste - the scale shows 1 - 20 , but after that you can "consult with the staff" or just add more of the tableside chili oil yourself. I shot through the middle and went with a ten.

The soup is tasty, but even at spice factor 10, only provides a mild kick. Spicy for sure, but nothing near Nakamoto, Takagi-ya or god forbid, Yagura-tei. The broth is a bit salty, but a refreshing change from the Taishoken clones. Not unlike at THE The The, there is a bit of a Korean tinge to the flavor. The veggies are crunchy and popping with fresh flavor, and the cold temperature, sesame, and chili make for a perfect refreshing summer dinner option. Personally, I'd prefer thicker noodles, but hey then it wouldn't be Hiroshima tsukemen.

Although the noodle portion is a bit small for the money (800 yen), for an extra 100 yen you can get a boiled egg and an "Explosion Rice Ball" of warm rice tossed in sesame oil and wrapped in sweet salty and crispy Korean nori seaweed. Definitely worth the upgrade.

The shop itself is pretty standard, if a bit spacious, with memorabilia from the Hiroshima Carp baseball team dotting the walls. There are also some fun customer drawings, and of course the requisite wall of photos of TV personalities making funny faces when they order the spiciest thing on the menu.

All in all, a nice change of pace and a good option for a hot summer night. I'm guessing there are more indie-style purveyors than Bakudan-ya out there, but if you want tsukemen but are sick of the same old same old, try tracking down some Hiroshima style noodles.

Friday, August 14, 2009

道玄 (Dogen)

My buddy D was crashing with me for a few days, and we ventured over to grab my first bowl back in Baba since moving away. Just as we were debating which shop to hit up, I spied a guy on the street holding a small white sign and intoning that salacious R-word. Wait a minute, there isn't a ramen shop in this alley! Unless... there is? I asked homeboy what the deal was, and he told me that a new shop had just opened up last week in the alley near Kômen just west of the station. Righteous, brother!

The shop's name is Dôgen, and no, it doesn't have anything to do with Dôgenzaka, the sex hotel district in Shibuya. The clue is in the calligraphy - see that little ink brush circle? It's some Zen thing: the sound of one hand clapping? The smell of a wet dog's fur? Perchance the unsated hunger in a graduate student's belly?

The shop master is apparently a big fan of the 13th century Zen monk Dôgen, and, as his acolyte (as it were) pointed out, he is appropriately bald in homage. Would the would-be Zen master's ramen be up to snuff? Do snails have assholes? Does the pope shit in the woods? Can I stop rattling off scatological fake koans?

The shop is so new that it doesn't have a proper menu yet, but it does have a whole table full of tourist brochures about the obscure western Japanese prefectures of Shimane and Tottori, which as far as I know, are by no means parts of the country famous for ramen.

Tottori is however, famous for sand dunes. Tottori is home to some of the only dunes in the country, which I guess also constitute the prefecture's primary tourist destination. You may remember their starring role in the classic Abe Kôbô / Teshigahara Hiroshi new wave film "Woman in the Dunes." One of Tottori's other claims to fame is as hometown of the photographer Ueda Shôji; as luck would have it, my buddy D is quite the photography buff, and was actually on his way to Tottori the very next day. Fortuitous!

Shimane, for its part, used to be home to the powerful Izumo clan, but they got the crap kicked out of them about 1300 years ago by the Yamato clan, and it's been a backwater ever since. Though it's still home to the second (underline) most important shrine in the country, Izumo Taisha, like Tottori, it is in no way famous for ramen.

So what gives? I dunno if our buddy the monk-cook is from Tottori or Shimane or what, but the shop concept is "ramen made with products from Tottori and Shimane." Uhh, right on. At first glance, the bowl (which is available in either thin 'assari' or strong 'kotteri' styles), is almost indistinguishable from Yokohama ie-kei (LINK) style ramen - thin tonkotsu shôyû (pork and soy) broth, leafy greens, thick and chewy curly yellow noodles. But there's more going on, especially with the smattering of chopped burnt white onions. Funny, I don't remember ordering my ramen "animal style!"

But Dôgen rises above with those little jars of pepper on the table. Featuring green, orange, red, black, and habanero peppers locally grown in Shimane, you can dash a bit on with each bite, and each creates a whole new flavor, from sweet to smoky to spicy. For what it's worth, some of the best ground pepper I've ever had.

The overall quality of the soup and noodles are also excellent, and we both ended the meal smacking our lips and agreeing that we'd come back. Apparently the menu will be expanded with special Shimane soy sauce soup, and there's also a limited time beef ramen, which was already sold out for the day when we visited.

So look into your bowl, seek nirvana, and go seek out Dôgen on its back alley. Another innovative and solid addition to the hood, it needs your business!

ババ番外地、その三十三:ばりこて (Beyond Baba 33:Barikote)

As I mentioned before, I still have every intention of eating my way through the rest of the Waseda-Baba ramen zone. One's gotta finish what one starts y'all. That said, now that I'm living out in Nakano-ku, my daily bike rides are taking me through parts further west, so you can probably expect to see more posts of ramen shops along the Chuo and Seibu Shinjuku lines (in areas like Kôenji, Asagaya, Nogata, and the like), as well as bowls in Baba and here and there across town.

Anyhoo, it should come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog with any regularity that one of the first things I did upon getting settled in my new place was to go track down a legit bowl of Hakata-style tonkotsu (pork marrow) ramen! Cruising on my bike near Higashi-Koenji, I caught a whiff of The Smell, the incomparable stench of slow roasting pork bones that emanates from every Hakata ramen joint worth its salt, as well as from yr own pores for hours after you chow down. The culprit: Barikote, a cozy little shop located on Ôkubo-dôri. I made a mental note and came back the next day, sliding in just before the shutter went down at the end of lunch service.

The sign at Barikote (which translates roughly as "Good'n'Strong") proclaims "True Hakata-style ramen, with no quarter given and no concessions made to Tokyo tastes!" I've never been to Hakata(...yet), so I'm in no position to judge the veracity of that statement, but it may well be truth in advertising. What I got was a tangle of thin, hard, white noodles in a thick yellowish-white soup, served at the very un-Tokyo-style price of 600 yen. A first sip revealed a soup not as brutally pungent as some bowls I've had, but it was creamy, smooth, and unfuckedaroundwith. Yum, man!

All that was left was to turn the mother out with a generous amount of the tableside toppings that make Hakata ramen what it is - red pickled ginger, ground white sesame, minced garlic, and spicy pickled takana mustard greens. Remember kids, if your bowl doesn't look like a garbage dump by the end, you're not doing it right!

While there isn't really anything to set it head and shoulders above the other Hakata-style bowls I've had in the city, Barikote's ramen is certainly solid, and I had not a single complaint. Noodles are, of course, available in a spectrum of 5-ish firmnesses, ranging from soft to...raw. Raw?

Quoth the Ol` Dirty Bastard, "Baby I like it raw." Barikote's noodles are shipped in from Hakata (maybe as often as every morning), and are fresh enough to eat after a half-second dip in boiling water to rinse the flour off.

I have to say, I prefer the next step of firmness down, but you gotta give props for dishing it out proper. In addition to the ramen, Barikote serves a whole phalanx of Hakata-style snacks, including sweet egg omlettes with cod roe and other delicious dishes. I noticed their webpage has a gallery of photos of regulars; keep your eyes peeled for a pic of this ramen writer!