Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Heaven's Kitchen 玲音 Reon

Third time's the charm. I had attempted to visit Heaven's Kitchen Reon twice before, and both times it had been unexpectedly shut. I found the shop's (very cute) blog last week, and it turns out that last time I had tried to go, the staff had taken a day off to go skiing. That's a damn good reason to take a day off, as far as I'm concerned. Fortunately, eating at Reon was worth the wait.

Reon is pretty tough to find, on a small side street in a residential area southwest of Takadanobaba station. From the station, the easiest way to go would be to head south to Suwa-dôri, then make a right (east) and walk a fair bit until you pass a 7-11 on the right. On the next block, keep your eyes peeled for the black clapboard with the Guinness logo, then make a right (in the photo above).

The shop is on your left, located in a walk-down basement open to the street. There's no real sign, but you'll spot it, since there's nothing else on the block.

Being in such a remote location far from the station and off the main thoroughfare, Reon probably does a lot of business from repeat customers in the area. It feels like a real neighborhood place, and I feel lucky to have it within biking distance, though it would be nice to really be even closer and be able to drop by whenever. Inside, Reon is hip but homey, with a nice balance of designed interior and assorted clutter.

If you want to read magazines, there are plenty of those laid out. Want to hang out and watch the tropical fish in the aquarium? They got one of those too. Playing with Doraemon butt-wrestling toys (the pun works better in Japanese), is also an option. I could have done without the big TV behind the counter, but the sound was switched off, so it was minimally distracting.

Reon seems like a family business, with a just-past-young couple working behind the counter. There were some pretty cute pics of (presumably) their kid learning to ski up on one of the walls, and the overall vibe was of a space well-designed and clean, but "lived in" and comfy. I instantly felt comfortable and at ease. As an added bonus, there's a small Japanese-style back room with a little table in a cozy nook decked out with old posters.

Being a neighborhood place, Reon goes way above and beyond ramen - they've got a full menu packed with inventive takes on Japanese-Chinese specialty dishes, in addition to a small white board with daily specials, which is always a very good sign in my book. Based on the blog, it seems like they add menu items regularly, having fun and messing around with creations like Mayo and Onion ramen, which I'm guessing is probably tastier than it sounds. There's shio (salt) and shôyû (soy sauce) ramen, miso ramen, spicy miso ramen, tantanmen, wonton-men, tsukemen, curry tsukemen, yakisoba, the whole nine yards. There are a few other interesting options, like kôtômen (公東麺, "Cantonese-style noodles"), which are in a starchy mild sauce, and even tenshinmen (天津麺, "Tianjin-style noodles), which are presumably served with a sweet mock-crab omlette. It would take you weeks to try them all.

And that's just the noodle menu. The rest of the menu list is packed out with items like mapo tofu, shrimp in chili sauce, curry, eggplant with pork, and snacks like shrimp chips and stirfried veggies. And then there are the beverages options - good luck finding another ramen place in town that serves a Black-and-Tan with Guinness and Ebisu! Reasons to like Reon just abound...but all the good vibes and good options are moot if the food sucks, right?

Fortunately, it doesn't. Or at least, what I ordered didn't. After some good amount of internal debate, I decide to go with the tantanmen. Now, while standard tantanmen are a reimagination of the Sichuanese classic of dandanmian, Reon's rendition is still another step removed. The tantanmen at Heaven's Kitchen come not in the standard reddish soup, but in a thick, peanuty, sesame-flavored gravy, served with a few chopped onions and a flourish of red chili oil. Reon's tantanmen is more sweet than spicy, and while probably too simple of a soup (probably a light chicken base) to win over Serious Ramen People, this is comfort food at its finest.

The noodles are on the thick side, very yellow, and very curly, all the better to lift that thick brown succulent goo into your waiting maw. The noodles are allegedly made with tapioca flour, which makes them nice and mochi mochi (chewy); recently I've been digging straight white noodles more than wavy yellow ones, but Reon's are quality. I'm guessing that each type of noodle dish comes with its own appropriate type of noodle.

With just the noodles and gravy, I worried I might get bored, but I found myself continuing to down spoonfuls after the noodles were gone, telling myself "just one more, just one more." More than your average ramen soup, the tantanmen's broth reminded me of some of the West African stews I've eaten in Ghanaian restaurants in Harlem. Now only if Reon surved yam fufu mash to sop up the rest of the soup! With so many things on the menu, Reon's ramen isn't the most refined game in town, but I am hella coming back here to try and eat my way through the rest of the menu! A really nice experience all around.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

ババ番外地、その十二:長浜や 新大久保 (Beyond Baba 12: Nagahama-ya Shin-Ôkubo)

After the less than rad bowl at Suehiro this afternoon (see below), I spent the rest of the day hanging out with my buddy, his wife, and a couple other pals. We crisscrossed back and forth across Ôkubo, Tokyo's biggest Koreatown, located just north of Shinjuku. After some toppogi (rice cakes in spicy gravy) and beer streetside, we spent the better part of the day chilling at The Ghetto. Now, you might be thinking that The Ghetto is a bizarre and possibly inappropriate name for a building in the middle of one of the largest ethnic minority neighborhoods in Japan. You would be right, but that does not make The Ghetto any less chill of a place to visit.

Nestled in the backstreets just north of the main drag of Shokuan-dôri, The Ghetto is a former love hotel turned Skatepark / Bar / Art Gallery / Minimall / Store Where You Can Buy Toddler-Sized Suicidal Tendencies T-shirts and Thasher Logo Bibs. Yessssss. (Skip forward to about 0:45 on this video).

The single best thing I saw for sale at The Ghetto was, hands down, without a doubt, this:

It would be a stretch to fit this on a three year old. I almost want to have a child for the explicit purpose of having him wear this shirt. In any case, after plenty of beers and some squid guts, consensus was reached that what the evening needed was a quick bowl of ramen before splitting up and heading home. Fortunately, just around the corner was Nagahama-ya, a Hakata-style joint serving up the classic thin white noodles in muddy white pork bone tonkotsu soup. For all the ramen reviewing I do, in the end, this is really how ramen is meant to be eaten - after a few beers, quickly, without too much care, on the way to the train station. In the end, this is the bread and butter of the ramen shop, and the Hakata ramen shop in particular. Wait a minute, ramen shops don't serve bread and butter!

The crew slid inside, punched in at a reasonable 500 yen a pop, and plopped down on our stools to survey the scene. All signs point to the fact that Nagahama-ya is a shop catering to Hakata newbies; par exemplar, notices posted explaining the "kaedama" (extra noodle helping) system, which is pretty standard knowledge to anyone who has eaten Hakata ramen more than twice. Furthermore, advertising Kyushu Hakata Nagahama Tonkotsu Ramen is a bit of overkill - basically what that amounts to is writing Tonkotsu Tonkotsu Tonkotsu Tonkotsu ramen, as any one of the above should tip off even the casual ramen fan as to what is on offer inside.

The bowl looked like most standard bowls of Hakata ramen do - thin noodles (though perhaps not quite as uber-thin as some shops around town), creamy whitish brown soup, and free access to all the necessary trappings. Sesame seeds, red beni shôga (pickled ginger), pressed garlic, and spicy takana (mustard greens) make for a properly tricked out bowl. However, by the time I had finished loading up with toppings, a thin film had started to congeal on top of the soup. Umm, that shouldn't be there. My friend's wife (another ramen maniac) and I exchanged worried glances. Maybe it was the cold wind blowing in? Not the most pleasant sight to see before getting down to slurping.

The soup was fine, if not really anything special. The soup seemed a bit thin and a bit weak on the taste axis; toppings, while in order, didn't really stand out, and didn't really blend together to create that wonderful amalgam of ginger, garlic, sesame, pork, and spice that the best Hakata ramen bowls bring.

The noodles were a bit soft as well - we noticed too late the sign on the wall detailing the full spectrum of Kyushu-style firmness to which noodles can be boiled, running all the way from "soft" yawame to kona otoshi (with the flour knocked off), in which the noodles are dipped into boiling water for a mere three seconds. So, while we had to place some of the blame on ourselves, the default firmness should have been a bit more al dente.

When I got home and did a bit of googling, I wasn't surprised to find that Nagahama-ya is a franchise shop. In fact, it's the kind of shop whose homepage consists primarily of franchise information. Rather than an intriguing history of ramen master cooks and secret soup transmissions, I got a spreadsheet of how many bowls have to be turned during peak hours in order to break even or make a profit. Not so appetizing.

Nagahama-ya is another chain throwing its hat in the Hakata ramen game, with about a half-dozen franchises scattered around west-central Tokyo. Basically, Nagahama-ya is ramen as fast food. I mean, it's even got the bright yellow and red sign that is scientifically proven to stimulate the appetite right? But you know what? That's fine. Nagahama-ya isn't going to be blowing any minds or tongues, but it's never a bad thing to have another purveyor of Kyushu ramen around, especially in a place like Shinjuku. Though it was one of the weaker Hakata ramen bowls I've had, Nagahama-ya serves its purpose well - to allow drunk people (like us) to eat a cheap bowl of ramen on the way to the train station from the Skatepark / Bar / Art Gallery / Minimall / Suicidal Tendencies Toddler Clothes Store. Word up.

末廣ラーメン本舗 (Suehiro Ramen Honpo)

Not all ramen visits are planned. I left my house without intending to eat a single bowl, but by the time I returned this evening I had downed two. Such is the way of the world, at least in Takadanobaba. I headed out in the early afternoon to meet a buddy, and had been thinking about grabbing a quick snack of some udon or a sandwich on my way to the station, but on the north side of the street just west of the Babakuchi intersection, this sign caught my eye:

The spot had been vacant since I arrived in town a couple months ago, but it looks like the wrapping has come off to reveal a newly birthed shop - Suehiro Ramen Honpo. Apparently yesterday was their first day in business, so I decided to nix the udon and drop in for a bowl. The sign out front advertises "Kyoto street stall (yatai) ramen, as served since 1929." So why is Suehiro the branch of a shop based in Akita...800 kilometers away from Kyoto? Apparently Suehiro traces its heritage to Shinpuku, a Kyoto institution - these days, Shinpuku is no longer a ramen shop, but a wholesale noodle supplier; however, the secret soup recipe has been officially transmitted to Suehiro, which runs shops in Akita and Aomori, in deepest Tohoku (rural Northeastern Japan).

The secret recipe in question is for a very old-school, rich and classic shôyû (soy sauce) broth, made with not only pork stock, but also chicken bones and vegetables, in the classic Kyoto style. The basic ramen at Suehiro is a strong shôyû, with other options on the menu including shio (salt) and assari shôyû (a more diluted broth). I went with the standard and added on a topping of butter - butter is pretty common on Sapporo-style miso tonkotsu ramen, but I hadn't seen it paired with shôyû before, at least not since begging my mom for white rice with butter and soy sauce on top for dinner when I was 7. There were also a few basic sakes on offer, though it seemed like they were too understaffed to offer the fried rice sides listed on the menu.

However, not long after I bought my ticket, I began to regret my decision to just "pop in." When I took a look at the counter, there was only one customer busy slurping, while five more waited for bowls and another two had yet to hand in their order tickets. Three empty but uncleared bowls sat on the counter, as a single cook worked busily in the back. The omens were less than rad. It took a full ten minutes for said cook to make it back to the counter to take tickets, clear bowls and bring out the orders he had been preparing. I'm not uptight when it comes to stuff like this, but I was in a hurry, and got a bit irritated. Eventually another younger cook popped up (maybe back from break?), and things got moving.

The bowl I received was as barebones as they come. A dark, dark brown soup, a serving of noodles, the pat of butter, and nothing else. A large container of sliced onions sat on the table for the taking, but that was it. Seriously dudes? You're gonna charge me 700 yen for a bowl of ramen, and I don't even get a few slivers of menma (bamboo shoots) or nori (dried seaweed) for that? In Japanese, you'd say Suehiro has low "cosuto pafômansu."

After sending a couple of text messages to my friend apologizing for my tardiness, I got down to chowing down. The soup was simple, but tasty, definitely richer and darker than your average Tokyo style shôyû (probably due to the chicken stock), and lacking the fishy "Japanese-taste" (wafû) undertones. A wee bit salty, but the butter added a mild edge making it eminently sippable, if not epochal. Onions were crunchy and copious, and a glance around the room revealed bowls loaded with big thin and floppy slices of pork belly (butabara).

The noodles were above average - long, medium-thick, and very straight, apparently sourced directly from the Shinpuku factory in Kyoto. The portion seemed a bit on the small size; maybe no smaller than anywhere else in town, but certainly not as generous as at Ramen Shop the night before. All in all, it didn't add up to a great experience at Suehiro. I would have quickly forgotten the awkward wait if the ramen had blown me away, but it didn't. For 700 yen, all I got was noodles and onions in soy sauce - not a great deal. Don't get me wrong, Suehiro wasn't bad, just kind of not worth it. Since Shichifukujin down the block just closed, a shôyû-scented hole had been gaping, and Suehiro opened up just in time, but I don't think I'll be back.

Apparently this is Suehiro's second try to break into the Tokyo market - a few years ago an ill-fated branch in Okubo only lasted a few months before folding. Nonetheless, I wouldn't be surprised if Suehiro ends up commanding quite a following - it's got a pedigree, and does fill a specific niche, adding diversity to the scene here in 'Baba. Strong, plain shôyû ramen definitely serves a specific need in the current market, and the clientele today seemed to skew to the over-40 crowd - in other words, those who grew up on shôyû ramen out of necessity. I guess we'll see how Suehiro does after working the kinks out in the coming months.

Friday, January 16, 2009

ラーメンショップ (Ramen Shop)

(NOTE: Ramen Shop is now (sadly) closed)

No, that's not a placeholder or a typo, tonight's bowl was downed at a ramen shop named...Ramen Shop. The jury is still out as to whether that is the best or worst possible name for a ramen shop, but the good news is the noodles delivered. It had been a long day that involved poor sleep patterns, injections, too long subway rides, and pain killers (not the fun type, just regular ones), and I wanted a steaming hot bowl of tasty soup to get me back to full health. I was meeting my buddy Schultz (of the amazing, inimitable Greatest Japan Blog of All Time, Tokyo Damage Report), and had just enough time to sneak in a bowl of noodles for din-din. Apparently the hyphen in "din-din" is a necessary; without out it spell check does not approve.

This is what I got when I tried a Google Image search for "self referential." Ramen Shop, just west of the intersection of Waseda-dôri and Meiji-dôri was on the way, and I hadn't X'd it off the map yet. For some reason it always seemed to be closed, but in retrospect, I think it's just that they took an extended holiday season break. I'm a yutz and forgot to take a picture of the sign out front, but it's a big red and white thing that says "Ramen Shop" in katakana (ラーメンショップ). Apparently it's part of a chain all over the greater Tokyo urban area, but most locations are in the suburbs on the edge of town.

Inside, Ramen Shop is straight up no frills ramen shop all the way. Uhh, it still feels a bit weird to write sentences like that, given the name of the...ramen shop at hand. All white walls and counter, bright fluorescent bulbs, packed with besuited salarymen busy carboloading between working and drinking. I think part of the reason it may have been so crowded is because Friday is Discount Ramen Day, with basic bowls clocking in at a meager 350 yen a pop, though this will change to Thursdays in a couple weeks.

I was a bit skeptical at first - between the name and the cheap prices, Ramen Shop seemed to have a relatively good shot at sucking. But when I got inside, sidled up to the counter and began to watch bowls being prepared, I started to get a good feeling. Ramen Shop has a very low counter, so you can watch the cooks at work, which is always a pleasure. I had expected maybe a kind of lame thin shôyû broth, but the younger cook whipped out a special shaker to decant chunks of fat into the very rich-looking milky brown shôyû tonkotsu (pork bone soy sauce) soup, and I started getting excited.

Since it was my first time at Ramen Shop, I decided to pass on the discount dish, and get the shichimi su ramen - ramen with vinegar and seven spice blend. Not items that generally find their way into the ramen bowl, the seven spices are, for the record (usually) - red chili pepper, orange peel, sesame seeds, Sichuan pepper (sanshô), dried seaweed (nori), hemp seed, and either ginger, shiso, or poppyseed. When the bowl found its way to my side of the counter, I was happy to see a nice big cauldron filled with a larger than average mass of noodles topped with some shreds of wakame seaweed, bean sprouts, sesame seeds, and two big Mickey Mouse-ears of nori.

The soup was good. Damn good. In fact, so good, that I regretted ordering the version with vinegar and seven-spice; though the bit of tingle from the spice was nice, and the acid helped cut the grease of the soup, in the end I felt like they got in the way of a surprisingly rich and tasty tonkotsu shôyû broth. Not Jirô fatty, but getting there, with plenty of suspended fat floating on top. Really savory and tasty, without being too salty, though I must admit I still have that greasy feeling in my mouth that often lasts a few hours after a bowl of tonkotsu shôyû. In addition to the basic bowl and the vinegar varietal, Ramen Shop also offers a negi (onion) ramen, and a nori ramen packed with seaweed, as well as all of the above with miso, rather than shôyû flavor.

The noodles were as old school as the vibe - totally yellow, totally curly, and a lot "sproingier" than average. I think this is due to a high amount of kansui, mineral water blended with alkaline salts in the dough-making process - it's the salts the give the noodles their distinctive yellow color, not eggs. More alkaline salts mean more "give" in the noodles, which give them that nice chewyness and protects them from becoming too soft too soon. Though I must say, if anything Ramen Shop's noodles may have been a bit too stretchy. In any case, there were a lot of them, so I can't complain.

In addition to the noodles, I got down with some negi-don, rice served with sliced long onions and savory tare (flavor essence). The onions were sweet and smoky and not too "oniony" at all; together with the noodles, they made for a nice filling "full course" dinner. Ramen Shop was a hell of pleasant surprise. I came in with low expectations and came out smacking my dang lips. A really solid tonkotsu shôyû is always a good thing to have close to hand (or mouth), and if you can pick up that bowl for a measly 350 yen, then you got your bad self a shop you gotta go back to.

Monday, January 12, 2009

ババ番外地、その十一:桂花らーめん渋谷(Beyond Baba 11: Ramen Keika Shibuya)

Today I was meeting a friend in Shibuya, so I decided to pop into Keika and see what it was all about. Keika is a medium-sized chain of Kumamoto-style ramen shops noteworthy for being one of the first shops to bring Kyushu-style tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen to the Tokyo area. Tonkotsu ramen became a big deal in Tokyo and Eastern Japan in the early 1980s after the arrival of shops like Nandenkanden and Kyushu Jangara, both of which still command loyal devotees to this day and both of which have branches all over the metropolis. But Keika has them both beat in terms of age, arriving on the scene way back in the late 1960s.

Beginning way back in Kumamoto in far southwestern Japan in 1955 and growing from there, Keika is a chain, but one with a long history. Keika has probably been one of the most well-known ramen chains in Tokyo for decades, way before the idea of "ramen dining" was even swimming around in its fathers balls. It's not trendy or sexy or new wave, but it is regarded for rocking the same style unshakingly for over a generation. They've got locations near all the major stations (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Tokyo), and even post ads in some of the subways.

But Keika hasn't let its fame go to its head. Inside the shop is no-frills old school ramen joint for the people, with white counters, white walls, and a little bit of grub (but just a little) around the edges, in a good way. In addition to the counter (separated by glass from the cooks), there are a couple of tables, and a second-floor seating area all packed into a tiny wedge a few minutes walk down Center-gai from Shibuya station.

I ordered the basic Keika Ramen, which was placed out in front of me in just a matter of minutes. While waiting, I read over the plaques on the wall explaining that Keika's broth uses absolutely no miso or shôyû (soy sauce) whatsoever, meaning that they stick to the pork bones that are the base of Kyushu-style ramen. Some Kumamoto-style shops use chicken stock as well, but I'm not sure about Keika. A first sip revealed a broth a bit saltier and a bit less "creamy" than your average Hakata tonkotsu, and one definitely old-school and no-frills in flavor; in other words, the taste matches the interior - you see what you get, a bit rough around the edges, but homey. Definitely not the rich broth of an Ippûdô.

On top was a thin layer of brown mâyû, burnt garlic oil, which again, was not quite as thick or rich (or black in color) as a lot of other Kyushu-style joints around town. My understanding was that kikurage (woodear mushrooms) were de rigeur in Kumamoto ramen, but they were nowhere to be found, instead replaced with thin but chunky slivers of seaweed. The half-egg is nice, but I have to say I prefer soft-boiled hanjuku eggs rather than the fully-boiled egg that Keika dishes out. Again, old-school - you think they bothered only boiling eggs halfway in 1955? As for the shinachiku / menma (pickled bamboo shoots), I hate to say it, but they were a bit tinny and vinegary and below average.

Another tip-off that Keika serves Kumamoto-style and not Hakata-style ramen was the thickness of the noodles - you'd never catch a Hakata place serving noodles this thick, but I dug 'em. It's nice to mix it up with some fatter noodles in Kyushu ramen every once and a while instead of the usual angel hair. I got down to slurping pretty fast, and Keika made for a decent lunch, but in the end I was a bit disappointed. I had high hopes for Keika, but I think in the end, their bowl reminded me a bit more of world-wide chain and Kumamoto ramen purveyor Ajisen than anything else, which isn't necessarily a good thing. There's a sign inside saying that you need to eat Keika three times before you come to like it, since the taste is so strong, but for me it wasn't strong so much as just a bit too salty. I think for Kumamoto ramen I'm gonna go back to the drawing board, or maybe just stick with Higo Noren in Shinjuku.

I stepped out into the clusterfuck that is central Shibuya, it occurred to me what a remarkable holdover from another age of ramen Keika is. I wanted to like it more, but as a 21st century boy, it just didn't quite match what I've come to look for in a bowl of ramen. I hope Keika sticks around for another 50 years, but I don't think I'll become a regular anytime soon.

Friday, January 9, 2009

麺屋なるきす 高田馬場 (Menya Narukisu Takadanobaba)

Today I tried for the second time to go to Heaven's Kitchen Reon, but struck out again. The store had a sign up saying "Open 11 AM - 11 PM, Mon - Sat," but they were closed at 2:30 PM on a Saturday. Stymied again, I headed back up to Waseda-dôri west of the station to tick another shop off the list.

Narukisu was the first place that caught my eye, so I parked my bike and ducked inside, too hungry to really care what I was about to put in my body. I don't have much of a clue what "Narukisu" means. I once met a guy in a sushi bar in Kyoto named Naruki, and apparently there is a pornographic anime computer game also called Narukisu, but neither of those shed a whole lot of light on the origin of the name.

Inside, Narukisu is pretty nondescript, with a few tables and a counter and the kitchen hidden away in the back. Pretty much all the customers were men in their 30s and 40s, one of whom let an awesomely loud fart mid-meal. When I got a glimpse of him later, he looked like the kind of guy who would let an awesomely loud fart in public; a man of considerable girth, with big glasses and a flat top. Yesssss.

Narukisu offers all four main ramen types - shôyû, tonkotsu, miso (in both red and white varieties), and shio. All are based with a "wafû tonkotsu" (Japanese style pork) broth, made of pork bones, chicken, sardines, konbu seaweed, and bonito. In otherwords, the blended-seafood "W" (double) soup. Places like this generally don't really appeal to me, in that they just kind of offer up the basics, without really specializing in any one style, and are trying to be all things to all people. The current limited seasonal item was tetsunabe ramen, ramen served in an iron pot - that sounded the most interesting to me, so that's what I went with.

Iron pot shôyû was on offer, but I got the iron pot miso; rather than cook the noodles separately and put them in the soup, the noodles are cooked directly in the soup itself. The first sip revealed just a faint hint of seafood taste, mostly overpowered by the miso, and perhaps even more prominently, the substantial dusting of black pepper on top. The fact that just some black pepper could hide the taste of the soup did not bode well. My complaint with Narukisu is that their broth was completely without what you might call tokuchô, defining characteristics. Between the chicken, the pork, the seafood, the miso, and the garnishes, there wasn't much of any distinct taste to the soup, other than just a fattier miso. I guess a critic would say it tasted "unfocused." The iron pot also kept the soup uber-hot for a long time, which is rough on the tongue.

What I did like was the abundance of vegetables - there was plenty of Chinese baicai cabbage, a thick layer of tiny spring onions, and best of all, a generous helping of naganegi (long onions), which are sweet cousins of leeks. The mysterious red things also put in an appearance. As a whole it was actually not a bad dish, but the whole impression was closer to something akin to a miso-flavored hot pot that happened to have ramen noodles in it, rather than a proper bowl of ramen.

The noodles were jikaseimen (home-made noodles), though more likely made specially at a third-party location then shipped to all the Narukisu locations, since it seems to be a decently-sized chain, at least in the Tokyo area. Boiling noodles directly in the soup can sometimes make them soggy, but these held up well; however, despite staying nice and chewy, they were pretty generic wavy and yellow noodles, awfully thin for noodles advertised as futomen (thick noodles). Again, competent execution completely without distinctive characteristics.

Narukisu was OK; not the worst bowl I've had. The iron pot thing was kind of fun, but I don't think I'd come back here. This is serviceable ramen that could sell in the US or in a train station somewhere, but I have a hard time believing it leaves much of an impression on anyone long after the eating is over.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

うだつ食堂 (Udatsu Shokudô)

I've been posting frequently, but it's been a bit since I actually hit up a ramen shop in the greater Takadanobaba / Waseda area. Today I headed over to Udatsu Shokudô, located along Shin-Mejiro-dôri behind the Waseda main campus, just across the street from the Rihga Royal Hotel.

Udatsu's full name is 阿波徳島中華そばうだつ食堂 (Awa Tokushima Chûka Soba Udatsu Shokudô) - this tongue-twister actually gives some important clues as to what kind of ramen is on offer at Udatsu. Tokushima is one of the four prefectures located on the island of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four "main islands"; Awa is the former name of Tokushima, from when it was a feudal domain; Chûka Soba means ramen; Udatsu is a kind of traditional architectural feature; and Shokudô means "cafeteria." As should be evident, Udatsu specializes in Tokushima-style ramen. Tokushima ramen is well-regarded enough to be generally recognized as a "major style," but it still probably falls into the second or maybe even third tier of ramen fame; it's certainly no Hakata, and is probably even less well-known than it's cross-strait kissin' cousin Wakayama ramen.

There are only a handful of Tokushima ramen joints in the greater Tokyo area, and Udatsu takes a lot of pride in its heritage. A lot. The "Udatsu" part of the restaurant's name refers to the architectural feature of the small vertical pillar on the roof (on the left side of this photo borrowed from Udatu's website), which are famously well-preserved in the Tokushima city of Mima.

Also outside is a wooden railroad station sign to add to the countryside feel. Inside there are more train maps and scheudles pasted up, in addition to more Tokushima tourism posters than your average travel company office. The whole place is done up in rustic wooden country-house style, with a peppering of old-fashioned ads and dangling globe lights.

One of the most famous tourist attractions in Tokushima prefecture, far more famous than its ramen, isn't really in Tokushima prefecture at all, but just off-shore. Beneath the span of one of the world's longest bridges are the Naruto whirlpools, which are the biggest and most famous in Japan. The lower deck of the bridge has a viewing gallery from which you can observe the swirling waters from a safe distance; before the bridge was built about 25 years ago, the whirlpools made the Naruto ("Wailing Gate") strait from whence they get their name a treacherous one to cross.

Of course, these days, the name Naruto conjures up something else to most ramen fans - namely the small disk of fish cake found in some bowls that features a hot pink abstraction of the whirlpool from which it draws its name:

Or maybe you know the name from the wienery-yet-inexplicably-popular animated ninja that wears a Naruto-emblazoned headband:

In any case, despite being from the home of one Naruto, Udatsu's Tokushima ramen featured no naruto floating on top. It did, however feature a delicious bowl of noodles not quite like any other bowl I've had yet. Although I've been to Tokushima, it was only for a few days about six or seven years ago, and I must admit that I didn't know the first thing about Tokushima ramen before walking into Udatsu.

I went with the "negi ramen" (green onion ramen), and ordered an egg on top. Which brings me to the first of Tokushima ramen's defining characteristics - rather than the much more common boiled egg, Tokushima ramen shops serve up bowls featuring raw or half-boiled eggs. However, the "half-boiled egg" (hanjuku tamago) at Udatsu is not a soft-boiled egg, as is usually the case, but a semi-boiled egg with runny whites far from solidfying, much closer to what is generally known as an "onsen tamago" (hot spring egg).

Apparently the other major characteristic that sets apart Tokushima ramen is the use of "butabara" pork belly, as opposed to standard châshû, but I passed on that part of the dish. My first sip of caramel-colored soup revealed a medium-thick and not at all greasy broth - after going home, I googled up the fact that Tokushima ramen is a tonkotsu shôyû (pork bone and soy sauce) blend, but it's a far cry from a seemingly-similar blend at a place like Jirô. Rather, Udatsu's soup reminded me more of Tenka Ippin's Kyoto-style ramen than anything else, so I wonder if there may have been some chicken in the broth as well. Definitely a very "old school" ramen flavor, though a different kind of old school than the thin and clear Tokyo-style shôyû soups.

The excess green onions matched the soup well, and bamboo shoots, though a bit small, were also in plentiful supply. There were a couple bean sprouts hidden under there somewhere, but I didn't really notice them. The onions almost thicken the soup as they get soggy, and each pull on the medium-thick medium-wavy noodles pulled up plenty of the onions along for the ride, making for tasty bite after tasty bite.

While I ate, I took a flip through O5O magazine, a magzine for "people over 50 who want to get the most out of Tokushima," and before I knew it I had drank the soup down to the very bottom, which is of course a very good sign. It was nice to finish a bowl that didn't leave me feeling heavy or greasy in the slightest.

One last interesting point about Udatsu is the fact that it had perhaps the most unusual bathroom situation I have seen in Tokyo thus far. Open the door marked "bathroom" and you step into a long warehouse-like corridor filled with boxes of noodles and other ingredients, old pots, rainboots, and other sundries. There was even a washing machine back there!

When even the bathroom feels that much like it belongs in the countryside, you've really accomplished something.

On the bathroom door was a poster for Tokushima's other most famous attraction - the Awa Odori dance, held every year in mid-August during Obon, the festival of the dead. Cities and towns across Japan hold local "Bon dance" festivals, but Tokushima's is perhaps the biggest and most famous in the country, with thousands parading through the streets. The Awa Odori has been going on for hundreds of years (though apparently went through a major revivification effort after the economy collapsed in the 20s), and people come from all over Japan to watch it and participate in it, and, if you trust the old man my friend met on the boat, have casual sex. The lyrics of the most famous dance tune go a little something like this:

踊る阿呆に The dancers are fools
見る阿呆 The watchers are fools
同じ阿呆なら Both are fools alike so
踊らな損、損 Why not dance?

I'm not sure if Udatsu's noodles are enough to make you get up and dance your way home, but they were a very tasty introduction to Tokushima ramen and a good choice for mixing it up.