Sunday, May 24, 2009

熊ぼっこ (Kuma Bokko)

I spent the lion's share (or perhaps I should say the bear's share...we'll get to that in a minute) of this past Friday listening to a series of talks on rethinking how to think about postwar Japan. And then the remainder of the day and much of the night was spent thinking about what people thought about rethinking those thoughts about thought. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this was, while undoubtedly and eminently salubrious, also pretty exhausting. When I finally stumbled off the train at nearly midnight after some heated discussion and cold beers, I needed renewal...I needed ramen.

Fortunately, Kuma Bokko, located just east of Takadanobaba station on Waseda-dôri is open no less than 24 hours a day. It looks as if it's been around for many of those 24 hour cycles, and it's another old school neighborhood cafeteria style ramen joint that has probably been serving cheap bowls of noodles for decades. Kuma Bokko means something like "the naive little bear," which is most likely a reference to the neighborhood's Waseda students, since the school mascot is the Bear. But weirdly (or not), there wasn't a single student-esque type in the joint, which was packed with salarymen who had the same thought i did - "whooo, I am drunk and tired, I need to eat CHEAP HOT FOOD NOW." I didn't have my camera, but somehow taking the pics with my cellphone seemed appropriate.

Cheap food is definitely Kuma Bokko's selling point - nary a menu item broaches the five-hundred yen (about $5) mark, so for a single coin you can fill your belly with some old school ramen. The menu is tossed up on scraps of paper all over the walls, so if you crane your neck around you get a sense of what's on offer - namely most every major ramen varietal and then some, including old school favorites like Tanmen (thin salty soup with veggies), Gomoku Soba (thick salty soup with different veggies), and my personal poison for the evening Mabo Tofu Soba ("Sichuanese style" tofu poured on top of ramen). There's also a wide selection of old-fashioned Japanese-Chinese style stir fries, featuring plenty of pork, peppers, liver, leeks, and eggplant. Overall, it's a similar kind of menu to Ramen Jumbo down the block.

If Kuma Bokko's menu is loosely based on Chinese dishes, the shop itself probably feels a bit "Chinese" too; that is to say, there's an old lady staked out in a corner chopping a mountain of cabbage and plenty of flies in the bathroom. That's right, Kuma Bokko is officially a dive - I haven't seen this many people passed out sitting up since my last visit to the Mars Bar in New York. At least Kuma Bokko smells like garlic, steam, and soy, rather than stale pee.

When my bowl arrived it was piping hot, which was rejuvenating, as was the thin salty soup. Japanese mabo tofu shares little with the Sichuanese mapo doufu from whence it came, and rather than being draped in a pungent spicy and numbing oil, Kuma Bokko's mabo tofu sits in a thickish sweetish goo that had permeated the bowl to the point where I could no longer tell if it had originally been a shio (salt) or shôyû (soy) base. No matter. This is not the stuff culinary dreams are made of, but it is what the body craves when you're tired. I don't think I can recommend Kuma Bokko's ramen as such, but I will say that all the drunk office workers and fighting couples sitting around me know what's up for late night dining.

As with most run-down neighborhood Chinese-food places, the noodles were medium thin, on the soft and flimsy side and mildly curly. The only toppings besides the (truly impressive) pile of tofu were a smattering of scallions and a few optional dabs of garlic and chili paste. Kuma Bokko is not the place you want to go to have a nice lunch, but I think its staff and clientele all know that, so it's all good. Plenty of hot salty food for not so much money is rarely a bad thing. It's almost worth going just to check out the scene. Just be sure you've already missed the last train.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

東京麺珍亭本舗 (Tokyo Menchintei Honpo)

What to eat, what to eat? My stomach was (again) a little on the dicey side after a few too many "Lime Sour" cocktails the night before, and I wanted something simple and filling. I had been thinking tsukemen (dipping noodles), but then I remembered Tokyo Menchintei Honpo. Menchintei serves one thing and one thing only - abura soba, soupless "oily noodles." Menchintei (Honpo just means "original shop") has been around for 10 years, dishing out what they call a "secret Tokyo meibutsu" - a hidden local specialty.

Menchintei is just barely hanging on to what might be considered the Waseda Ramen zone. Located on the southwest corner of the Tsurumaki-cho intersection northeast of campus, Menchintei is actually technically located in Bunkyo-ku, the next ward over, and is a lot closer to the Edogawabashi subway station.

But there are plenty of Waseda students who make the schlep - at 3.30 PM on a Wednesday, I barely snagged the last seat amidst a full row of hungry male students...and one lone lady with her nose buried as deep in her book as possible. It sounds like there can be quite a line sometimes, but I guess I got lucky. Menchintei is definitely popular - ranking a staggering 8th in Shinjuku-ku on the Supleks Database, just behind shops like Watanabe and the famous Kururi, and ahead of Ore no Sora. Menchintei even sells prepackaged noodles and oil online, shipping their slurp out nationwide for 20 bucks a pack.

Everyone knows what you're going to order - abura soba, literally big pile of noodles sitting in a little bit of oily flavor essence. Despite the word "oil" in the name, Menchintei wants to be sure you know that abura soba is actually BETTER for you than a standard bowl of ramen; signs are posted that it only has one-third the calories and a lot less cholestorol. I guess it makes sense if you think about it - oil as there may be, there's no soup, which is where all the melted animal parts and according fats and such reside. In any case, Menchintei will serve you as big a bowl of noodles as you're prepared to eat - up to "onimori" (devil mountain) sized, a full 4 times the size of the standard bowl. There's a sign out front politely requesting that first timers do not challenge themselves to demolish the whole bowl, so I just went with the regular large portion.

Since there's only a bit of flavor essence oil at the bottom of the bowl, drizzling the thing with plenty of vinegar and râyû (chili oil) is essential to bringing out the true taste of the bowl. Naturally, there is a sign to remind you of this as well.

Unlike the new generation of abura soba, mazesoba, and other soupless noodle bowls that have stormed Tokyo in the last couple of years, Menchintei's bowl is simple and stripped down. Rather than operate in the Bubka or Junk Garage mode, piling on a phalanx of crunchy and chewy toppings ("Japanese nachos" I call it), Menchintei's abura soba is topped with just a few slivers of nori and a few pieces of tasty menma (bamboo). Since I was skipping on the pork châshû I added an onsen tamago (barely boiled egg) and got some extra green onions and sesame seeds.

And then I started to mix. Yet another sign conveniently reminds you to stir hard and stir fast, flipping all the noodles through the little pool of oil and getting the oil and vinegar to provide a nice coating. There's also a little bit of garlic available tableside. Slurp, slurp...and it's good! Not that I was worried, but man, was this a satisfying bowl. Comfort food, pure and simple, nothing overpowering, savory and stripped down, and not the least bit bland. As much as I like a complex bowl with lots of toppings where every bite is different, there's something to be said for just shoveling a whole deep bowl of oil noodles into your mouth one after the next. Overall, a very similar taste and vibe to Niko Niko down the street, but I think I may give the slight edge to Menchintei Honpo. If you're ever in the mood for old school soupless noodles, it would be hard to do much better.

Friday, May 22, 2009

屋台らーめん鷹流 (Yatai Ramen Takaryû)

One unseasonably warm day earlier this week, Brian from Ramen Adventures swung by Takadanobaba so we could grab a bowl for lunch. We walked west on Waseda-dôri, surveying our options among the still numerous shops as yet not ticked off from my list. Although I'd had some decent ramen of late, it had been far too long since I had a truly bomb ass bowl, so I wanted to make this one count. After strolling to the end of the strip, we decided to go with Yatai Ramen Takaryû.

I had been hearing good buzz about this tucked away little shop on a backstreet just west of Narukisu. Takaryû's main menu item is something called paichîmen, a Japanizated pronunication of the Chinese bai ji mian - White Chicken Noodles. A thin, shio (salt) broth soup sounded like just the ticket on a hot afternoon, which is not the kind of day to load yourself down with thick porky broth that will be emitting from your pores for the rest of the afternoon.

Takaryû is cozy inside, but relaxed, with just one guy working behind the counter and a bit of a homey feel. The majority of the walls are decked with motorcycle-related paraphenalia (apparently the owner is a big Harley rider), and tons of ramen-related reading. Definitely tapped into the scene, Takaryû has been reviewed in all the major magazines and guides and were sharing the love with fliers placed out for the shop staff's own favorite ramen shops around town. There was also information about an upcoming "Ramen Show" in suburban Tokyo featuring appearances by far-flung regional styles as well as "mashups" between some of Tokyo's most popular shops. Sounds intriguing...

The shop soundtrack was a live video of Utada Hikaru singing her hits on a plasma flatscreen TV. It occurred to me that it had been almost exactly ten years since I first came to Japan, which was the summer in which her first album took the country by storm. I struggled to remember the first bowl of ramen I ate in Japan back then - I think it might have been in a mall food court in Wakayama?

One thing you might not expect to find in your average ramen shop however, is bees. Well, giant hornets to be exact. The suzumebachi is a cajungulously large Japanese hornet whose venom is apparently powerful enough to kill. (That is, very thankfully, not a photo I took). Brian told me that apparently in some townships you get a bounty from the government if you bring in an empty suzumebachi nest. Naturally, the best thing to do after killing these guys is to soak them in booze, since anything THAT bad for you must make a hell of an aphrodesiac, right? There was some viper wine and other assorted critters soaked in alcohol against one wall, but it wasn't possible to squeeze in a pic past the slurping salarymen.

The crazy alcohol is probably part of the Taiwanese connection at Takaryû. According to their website, Takaryû's signature paichîmen was inspired by the food the head cook ate at night market street stalls while growing up in Taiwan. Interestingly, the source wasn't a noodle dish, but rather chicken fried rice which homeboy then recreated in a light ramen form. The soup is essentially made from a light, thin, but complex chicken stock, with no pork products or artificial chemicals used whatsoever. The result is delicious and refreshing.

Not surprisingly, such a bowl is marketed heavily towards women who don't usually "do" ramen. One special menu item is the "salad topping" of raw chopped tomato and lettuce, which was apparently suggested by some regulars of the feminine gender.

The other tip off that Takaryû is trawling for lady noodlers is the hair ties provided at each seat.

There's a lot of care all around when it comes to toppings. In addition to a veritable mountain of chopped light meat chicken (which I kicked Brian's way), Takaryû serves up the freshest, youngest, lightest, and just maybe tastiest chunks of menma (bamboo) that I have ever laid upon my tongue. And then there were some mysteriously unidentifiable veggies that Keizo over at Go Ramen figured out was "liliaceae." After looking at Keizo's photo of Takaryû's jewel-like jellied yolk egg, I regret not ordering one of those too. That's right, Takaryû is the ramen joint that the bloggers are buzzing about!

As an added bonus, Takaryû provides different "additives" that you can request halfway through the bowl - transform the taste with your choice of tabasco, olive oil, fresh pepper, Thai-style nam plaa (fermented fish sauce), or Okinawan citrus (Shikwasa?) salt. We both went with the olive oil, which was a good choice, giving a rich new layer to the mild soup.

I slurped down every last drop of the succulent savory soup. Great broth, thoughtful toppings, high quality noodles that matched the soup well - not much to complain about. The only caveat - as Takaryû mentions on their website, "it may not fill up those used to heavy pork ramen." Personally, I was fine, though if you're really hungry I might head somewhere else. I didn't see an option for a large portion (ômori) on the menu, though the ticket machine did have a cryptic button marked "boku ikemen", which roughly translates as "I'm a hottie." Is this code for extra noodles, or is it like buying a "smile" at McDonald's? The best bowl I've had in far too long.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

めぐさんめんこ (Megusamenko)

Ever been to Morioka? Ever even heard of it? Come on guys, city of 300,000, capital of Iwate prefecture? Founded in 1597 by the 26th lord of the Nanbu clan? No? Well if that's the case, then I am sorry to inform you that when it comes to one of the secret noodle capitals of Japan, you, sir, are an ignoramus.

Located half a day's journey north of Tokyo in the rural Northeastern Tôhoku region, Morioka is the kind of city that you're most likely to visit "just passing through." While pleasant enough for a regional Japanese capital, there are lots more scenic and bucolic spots further afield. I've been through Morioka twice, both times spending the night by the station before catching the first train out in the morning. But both times I've been sure to fill my belly on plenty of noodles, because, um, what else are you going to do in Morioka? (Photo from

While many towns around Japan specialize in a particular kind of noodle or bowl, Morioka offers a veritable smorgasborg of noodle options. Best known among them is certainly Morioka Reimen - Korean-style cold noodles in beef broth. Back in 1954, a Korean-Japanese guy from the North Korean town of (I am not making this up) Hamhung opened a neighborhood restaurant in Morioka, serving an approximation of his childhood favorite of mul naengmyun - clear, stretchy lilybud flour noodles served in cold beef soup and topped with meat, kimchi, cucumbers, sesame seeds, and a hardboiled egg. Weirdly enough, I used to eat the stuff all the time when I spent my early teens hanging out at a Korean supermarket in the suburbian US. Long story. In any case, Hamhung Reimen didn't sound so appetizing, so the enterprising chef called the dish...

Pyongyang Reimen! For some reason, this name didn't catch on either, and although Morioka residents loved the stuff, hardly anyone else had heard of it until the 80s when some genius decided to call it Morioka Reimen instead. At some point a slice of watermelon found its way in there too. The cold noodles took off and rocketed to fame faster than a Taepodong missile, and when the media descended on Morioka, it turned out that the city had all kinds of other crazy noodles to offer to the nation.

There was also Morioka Jajamen, an approximation of Northern Chinese zhajiangmian (Photo from Wiki). A Morioka resident who had lived in Manchuria during the colonial period brought back the Beijing staple of white wheat noodles topped with cucumbers and a meaty bean paste sauce, and the recipe would become the next of the "Three Great Noodles of Morioka."

The last of the three is Wanko Soba, which isn't so much an original noodle as a special way of serving it. The original all-you-can-eat menu item, Wanko Soba consists of a tiny bowl of traditional buckwheat noodles which is constantly refilled by a dutiful attendant after every bite. You try and down as many of the mini-bowls as you can, as the waitress tries to dump in the next bowl before you can finish the previous one. There's even a national Wanko Soba competition - the record is over 380 bowls in 10 minutes!

So, we've got Morioka Reimen, but what about Morioka Ramen? I never came across the stuff in either of my (admittedly brief) visits, but it's amazing what you can learn about a city hundreds of miles away by walking through your own neighborhood. I was cruising down Waseda-dôri just west of Takadanobaba and a sign caught my eye - Megusamenko: Morioka noodle cuisine! Already stoked, I eagerly flipped through the menu, finding of course the reimen and the jajamen (sadly, no wanko soba), but also a whole other set of Morioka noodles I had never even heard of before - jackpot! There was an intriguing salt ramen covered in lemon slices, an intense looking fully loaded miso ramen, as well as the rarely seen Morioka Onmen (warm noodles) - thin white noodles and cooked veggies in a thin soup. The reimen (cold noodles) are supposed to be some of the best in Tokyo - and probably the only ones cooked by a Nepalese chef!

Megusamenko (whose name is allegedly a rural northern dialect for "an ugly beauty") is a sister shop of Nakano Seimen, which is one of the highest regarded reimen purveyors back in Morioka. But appetizing as the reimen sounded, I was here for the ramen, so I switched up my vowels and went for the gusto - kimchi nattô miso ramen (that's ramen with soybean paste, fermented soybeans, and pickled spicy cabbage, for yer information)!

Now nattô has got to be one of the most infamous Japanese foods. Almost everyone who arrives on these shores is practically forced to try it just for yuks, and most totally recoil at the sound of the word. It's essentially rotten soybeans, brown, stringy, gooey, and rather foul smelling. I don't mind the stuff, at least in moderation, and I wanted the full Morioka ramen experience, so I figured what the hell. The bowl that arrived was almost as fully loaded as a bowl at the infamous Jirô. Besides the nattô and the kimchi, there are some tasty menma (bamboo shoots), plenty of moyashi (bean sprouts), plenty of onions, and, why the hell not, a raw egg yolk.

I did my best to mix it all together, slopping soup onto the table and getting down to business with this big ol' bowl. While not of the same uber-high quality miso as Junren down the block, Megusamenko's miso is certainly up to snuff, and the veritable landslide of toppings makes each bite a bit different from the bite before. The nattô loses most of its pungency when it gets mixed into the soup, and it really isn't objectionable at all, unless you really hate the stuff; it gives a nice earthy taste that works well with the tangy kimchi and the creamy miso.

The noodles are medium-thick medium-curly and yellowish in the style of Sapporo ramen, which seems to be the base onto which all the rest is piled. I have no idea how "traditional" of a Morioka dish this stuff is, but I know I like it! Usually I don't like it when the toppings outweigh the noodles, but in this case, it felt more like eating a hearty bowl of country stew in which noodles served as the base.

Between bites I took sips from my mini cup of my Nanbu Bijin sake. Morioka (like the rest of the Northeast) is reknowned for its high quality rice, which means it makes some of the best sake in the nation. Megusamenko offers a nice selection of tasty local Iwate sakes, all of which are available in pre-packaged "one cups" for only 450 yen a pop.

I still had plenty of my soup (stew?) left, so I ordered a bowl of rice to sop up the rest. All told, the bill came out a little bit pricier than your average bowl of ramen, but I was still full when I woke up the next morning, so it's all good. Overall, Megusamenko is rad, and I plan on going back to try all their other bowls. I really wish that there were more shops of this type - there are all kinds of obscure local delicacies from all over Japan, but even in Tokyo it can be hard to find restaurants (especially reasonably priced ones) to sample them at. More provincial countryside delicacy fast food now!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

早稲田大学戸山キャンパス学生食堂 (Waseda University Toyama Campus Student Cafeteria)

This blog is ostensibly about Waseda ramen, yes? About the act of eating ramen in Waseda, yes? About all the places where one can eat ramen in Waseda, yes? But the bowl of ramen most deserving of the name "Waseda Ramen" had been sitting under my nose (mouth?) uneaten all ths time! This is not necessarily to say the most representative bowl of "Waseda Ramen," and certainly not to say the best, merely the bowl that, on one level of meaning, has the most claim to be labeled "Waseda" ramen. I speak, of course, of the ramen served at the Waseda University school cafeteria.

Like any self-respecting research university of substantial size and student body, Waseda has numerous cafeterias and cafes at which students can satiate their biological needs for calories between bouts of drinking...I mean studying. The particular cafeteria in question here is that located on the Toyama campus of the university, which houses the faculty of literature (bungakubu). My reasons for selecting this particular cafeteria to eat my bowl of Waseda's ramen are mainfold, or at least three: it is closest to my department's library; it is filled with a disproportionate number of cute girls; it is the the deliciousist.

From the Waseda subway station, head west on Waseda-dôri, but instead of going straight up the hill, veer left at the intersection with the takoyaki (fried octopus balls) stand. Head in the campus gate, and the cafeteria is on your left. The food service area is small but jam packed with options - there's all kinds of soba and udon, a fruit corner, a curry, rice, and meat line, a surprisingly decent salad bar, a case with moderately fresh baked goods, and a cornucopia of traditional homestyle pickled side dishes and tofu. Oh, and a ramen corner.

They take the ramen corner impressively serously at Waseda, perhaps because the university is located in the heart of one of the country's (and, ergo, the world's) biggest "ramen challenge zones." In addition to standard options like classic shôyû and basic miso, Waseda offers a blended pork and fish broth tsukemen option, and even a soupless aemen noodle dish. And then you've got the rotating cast of limited time only options - in the past, the cafeteria has served "Toyama black ramen" (burnt shôyû flavored), Sapporo-style miso ramen, and even something called "Popeye ramen," which featured a green soup. This month is Kyushu and Okinawa month at the dining hall, so there are all manner of southern Japanese specialties on offer, including a rendition of Kumamoto ramen, which is what I got.

I grabbed a couple of side dishes like kabocha nimono (stewed pumpkin), unohana (tofu lees), a nice little salad, a cup of green tea, and checked out - the ramen itself is only about 450 yen, so you can get a fully balanced meal for less than the price of your average bowl at a standard ramen shop. I actually really dig the cafeteria food at Waseda - for a young single dude like me, it's one of my only chances to eat homestyle dishes on the cheap.

I'm a Kyushu-style tonkotsu (pork bone soup) man at heart, and if you asked me to rank my favorite regional ramen styles, Kumamoto ramen would definitely be near the top of that list. In recent months, I'd had great bowls at Nanashi and Higo Noren (as well as a not so great bowl at Keika), so I was curious how Waseda's bowl would stack (can you stack ramen? answer: yes) up. It definitely looked like a bowl of Kumamoto ramen. The milky brownish white soup was topped with generous helpings of finely chopped green scallions and a tangle of kikurage (woodear mushroom slices), as well as an egg hardboiled rather than half-cooked, and mostly crucially, something at least sorta kinda half approximated the not-so-secret ingredient that makes Kumamoto ramen Kumamoto ramen - mâyû (burnt garlic oil).

A tentative first slurp...and it's good! Not winning any awards perhaps, but tasty enough. While not functioning on the same level as the broth at a proper ramen shop, the soup was clearly Kumamoto ramen and nothing else. A bit thin in both taste and texture, perhaps, and a bit cheap tasting, but the essence was there. Considering the fact that we're talking college cafeteria here, a not unimpressive feat. Certainly a far cry from the bland red-jacket potatoes, mushy polenta, and crusty pasta I remember eating most weekdays as an undergrad. But don't enroll in this bowl just yet, because the noodles were as disastrous as the soup was successful. Soft, limp, mushy, and overcooked, these were barely passible as ramen noodles. They were properly white, straight, and medium thin, as Kumamoto-style noodles should be, but man...they boil the soba and udon fine, but the less said about these noodles the better.

So, Waseda's ramen does not get an A+. I'd give the soup a solid B, but the noodles pull a D - someone in the kitchen needs to take some remedial boiling classes. I ain't hating though; those cafeteria ladies work their butts off to feed Wasedians bellies, and if you look at their body of work as a whole, it's pretty impressive. I left full after a balanced meal that added up to less than the cost of yesterday's disastrous Daiô Ramen, so I can't complain. And I'm curious to see what special limited time ramen June will bring...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

大王ラーメン (Daiô Ramen)

Another day, another bowl close to campus between bouts at the library...can you tell that I have a deadline coming up? It was about 3.30 PM, kind of an ambiguous hour when a lot of shops are closed after lunch service but not yet open for dinner.

Saddled with the (not altogether unenjoyable) task of finding a shop that was not only open but uneaten, I found myself at Daiô Ramen, located on Shin-Mejiro-dôri just down the hill behind campus. Apparently it's famous for it's generous helpings of rôsu, cuts of pork short loin a grade above standard châshû. Not that my non-meat-eating self would know. "Rôsu ramen" is on the sign out front and about half of the menu consists of some kind of rôsu-topped permutations, and that definitely seems to be what people come to Daiô for.

Daiô (Great King) is a pretty standard old school ramen shop of the no-frills variety. A long counter wraps around a large central area where you can see all the preparation going down. Sitting at a low counter and watching your ramen being prepared is another one of the special charms of repeat ramening - feeling your appetite build as you watch the noodle artistry go down. Unfortunately, the scene at Daiô wasn't so appetizing; a woman sat patting huge tubs of somewhat stale and pasty looking miso, while the man put something black and dirty-looking in a blender. Joining me at the counter was an older man well on his way to getting drunk, eyes half-closed as he absent-mindedly chewed on some pork.

All major ramen varietals were on offer, as well as tsukemen, but tsukemen seemed to be taking center stage on both the menu and the reviews on the Supleks ramen database, so I ordered a bowl of miso tsukemen, which is something of a rarity to find. In addition to regular thick noodles, you can get thin noodle tsukemen, or even hisui tsukemen - I had mistakenly thought "hisui" meant "flat", but when I got home and looked it up, it turned out to mean "jade", so that means green noodles! I'm guessing they make them similarly to the more well-known chasoba (tea noodles), but I'm not sure if there's any difference in taste, or just the visual impact.

When the dipping soup for my tsukemen arrived a moment later, I was shocked at the size of the bowl; rather than the standard mini-bowl of thick dipping broth, I got a nearly full-sized bowl of what appeared to be a thinner miso broth. Thinking that perhaps "tsukemen" at Daiô meant nothing more than a bowl of ramen with the noodles served on the side (which is emphatically not the case for quality tsukemen), I took a cautious sip of the soup before dipping. Way salty. Way way way salty. Tsukemen broth tends to be more concentrated since it isn't meant for drinking directly, but this wasn't strong so much as just too salty, and, um, not very tasty.

Excitement quickly flagging, I dutifully dipped and ate. The noodles were actually of higher than average quality, and the soup wasn't terrible, but it just tasted kind of cheap. Daiô's broth was no rich Sapporo-style porky miso like at Junren or Uoranzaka, but closer to an over-salted homestyle miso soup with too much wakame seaweed floating around inside. I sat flipping through an issue of "Ramen Daihyakka", a new ramen-themed comic that introduces tasty shops around the country, wishing I was eating at one of those tasty-looking places rather than at Daiô. The whole scene was a bit depressing, with the drunk guy in one corner, the sad miso scooping lady in another, and the goofy gaijin on the other side of the counter.

So, sorry Daiô ramen, but you didn't do it for me. That said, it's quite possible that the standard tsukemen broth is much tastier than the miso. And the rôsu meat ramen really does get high reviews and lots of love around the web, so if plenty of pork is your thing, by all means give Daiô a shot. Maybe I just caught them at a bad time and ordered the wrong thing? Oh, and I don't know why that radish is sleeping either. Or why it's wearing a tie.

Monday, May 11, 2009

油麺にこにこ (Abura-men Niko Niko)

Another day another dish. Or should that be another belly another bowl? I was studying at the main library on the Waseda campus and wanted to dash out for some tasty sustenance to help me power through the piles of prewar publishing histories.

Fortunately, Niko Niko was just around the corner. Just down the hill from the library is a big bike parking lot - dip down the alley next to the lot and Niko Niko will be on your left.

Inside, Niko Niko is one long counter, with seats on the left and a cooking area on the right. Like Inaho, Jumbo, and other places close to campus, the lion's share of the slurpers Niko Niko gets are Waseda students. I was easily the only person over 22 in the shop...except of course for the single middle-aged chef bopping his head along to the soundtrack of Japanese blues and 60s and 70s American pop.

The place is done up in a way that's about half student clubhouse and half rock bar, with sports banners hanging on one wall and LP covers tacked to another. Then there's the ample collection of bright yellow smiley face memorabilia - Niko Niko means "smile."

Not all the smiles are "yellow" though...I scanned over the mostly unfamiliar Japanese 80s rock album covers, and one stuck out in particular. It might be hard to see for the blurry photo, but, um, yeah, those ARE Japanese guys in blackface. It could be worse, they could be selling toothpaste with Sambo on the label...

Niko Niko specializes in what they call "abura-men" - soupless noodles. These day, the synonyms "abura soba" or "mazesoba" (mixed soba) are more common, but Niko Niko has been serving these "oily noodles" since way before it was cool. In the last two years or so, abura soba has become all the rage, thanks to shops like Junk Garage, but Niko Niko has been serving their ramen sans shiru (broth) at least since 2002 if not much longer. The place definitely has a bit of a "lived-in" vibe, and I'm willing to bet there are a lot of hungry students who are regular visitors.

But why not become a regular when you can get a big bowl of scrumptious noodles for about 600 yen? To sweeten the deal, the lunch set comes with a little plate of pickles...

...and a tiny teacup of tasty soup to cleanse the palette.

According to the menu, soupless noodles are "healthier in vitamins and lower in calories" than standard ramen, but I have a hard time believing in the physiological benefits of a bowl of noodles tossed with egg, pig extract, and mayonnaise. There are also little containers of spicy oil, vinegar, and black pepper to adjust the noodles to taste, but honestly, it's hard to go far wrong, since Niko Niko serves up a tasty savory mess. There are a bunch of styles to choose from - basic, mayo, extra spicy, curry, kimchi, and mentaiko (cod roe), though the last two aren't available with the soup and pickle combo for some reason. I may have to find my way back to try all the other flavors. Niko Niko has ramen on the menu too, but I'm guessing that's more pro forma than anything else.

And the egg. Good sweet lord, the egg. Every bowl comes with a choice between a small bowl of rice or a soft-boiled hanjuku tamago. Just take a look at that beauty, orange insides all oozing out all over the damn place. Hands down one of the best eggs so far.

It's hard to find much fault in something as salty and satisfying as just a big mess of chewy thick noodles tossed in oil. I could have done with a few more toppings besides just onions and menma (pickled bamboo shoots), but no big deal. All in all, Niko Niko may not have been quite the over the top revelation / calorie bomb that Bubka's abura soba was, but these were high caliber soupless noodles. I know where I'm going whenever I need a calorie injection while working at the library...