Wednesday, February 25, 2009

高木や 高田馬場店 (Takagi-ya Takadanobaba)

I was running late and needed to stop and grab a bite before meeting my buddy in Shinjuku for some drinking and catching up, so I decided to keep it simple and get some tsukemen by the station. Takagi-ya has two outposts, one at the bottom of the hill right by the Waseda subway station, and one at the top of the hill in the small streets east of Takadanobaba and just north of Waseda-dôri, back in the warren of alleys where middle-aged Taiwanese guys hang out on the corner and ask you if you want a massage. Takagi-ya's logo is a little guy that I had always thought was an octopus, but turns out to be a modified Munchian screamer yelling "Hiiiiiii karai!" - "Whooooooa, spicy!" Accordingly, what they specialize in is chili-loaded miso tsukemen (dipping noodles), a dish they serve moderately well, if not masterfully.

For whatever reason, both branches of Takagi-ya are on the second floor of the buildings they occupy. This is somewhat unusual for a noodle shop, since generally cooks want to avoid having to schlep the heavy loads of ingredients and oversized cooking equipment up and down the stairs if they can avoid it.

So keep your eyes peeled for the tsukemen (つけめん) sign and the little red guy.

Inside, Takagi-ya is pretty standard no frills ramen joint, albeit a bit wider and more spacious, and having just a touch of that casual provincial restaurant feel.

There's a little bit of counter space, but it's mostly tables, so I grabbed a chair, grabbed a volume from their sizeable manga collection (always a nice touch), and sat myself down. Takagi-ya is definitely a tsukemen shop and not a ramen one - although they offer one ramen option hidden at the bottom of the menu, choices are pretty much limited to tsukemen or "bukkake-men" (splashed-on noodles), that have a small amount of soup and some veggies, tofu, and meat dumped on top. I was tempted by the bukkake (...and this is the only time I will write this sentence), but decided to stick with the standard. There's a variety of spicy options ranging from the spiciest "spicy miso", to "mixed spicy miso" to "mildly spicy miso" to...wait for it..."non-spicy miso", plus a shôyû (soy-sauce based option). Naturally, I went for the spiciest one on offer.

Definitely red, and a bit thicker than average, almost thin gravy-like, with a small amount of meat hanging out at the bottom. This is all the meat you get unless you order châshû (roast pork) for an extra charge - what's the deal with tsukemen places charging as much for lukewarm noodles and a little broth as most shops do for a fully loaded bowl of ramen? Not that I eat meat, but I call bullshit on that.

The noodles were mega thick and rough cut, owing more to Jirô style noodles than standard thick tsukemen noodles. In any case, that's just how I like 'em, and Takagi-ya is strong on that front, though the dough tasted perhaps just a bit too starchy, which is of course a relative term when you are discussing...uh, about 250 grams of pure carbohydrate. I still just can't get used to tsukemen's room temperature noodles though. Next time I need to remember to order them atsumori (that's "extra hot", not a reference to the medieval Noh play of the same name). The egg was gloriously gooey and runny in the center, if a bit bland.

So, how did the two taste together? That is the essential question when discussing tsukemen, is it not? The answer - not bad. Not great, but not bad. The broth is certainly spicy, though nowhere near the atomic power of Nakamoto Tanmen or Nong Inlay's Shan noodles. There's a bit of bite, but unfortunately Takagi-ya's broth doesn't bring out the deep flavor of a good chili pepper - instead it tasted a bit vinegary and somewhat overpoweringly salty. Tsukemen broth is always more condensed than ramen soup, but I found myself puckering a bit. Nonetheless, it was tasty enough, and the noodles were properly mochi mochi (chewy), which always gives a little bump of pure physical satisfaction.

The thick broth and thicker noodles meant each bite picked up a lot of flavor, and Takagi-ya sated the hunger, even if it didn't blow me away, like they did this cartoon cat. Actually, this is a particularly famous cartoon cat, one who loves ramen and began life as a manga character before getting his own anime series, and now, live action movie.

Please, please, please watch this trailer. I promise you will not regret it. It is mental. The movie stars a bunch of cats, a few hand puppets, and um, a 14-year-old who is famous for having a huge rack. I had never heard of Neko Ramen ("Ramen Cat") before, but I guess now I have to check it out. It seems the Ramen Cat is not alone in his love for Takagi-ya, as I was somewhat surprised to find about two dozen magazine clippings posted on the wall on the way out. All in all, I'm not sure if I would go back to Takagi-ya, but it was nice to get a bowl of tsukemen offering something a bit more interesting than the standard thin shôyû and fish stock broth. It'll do in a pinch, I suppose.

我羅奢 (Garasha)

It seemed like Garasha had been closed forever. Just before New Years, a sign was posted on the door that the shop would be closed until further notice due to an unforeseen injury. I kept checking back, but every time was greeted with nothing but the same note, albeit a bit more curled and faded with every passing week. Would that be it for Garasha? It had just opened a few months ago, and was billed as a promising newcomer, but would it die before it ever had a chance to blossom?

But last week, Garasha was blossoming again, or at least, the huge bouquet of flowers to celebrate the reopening was. Also blossoming inside was the scent of garlic and liquified pig, the flame to my hungry moth. When I asked the cook what had happened, he told me that the previous cook had gotten injured, making a "thrown out his back" gesture; after the closure, the new guy had stepped in to take the old master's place. But would Garasha be worth the wait?

Located on the east side of Meiji-dôri just south of the Babakuchi intersection, Garasha is right next to Kitarô, making for a one-two new ramen punch. When I walked in, I was greeted with a dark, earth-toned minimalistic interior in the style of popular shops like Watanabe; the outside is also very difficult to distinguish as a ramen shop, with only a small wooden sign laid against a gray wall, also a bit like Watanabe. The next thing that caught my eye inside was the stack of Ramen Bank magazines near the vending machine - although I'd been following the free monthly mag online, this was my first time to snag a paper copy, and it makes for nice reading to flip through while waiting for your bowl to come up.

Signs like these indicate to me that Garasha is definitely interested in "the scene" part of the ramen world. Being aware of the new styles and trends can be a plus or a minus - on the one hand, it means shops are trying hard to create a distinctive bowl and a positive and consummate eating experience. On the other hand, sometimes this results in shops slavishly following trends and churning out bowl after bowl of overconceptualized and overpriced blended fish stock soup, so its a bit of a toss up.

Fortunately, Garasha does not fall into the latter camp, and does deliver to the slurper a satisfying experience. Somewhat unusually for a shop of this type, the cook presents a ticket to customize your bowl, but, unlike often weaker shops that allow the customer to customize the taste of the soup, Garasha's options are limited to the noodles, so you can get Garasha's ramen the way you want it.

And the options are very generous, with four sizes of noodle serving, selectable amounts of menma (pickled bamboo) and sliced onions, and most impressively, up to five (!) free slices of chashu (roasted pork). I selected none, but the cook goofed and gave me a bowl with a few - I sent it back, but not before noting that they looked substantially thick and tasty - five thin slivers of pig these were not.

When the (beautifully crafted stoneware) bowl was hoisted over the counter, the sheer volume of noodles almost hid the soup from view. I selected the basic ramen, which is a garlic tonkotsu (pork bone soup), but Garasha also offers the soup served with shio (salt) and shôyû (soy sauce) tare (flavor essence). The taste of the burnt garlic oil (mâyû) hit the first sip hard, not in a typical garlicky way, but possessing rather more of a surprisingly tangy taste, which mellowed out a bit over the course of the bowl. Rather than an old school porkyporked out tonkotsu, Garasha's soup borrows a bit of the "clearer" flavor of shio ramen while still delivering a broth that is thick and satisfying, if not delicious enough to make one drop to one's knees in ecstasy.

One nice touch I hadn't seen before was a small ceramic bowl filled with dashi (fish stock) powder - while I had heard tell of some restaurants placing a lump of pulverized dried fish skin straight in the bowl, Garasha allows you to tailor the degree of fishiness to your own taste, which I found very appealing, since I'm not as big into the fish stock soup trend as many other ramen fans. I tapped in just a little and found it to mellow the garlic in a very pleasing way, adding complexity without overwhelming the soup, which I far prefered to the extremely fishy taste at places like Watanabe around the corner. The weakest link was probably the menma, which was as shrivled a winter wilmo.

The noodles were pretty standard, whitish and medium thin, a bit "stringier" perhaps than some, and while not overly firm, held up admirably over the course of the many minutes it took me to polish off this to-the-brim-filled bowl. I had somewhat unthinkingly selected the largest noodle size, which was a larger force to be reckoned with than I had been prepared for. I left with belly bursting, and noticed a few hours later that I had not been blessed with the scent of vulcanized pork fat emitting from my pores, which was a nice change of pace for a bowl of tonkotsu. Garasha is good ramen bar none, but it just didn't have quite the extra oomph to make me really fall in love. Between the two neighbors on the block, I'd probably choose Kitarô, but I wish Garasha the best, and they deserve the buck of any ramen fan at least once - and keep in mind that you get a lot of bang for that buck if you get five pieces of chashu and double noodles for 700 yen!

思い出の麺、その5.5:くたばって死ね,中国東方!(Ramenmories 5.5: Up Yours, China Eastern)

The ironic (or perhaps not) coda to the Ningxia noodle tour described below was the airplane meal on the flight home. 35,000 feet over the sands of Inner Mongolia, China Eastern Airlines served up the same crappy inflight meal that it serves on every flight - chicken with noodles.

I could visualize everything contained within the small tray even before I peeled back the foil cover - the gluey brown noodles, the glueier browner sauce, the single token strip of red pepper. And of course, the grizzled slices of chicken rendered nearly indistinguishable from the noodles; I'm not sure if that speaks worse to the chicken or the noodles. Nonetheless, it was lunchtime and I was hungry, so I twirled up a few strands and tucked into the soggy, pasty, nearly flavorless mess.

Naturally, the ideal beverage pairing to China Eastern's noodles is Bud Ice, a beer that I wasn't aware was still being manufactured. The whole experience was akin to finding a finding a bag from Panda Express that had been sitting in the back of your fridge since 1994 and being desperate enough to eat it.

Up yours, China Eastern.

Monday, February 16, 2009

思い出の麺、その五:宁夏 (Ramenmories 5: Noodling in Ningxia

Total Noodle Overload. I never thought it could happen. I never imagined it might happen to me. But TNO was the result after 5 days traveling with my little brother in Ningxia province, Northwestern China. I have never been anywhere where noodles have been so omnipresent a staple food, and I have been to some places in this world. In my previous post a while back, I described a trip through Xinjiang and Gansu, from the China-Pakistan border to the Silk Road city of Lanzhou, detailing the noodles I ate along the way and talking about the history of the noodle in Inner Asia. Ningxia is the next step along the ancient noodle trail, sandwiched between Inner Mongolia, the Tibetan Plateau, the deserts of Western China, and the ancient capital of Xian. In other words, we're talking dough country. Never have I eaten so many different kinds of noodles in such a short period of time, and, accordingly, never have I gained so much weight so quickly.

Ningxia's full name is the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region - The Hui people are, more or less, Chinese Muslims. My impression before visiting Ningxia was that the Hui were essentially the same as the majority Han Chinese, but with ancestors who had converted to Islam; this is not really entirely true, as many Hui people I talked to self-identified as Arabs and traced not only their religion, but their ethnic heritage to the Middle East and Central Asia.

For ethno-national reasons which are perhaps beyond the scope of a noodle blog, "Hui" was essentially a term which ended up applied to all non-Uyghur (the Turkic people of Xinjiang) Muslims - so you could be a Muslim Indonesian-Chinese and be "Hui" depending on where you happened to be living when the revolution went down. In any case, the culture of Ningxia, which is the "official" Hui "Autonomous" Region (sorry, scare-quotes are kinda necessary when talking about ethnicity in modern China) is definitely influenced by the Muslim world, and feels like a cross between Xinjiang and, uh, the rest of China.

In any case, they got hella noodles! Lanzhou-style noodles, Tibetan-style noodles, Xinjiang-style noodles, I-ain't-never-seen-a-noodle-like-this-before-style noodles, and my brother and I ate more than a few. Walking through the streets of a typical town in Ningxia, we found two kinds of restaurants - grilled meat shops and noodle houses. My brother is a big meat guy, so he had the grilled lamb option to fall back on, but since I'm mostly veg, noodles was often my one and only choice. By the second day we decided to go for the gusto and try a new kind of noodle at every meal. I can't say I know the proper names of most of these, but here we go, a brief tour of the noodles of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region!

Our first stop was Guyuan, the largest city (a relative term) in the southern part of Ningxia. Southern Ningxia is much more heavily Muslim / Hui, while the north feels similar to anywhere else in rural Northern China. After wandering around for a while wondering what the hell we were doing in an obscure corner of a province that gets something like 1% of the country's tourists, we stumbled upon the ever common site of a card game on the street. My brother's a bit of a card shark, so we stopped to watch and ended up striking up a conversation with some other onlookers who treated us to noodles and picked our brains about George Bush and our views on gun control. Resembling toothsome Shanxi-style daoxiaomian, but weirdly gray in color, I sadly forgot to take a picture of the noodles in question. Imagine, these bad boys, but uhh...grayer.

The following day we took a couple buses (OK, more than a couple) to the deep south of the province, making a ridiculous trip to Liupanshan, which we thought would be a scenic mountain park but ended up being a museum dedicated to the Long March, complete with dioramas and a 50 foot tall monument featuring a poem by Mao ("The red flag flies high amid west wind at the peak of Liupanshan. We hold the long ropes and when can we tie up the dragon?"). Afterwards, we wandered through a newly built but still-deserted town window shopping for false teeth and oversized sunglasses and supping on these Tibetan-style flat postage stamp-like noodles:

Back in Guyuan, we checked out the night market and ate what would end up being the most delicious meal of the trip:

I had never seen noodles like these before, and have never seen them again - a mass of tiny nuggets somewhere between gnocchi and mini pasta shells, served in a thick lamb soup gravy, spiced up with cilantro, cubed tofu, onions, and plenty of chili. Served in a bowl wrapped in plastic, paired with a side of cumin-encrusted grilled bread, our sommelier recommended warm pineapple-flavored beer with this dish. Mind-blowingly good.

Next up was a trip to the Xumishan (the Chinese name of the mystical Mt. Sumeru) grottoes, one of the most spectacular but least visited collections of Buddhist carvings in China. Built first by the Tuoba people of the Northern Wei dynasty 1500 years ago and still being added to in the Tang dynasty hundreds of years later, the grottoes are a series of hundreds of cave temples built into a large swath of rocky hills located in what can only be described as the middle of nowhere, an hour or so's ride into the wasteland from the already obscure Guyuan. The enthusiastic 8-year-old guide to tourist ratio was well over 1:1, and we spent the morning poking around the ruins. Afterwards, we hitchhiked back north past endless sunflower fields with a Britney Spears-listening Muslim family, though hitchhike is a relative term in an area so rural that nearly every car doubles as a taxi.

Lunch was in the township of Tongxin, where the looks on the other customers face seemed to betray the by now familiar expression of "whoa, there are some coneheads in this restaurant!"

We split a veritable mound of chewy and tasty sliced dough tossed and stir-fried with onions and peppers, as well as a less exciting dish of the thin wheaty postage stamps in a somewhat bland tomato-flavored broth.

And of course the sides consisted of warm pineapple beer and bemused Muslims.

We worked our way through the desert back to the capital of Yinchuan the long way, avoiding the highway and taking an endless procession of progressively tiny buses while checking out packed earth stretches of Great Wall ruins and being regaled by local schoolteachers with advice on where to find good hookers. From Yinchuan, we headed to the north, with the wastelands of Inner Mongolia just on the other side of the razorlike Helan mountains. On the plains sat a rock fort that had been converted into a film studio, where essentially every movie scene depicting Northwest China (Red Sorghum, Ashes of Time, etc) you have ever seen was shot. Lunch was some bland linguini in a tomato broth with some allegedly health-bestowing local mushrooms that tasted like, uh, dirt.

Nestled in the nearby mountains were ancient stone pictographs, twin stone pagodas, and more wild animals (mostly mini-gazelle type things) than I had seen everywhere else in China combined.

Naturally, sightseeing left us hungry, so after some deliberation we decided on...noodles.

My brother had not yet sampled the delights of Lanzhou lamian (niuroumian - pulled noodles in beef soup), so we found a halal restaurant and got set up. While not as epochal as the ones I had eaten in Gansu the summer before, they were definitely superior to most bowls in Beijing.

Our last stop before skipping town back to the Chinese seaboard was the tomb of one of the emperors of the Tangut Western Xia dynasty, also known as "The Great Pyramid of China," which might also be called "A Big Mound of Dirt, But Nonetheless a Pretty Impressive One." The Western Xia were a powerful but by now largely forgotten empire, and from the 11th to 13th centuries, they governed a kingdom in what is now Northwest China that they called "The Great State of White and High" until getting, uh, totally murdered by Genghis Khan. I couldn't say what their stance on noodles was, but they left some weird ruins and developed what might be the most difficult written script known to man.

Two guesses what our last meal consisted of. We got a taxi driver to take us to his favorite noodle joint and were rewarded with more thick and tasty hand pulled noodles. I got the veggie version with pickled peppers added to the classic Chinese mix of stewed tomatoes and overcooked egg, but spent most of the meal gazing longingly at my brother, who had ordered the noodles in lamb soup and had no intention of sharing.

We raised our bowls of Xixia beer in a toast to the unsung noodle capital of the world and headed for the airport. I was five pounds heavier and it would be a week before I could even look at a noodle again, but noodling in Ningxia was an experience I won't soon forget.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

ババ番外地、その十三:新宿一坪ラーメン (Beyond Baba 13: Shinjuku Hitotsubo Ramen)

I thought that I was noodled out after "Ramen Girl"", but taking a break was not in the cards. After the movie, I spent a couple hours hanging out and drinking beer on the street in Kabuki-chô while waiting to meet a pal so we could hoof it out to the suburbs to check out the Lou Reed "Berlin" concert film. Kabuki-chô is Japan's biggest and most notorious red light district, and is a great place to do some people watching; the endless parade of big-haired hosts and hostesses, equally big-haired touts, drunken businessmen, Chinese tourists, the occasional gangster, and befuddled visitors from the countryside never gets old, especially with a couple Asahi brews in your system.(Photo of big-haired hosts from the Japan Times)

When my buddy showed up, we did a lap of the area, threading through streets filled with massage parlors, strip joints, love hotels, "pink salons," bars, and of course, plenty of ramen shops. Although its become a bit more laissez-faire in recent years, Kabuki-chô is still largely a man's world, and most of the restaurants in the vicinity skew towards greasy stuff to eat when your wife isn't looking. Plenty of yakitori (grilled chicken), motsu nabe (pig offal hot pot), tonkatsu (deep fried pork), and so forth. Almost all of the ramen shops in the area are, perhaps unsurprisingly, Hakata-style tonkotsu (pork bone soup) joints, serving that most dudely and unhealthy of all ramen types.

There were a few tempting-looking options, including numerous locales of the always dependable Hakata Tenjin chain, but the branch we tried entering was packed to the gills, so we decided to keep searching. This ended up being a blessing in disguise, as the shop we found outshone not only Hakata Tenjin, but almost every bowl of Kyushu ramen I've had since arriving in Tokyo. We reached the backside of the main zone of Kabukichô, where the neon signs give way to darker streets filled with hourly hotels, and just as we were about to turn around and head back, a small sliver of yellow sandwiched between cabaret clubs caught my eye - bingo!

Shinjuku Hitotsubo isn't a ramen shop so much as a tiny "yatai", a streetside stall, cart, or in this case, something akin to a lean-to shack, easily the tiniest ramen venue I've had the pleasure to eat at in Tokyo. "Hitotsubo" means "one tsubo," a traditional measure of area equivalent to about two tatami mats. Thick clear plastic curtains hang down, shielding two tiny tables from the winter winds. Inside (if you can call it inside), a counter holds four, with a small serving area; the kitchen seemed to be just around the corner in the back of the shack. It's the kind of place that might be a bit intimidating to the uninitiated slurper, a ramen shop reduced to its most extreme fundamentals - perhaps a part of daily life in Hakata, but a bit unusual in 21st century Tokyo. In any case, we were warmly welcomed by the elderly cook up front and the older woman shuttling back and forth between the front and the back of the kitchen.

It felt cozy and perfect for a wintry night, perched on a tiny stool and awaiting a steaming bowl of tonkotsu soup - a minimalist and yet fully-realized ramen experience. Like in a Golden Gai bar, you're elbow to elbow (or more) with everyone else at the counter, in our case, a chubby fellow slurping down noodles at twice our pace. I would guess that a large number of the clientele are drunken businessmen on their way to or from a night of for-hire sexual satiation, and ased on the state of the back wall, Hitotsubo serves a fair amount of hosts and hostesses, many of whom have tacked up their business cards, which make for interesting viewing while waiting for the noodles to come up.

The noodles, ah the noodles. As close to an unreconstructed Kyushu-style bowl as you are likely to find in Tokyo. Creamy but not greasy white tonkotsu broth, plenty of thin green onions, just enough kikurage (wood ear slices) and menma (bamboo shoots) to get by, and fresh white sesame and garlic tableside. No beni shôga (red pickled ginger) or takana (spicy mustard greens), but when your soup and noodles are this good, who gives a shit? The first sip was a revelation. There's a certain feeling, a certain taste. Say you've eaten a particular food dozens of times, but then you get a chance to sample a really legit rendition of it. My first fully loaded burrito in San Diego, after having eaten hundreds of burritos that I then instantly realized to be inferior. My first slice of pizza after moving to New York. There's an experience of tasting "the real deal" that's not quite like anything else. It's not even necessarily a matter of "better" or "more delicious," just a certain quality to the taste and to the whole experience that's almost unmatchable. Now I've been to Kyushu and eaten ramen there, but I can't front that I've toured the ramen stalls of Hakata; nonetheless, I feel confident in stating that the tag of honba (in the style of the original place) on Hitotsubo's sign is far from false advertising.

We slurped feverishly, and of course, each called for a kaedama (helping of extra noodles). Unlike in the somewhat disappointing bowl at Nagahama-ya few days earlier, all the flavors (pork, garlic, sesame, onion) blended together to form that perfect storm of Hakata goodness. The noodles were al dente and just right, and a small sign in the back indicated that they offer the whole gamut to barely-cooked kona otoshi noodles. The old couple who run Hitotsubo clearly know what they're doing, and it's no wonder that they seem to be a Kabuki-chô institution. On the way out I asked the master if he was from Hakata, and he said that he wasn't, but that the previous cook was, and had taught him his tricks. A far cry from franchised by-the-book tonkotsu, this is as grassroots as it gets - an old dude from Kyushu with a little stall, some folding chairs, and a secret recipe. Highly recommended.

By the way, the Lou Reed flick was fantastic - perhaps a bit of overdirecting on the part of Julian Schnabel, but the main man's craft, performance, and ragged voice, as well as the gorgeous arrangements including backing vocals by Antony, Sharon Jones, and the Brooklyn Youth Choir rendered any complaints moot. Rock opera at its finest - if you have any chance to see this film, don't miss it!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

スクープ!ラーメンガール ザー ムービー (Scoop! A Review of "The Ramen Girl")

After chowing down at Reon (see below), I decided to make a full-blown (full bowl?) day of noodles and catch the by now (in)famous "Ramen Girl" flick in Shinjuku. News about the movie has been kicking around blogostan for a couple of years at this point, with a recent spike in chatter over the last few weeks leading up to its release. Starring Brittany Murphy and Nishida Toshiyuki in what people have been calling an "American Tampopo remake," "The Ramen Girl" tells the tale of an American girl stranded in Tokyo who takes it upon herself to become (surprise!) a ramen cook. I was a bit skeptical, but it had been about 20 years since the last ramen movie, so what was I going to do, not see it? There was an udon movie a few years ago, but ramen was overdue; that said, I don't think we'll see a soba (buckwheat noodle) movie anytime in the near future.

For the time being, Teatro Shinjuku is the only place in town (or in the world for that matter) to watch "Ramen Girl." Presumably it will get a limited release in Japan and most likely a DVD release in the States a few months later, with a slim chance of a couple smaller theaters picking it up. For its part, Teatro is a more than adequate venue - a spacious art house theater located in a basement amongst the cavernous department stores of Shinjuku San-chome. They've been known to screen cool flicks like Wakamatsu Kôji's recent United Red Army epic, "Jitsuroku Rengô Sekigun," and the big screen and comfy seats are better than most limited run theaters in New York (I'm thinking of you, Film Forum). Other than the fact that they turn up the heat way too high and charge 200 yen for a water bottle the size of two gyoza, I got no quarrel with the Teatro Shinjuku.

Unfotunately, "The Ramen Girl" fails to deliver the satisfaction of the noodles it's ostensibly dedicated to. In the end, despite the Tokyo setting, it is a Hollywood Movie (writ large) through and through, with the same trite plot development arc that we all learned in fourth grade: a problem arises, a journey is begun, a crisis manifests itself, recovery transpires, and eventual success ensues. Brittany Murphy's performance is adequate if a bit wide-eyed and awkward, and Nishida Toshiyuki seems to be going through the motions as his standard grumpy-but-loveable ojisan character, which is enjoyable enough. But what's missing from this film is...the ramen. "Tampopo" was a paean to food and the act of eating, with noodles taking a triumphal seat; "The Ramen Girl" is a second-rate "Lost in Translation" that happens to take the slurpy stuff as its MacGuffin.

For a film about ramen, "The Ramen Girl" doesn't seem to pay very much attention to it. Sure, the whole story is about a lonely white girl learning to cook the Japanese populist staple food, but we see precious little of said noodles themselves. I say this not as a ramen addict denied his noodle porn money shot, but rather as someone trying to stand in the position of a viewer unfamiliar with ramen - with just a few precious shots of noodles, soup, and toppings, and little in the way of explanation, its hard to tell what the fuss is about. Brittany Murphy's character Abby is drawn to the neighborhood ramen shop after being dumped by her man because it seems warm and welcoming; she wants to be a part of it. In the end, of course, she wins the respect of the ramen shop owners and clientele, but what goes in the bowl might as well be curry, mac and cheese, or any other comfort food.

I'm not expecting a dissection of broth types or Aristotelian discourses on the finer points of tonkotsu and toppings, but I felt frustrated that the viewer was given so few chances to see (or hear) what the big deal was about. There's so much room to work with a food like ramen (see: dozens of blogs all over the internet), that its disappointing that the director (Robert Allan Ackerman) pays so little attention to it. Aside from a brief montage-like trip to the Yokohama Raumen Museum, all we get is a couple shots of the standard shôyû that Nishida's shop dishes out. And Abby's big culinary coup d'etat is the idea to add corn, green peppers, and tomato slices to a bowl? Please. The director could have behooved himself to do a wee bit more research before taking on this endeavor.

Much of the rest of the film feels made out of cut-out stereotypes, which is unsurprising, considering that it's essentially a two-set piece, shuttling back and forth between Abby's (disconcertingly large) apartment, and the interior of the shop itself. For its part, the shop is an nostalgic phantasm of an old-school mid-Showa period ramen shop, one that I've never seen the likes of in Tokyo or elsewhere. When Abby steps into the shop, she steps into an imagined Japan that, while more sophisticated than the unholy trinity of the Sushi-Geisha-Fujiyama stereotype, is still a long way off from the contemporary Tokyo it purports to represent.

Along the way, Abby meets a cast of overacted characters, like an American hostess who insists on speaking with a southern accent, a ramen-loving Korean-Japanese love interest, and a twatty Brit whose presence is just as inexplicable and insufferable as that of the ubiquitous expat he purports to portray. More fun are the Japanese supporting cast, who include a couple of chatty old ladies with dye jobs and some jokey construction workers. They manage to ham it up a bit while giving entertaining portrayals of some of the kinds of characters you might find in a real Tokyo ramen shop.

I'm trashing and thrashing, but "Ramen Girl" has its moments. Watching Brittany Murphy and Nishida Toshiyuki traipse through Tsukiji Fish Market looking for ingredients is fun, and Ishibashi Renji (two photos up, with Nishida) is a hoot as the bad guy rival ramen chef who lays down a bet that the director seems to have half-forgotten about by the end of the film. Perhaps the greatest moment is the appearance of Yamazaki Tsutomu (pictured above), who is by now immortalized as Gorô the hero of Tampopo, as a yakuza don-cum-ramen master who needs only a single noodle and a drop of broth to assess a bowl's quality. But bits like these are unfortunately balanced out by some cringe-inducing sequences, like the orgiastic orientalism of a blonde girl carried on a palanquin through the streets of Tokyo.

"The Ramen Girl" is not a terrible movie, but it's not a very good one either. There are worse ways to kill a couple of hours, and I'd recommend it as "fun for fans." In the end however, I have to give it a thumbs down, as it failed the final test of what a movie about ramen should do - make you want to eat ramen!

When the lights came up and I gathered my coat and turned around, I wasn't surprised to see that the population of the theater was made up primarily of older men - after all, this was 4:30 on a Tuesday, which is not prime theater time for the conventionally employed. There was one particular older man, however, who caught my eye - none other than Araki Nobuyoshi, the world famous photographer and chronicler of life, sex, death, and Tokyo for the past 40 years. I considered asking him for his thoughts about the movie, but decided not to, since he was (of course) on a date with a pretty young thing about a quarter of his age, and I didn't want to interrupt. I kind of kicked myself afterwards for not saying hello to one of the greatest Japanese photographers of the 20th century, but in the end, its enough for me to know that the genius Araki is a ramen fan too.