Wednesday, August 19, 2009

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!

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