Sunday, September 27, 2009

博多天神 新宿靖国通り店 (Hakata Tenjin [Shinjuku Yasukuni-dori shop])

It was time. It had been long overdue, but the time had come at last. Tenjin time. My love for Hakata Tenjin goes years back. Back when my buddies and I were still in college, we used to end almost every other bout of drinking with a quick bowl at Tenjin before hopping our respective trains home. I headed back to the states and my buddies graduated into lives as overworked salarymen, but we still found time for Tenjin on my occasional trips back to Tokyo.

But this year I somehow hadn't made it back to the Hakata-style haven. My buddies and I still drink together plenty, but for whatever reason we haven't had the chance to hit up Tenjin. My buddy S lobbies for a nightcap bowl almost every time we go out, but there's always someone who isn't quite in the mood. We also have something of an unwritten rule that we can't go to Tenjin sober. Good as it is, Tenjin's is not ramen to be savored, but to be gulped down in vain attempts to salt the roadslicks of cheap booze lining the guts.

Last month I got just such an occasion. Golden Gai, the ramshackle collection of tiny bars tucked away in the back streets of Shinjuku was holding it's annual summer festival. There were no traditional clothes, no shrine parade, just 100-some bars flinging open their doors and serving 5-dollar drinks poured strong as the dickens. S and I showed up at 1 PM and started making the rounds, and by mid afternoon we were duly fuschnickened. S had to take off to run some errands, but I was in it for the long haul, and I needed sustenance for the journey to the center of my liver. It was Tenjin time.

There are dozens of Tenjin's all over town, and a solid smattering in Shinjuku alone. Anywhere where dudes are drinking the promise of a 500 yen bowl of porky ramen will never fall on deaf ears. Like a (somewhat dizzy) moth to the flame, I staggered towards the brightly lit door, which, in the grand tradition of modern Japanese signage, displays a smiling cartoon rendition of the animal you are about to eat.

Jesus did it smell good. In an era when so many Hakata-style joints try to rid their pork marrow soup of it's characteristic stench, Tenjin lays it out raw. Tenjin is a big chain, no hidden secret like Hitotsubo down the block, but damn if they don't serve some of the very best Hakata ramen in Tokyo. There's some extra flavor, some extra depth, some extra straight up soul that so many would-be Hakata shops lack.

Add to that nice spicy mustard greens, a dash of sesame seeds, crisp and sweet pickled ginger, and a dab of garlic, and you, my friend, are in pork heaven. My fuzzy brain couldn't even process how much these noodles were hitting the spot.

Against my better (albeit impaired) judgement, I ordered a second helping of noodles, desperately trying to absorb enough alcohol to catch a second wind. With my pores emitting pork, I found my way back to the bars for an enjoyable evening. Enjoyable, that is, until its ending.

Let's just say that those noodles might have wished that my gullet was marked as a one-way street.

ミルクホール栄屋 (Milk Hall Sakaeya)

On another sweltering late summer day, Brian and I met up to bump down a bowl. He had just gotten back from a month in Hokkaido, where he had passed the time cruising around on his motorcycle, shoveling cow poop, and oh yeah, eating ramen. Hokkaido is undoubtedly one of the nation's main ramen destinations, with the famous Sapporo-style miso, Asahikawa-style seafood soy sauce, Hakodate shio (salt) broth, and Muroran-style curry ramen, which is apparently poised to be The Next Big Thing. But one thing they don't have in the northern island is good, thin, old-fashioned Tokyo style shôyû (soy sauce) ramen.

We met up near Tokyo station and walked north along the river to the Kanda area, which, despite it's proximity to downtown, still retains a good deal of the scruffy feel of early postwar "low city" Tokyo. Our destination was Milk Hall Sakae-ya. I recently downed a bowl of curry-milk-miso ramen, but you're not going to find any milk in the broth at Sakae-ya. Rather, "Milk Hall" seems to have been a common moniker for cafes serving "Western-style" meals in the mid 20th century. Sakae-ya opened its doors in 1945, serving coffee and pastries, as still noted on the vintage sign advertising light meals (and of course that nearly unmatched symbol of postwar Americanization, Coca-Cola).

If the genesis of the shop resembles that of the Waseda staple Merci, so does the vibe, allowing for about 50 years of age difference between the university clientele and the old folks that frequent Sakae-ya. It's as much neighborhood hangout as it is ramen shop, and the 70-plus crowd was joking away happily between slurps. The staff at Sakae-ya may not have the spectacular dye jobs of the little old ladies at Haruki-ya in Ogikubo, but the old women running the front doted on Brian and I, making friendly small talk while we waited for our bowls to come up.

Sakae-ya's is the kind of bowl you can envision almost perfectly before you see it - at Tokyo shops this old, there's no doubt in what constitutes a bowl of ramen. A fat grip of thin noodles sitting in a light brown soy sauce-based chicken stock soup topped with a few slivers of menma (bamboo shoots) and a dash of chopped scallions. But even in this seemingly simple bowl, you can catch hints of the divide between Tokyo's east side and west side - western rep Ogikubo ramen is topped with small triangle of nori seaweed, but east end bowls like Sakae-ya's usually replace the nori with a clump of stewed spinach. For decades, before Hakata tonkotsu hit the big time, before Sapporo miso had come to the capital, before the idea of high-end "ramen dining" was swimming around in its father's balls, "ramen" in Tokyo was this and little else.

And of course, it tasted delicious. A bit sweeter and a bit less fishy than the crosstown Ogikubo bowls, Sakae-ya's ramen is light enough to be refreshing on a summer day. I may not have grown up in postwar Tokyo, but this ramen had something of a nostalgic taste that stirred deep memories. It was Maruchan. Or rather, Maruchan was it. The instant "Top Ramen" I had eaten for so many after school snacks was clearly drawing from soup like Sakae-ya's. Needless to say, the flavors go a little deeper when made by a hand more skilled than my own, age 9.

It was high school baseball season, an annual summer ritual that grabs the country's attention and makes March Madness betting pools seem like pee-wee league stuff. My boys from Chiben Wakayama had been eliminated from the tournament a few days before, but the finals were on as we ate, and after finishing we settled in for another 20 minutes to join the regulars in rapt attention as the high school kids slugged it out. There's nothing quite like summer in Tokyo.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Doraemon Butt T-Shirt - Another Brief Update

Hey y'all ramen eaters. Apologies for the slow post flow of late - I'm out of Tokyo and enjoying the California sun for a few weeks before resuming my regularly scheduled slurping (and, uh, scholarly research). I've still got a decent backlog of bowls built up, so even though I'm not in Tokyo, expect those to go up in the near future. The other big blog project I'm trying to accomplish while back home is to set up an easily accessible google map of all the shops on the blog, so that those in Tokyo can actually FIND them, rather than just drool over them. Not totally sure when that will, to use the parlance of our times, "go live", but it should hopefully be by the end of the month or so. In the meantime, I've taken a move from Same Hat's playbook, and compiled a list of bizarre search strings that people have found Waseda Ramen through. Enjoi!

Apparently, there's a big overlap between ramen and skeeze...

shinjuku strip bars
kurume pink salon
kumamoto pink salon
red light massage hakata
"san diego" "hourly hotels"
sado on my face
tokyo, erotic massage
bukkake arrangement 2009
ikebukuro red light district

In the 'ramen as a marker of political strife' category...

latest myanmar news in japan
right-wing north korean hibiya demonstration
geopolitical unrest uyghur
manchuria map
shan flag
map of russo-japanese war

Wrong food, dude...

halal restaurant kyoto
obscure food
in punjabi what do they call kujira the fruit
grease inside with white fat
mongol cuisine
ogikubo pizza

Ok, I really have no idea...

'full-on' dictionary
RUN-DIM nikoniko
ume ume air layering
dr. waseda hair protocal
"important destination"
naruto ultimate ninja how to get bean sprouts
nerima the fucker
get me ya scoop
the toughest decision of my life nate higashi
i'd be willing to bet
follow the pulse
hell guyuan
steve perry

And of course...

Doraemon Butt T-shirt.