Monday, June 29, 2009

ババ番外地、その二十八:千石自慢らーめん (Beyond Baba 28: Sengoku Jiman Ramen)

Brian from Ramen Adventures just moved into a rad (and cheap!) new apartment in Sengoku, near the Yamanote Line Sugamo station in northern Tokyo, so to mark the occasion we tucked into bowls at the nearby Sengoku Jiman (Sengoku Pride). A lot was riding on this bowl - if there's a ramen shop in your hood called "Your Hood Pride" it would be pretty embarrassing for it to suck.

Sengoku Jiman is a very local chain, with four shops all clustered in the older neighborhoods of north-central Tokyo, which is known as a haven for puttering old folks. But Sengoku has something to be proud of besides their impressive population of nonagenarians - namely, the ramen at Sengoku Jiman! After spying the place, we joined the already substantial line, comprised almost entirely of construction workers, plumbers, and salarymen on their lunch break. Verily, Sengoku Jiman is a main place of dudes.

Inside, the place was jammed with similar clientele, plus two goofy white guys brandishing cameras. Sengoku Jiman doesn't have any of the rough around the edges charm of of your average neighborhood ramen shop, but is clean and strictly business - everyone in the shop has to get their slurp on and get back to work.

The counter at Sengoku Jiman is low, which I always enjoy. One of the pleasures of eating at a ramen shop is feeling your hunger grow as you watch the staff prepare your bowl - boiling the noodles, loading up the bowl with tare (flavor essence), soup, and toppings, then sliding it over piping hot and ready to eat.

The logic behind the 19 to 1 man-lady ratio became quickly apparent when our bowls came up - big, thick, creamy looking bowls of tonkotsu shôyû (pork bone and soy sauce) soup loaded with thick noodles and plenty of suspended fat floating in the bowl. Needless to say, such food does not tend to be the first choice of office ladies looking for a light lunch. Brian got the special limited "Nikujan" (Meat and Sauce) ramen, with a miniature mountain of what looked like Chinese-style brisket piled atop. The only other option on offer is a milder shio (salt) broth, with a higher chicken-to-pork ratio and thinner soup, as well as either of the above with extra (LOTS extra) bean sprouts or meat.

The egg was straight up hardboiled, rather than nice and soft, but the overall package was salty and solid. Sengoku Jiman's ramen reminded me a lot of Ramen Shop - a very well rounded and not too greasy (but still pretty greasy) blend of pork and soy. Despite the soup being cloudy with lots of suspended fat, the taste was mild, and my stomach felt no ill effects afterwards, which is always an important consideration.

The soup may even be a wee bit too mild, as I like my tonkotsu shôyû with a bit more punch in the face, like at Ramen Jirô. But that's what the tableside chili paste and fresh garlic are for - dabbing in a few drops doesn't so much make the soup garlicky and spicy so much as it seems to open up the broth and let the flavor out. I regretted not going up a size in noodle portion, but that is a problem easily solved with...

...rice! I try to resist my urge to dump rice in my ramen too often, but this was just the right kind of bowl for it - for an extra hundred yen you can assure satiation with a nice thick porky porridge. I guess I must have liked it...

...because my bowl ended up as empty as it gets, which rarely happens. I don't foresee the good people of Sengoku flashing any gang signs anytime soon, but they can feel confident in holding mad pride in their local ramen!

札幌らーめん 麺屋さくら (Sapporo Ramen Sakura)

Miso ramen often gets typecast as a winter food - what better to warm up one's insides than a piping hot bowl of thick miso soup from the icy northern land of Hokkaido? I'd have to say there's something to this rationale - strong, heavy, and fatty blended miso and tonkotsu (pork marrow) soup isn't so much what the body craves to escape Tokyo's sweltering summers. But Tokyo ramen critics are calling 2009 the year of the miso, and a new Sapporo-style miso specialty shop opened up just around the corner, the latest comer to the ramen battle royale of 'Baba.

Occupying the former location of the now sadly defunct (and straightforwardly named) Ramen Shop, Sakura opened its sliding door a month or so back, located on the southwest corner of the Meiji-dôri / Waseda-dôri intersection, right next to Tsukemen Asahi, and across the street from Yamaoka-ya, Mitsuyadô and Watanabe. I only made it to Ramen Shop once, but I really liked the place and was bummed to see it go, so Sakura had big shoes to fill, specifically the galoshes that ramen cooks wear to protect their feet from sloshing liquid pork.

Inside, Sakura is comfortable if run of the mill, with a clean and polished dark wood interior common enough to the new generation of ramen shops aiming for a welcoming atmosphere and a broad clientele base. Despite advertising Sapporo ramen, Sakura (Cherry Blossom) is, as far as I can tell, an indie operation, rather than a branch of a chain or a shop based in Sapporo.

I got the house standard, the "tokusen (specially selected) miso", which is presumably a blend of a comically large number of different varieties of miso paste. The soup is a bit tangy, so I'm guessing that the darker "akamiso" (red miso) is probably in there somewhere as well as lots of obscure regional soy products. In addition to the standard (special) miso, there's also a "Sakura" miso, that's a bit spicy and has extra veggies, as well as spicy and a mild shio (salt) broths on option.

The bowl is topped with a few thinly shaved white onions, some fresh and crunchy menma (bamboo shoots), then dusted with a thin layer of ground sesame. The soup is rich and thick, but not quite as flavorful as some of the other Sapporo-style shops around town. Everything is in order and beautifully presented, but there's nothing that really takes it to the next level. Totally tasty, but everything is perhaps so well blended and planned that the bowl gets boring after a while. I do have to give props to the egg, which, while a bit firmer in the yolk than I like, really melted in the mouth and had a strong taste, unlike most ajitama (soy poached eggs) that just taste like plain boiled eggs.

In classic Sapporo style, the noodles were medium thick, curly, and very yellow. Again, pretty and functional, but nothing remarkable. At 800 yen (about 8 dollars) a bowl, with an extra 100 yen for the egg, Sakura runs on the pricier side, and I'm not sure that the cost is justified. It's definitely the best miso ramen on that particular block, but you've got the outstanding Junren a 10 minute walk to the west and the solid Uoranzaka a 10 minute walk to the west, so why not walk the extra few hundred meters - you probably need to burn some calories after eating a hearty bowl of ramen anyways!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

高木や 早稲田店 (Takagiya Waseda)

I was feeling lazy and just wanted to grab a quick bowl right by the station for a late lunch between study bouts. Takagiya is literally right across the street from the Waseda subway station, and some spicy tsukemen sounded good to me. I didn't have my camera on me, so cellphone pics this time...

Right between the McDonalds and the Subway (and the subway), Takagiya is perched on a second floor corner just above a real estate agent. Keep your eyes peeled for the cartoon of the red octopus with stars for eyes yelling "whoooooo spicy!" ('hiiiiii karai!'). I had visited the Takadanobaba branch of Takagiya a couple of months back, but if I'm gonna cover every shop in the vicinity, that means every location of every shop as well...

As soon as I walked in to this Takagiya, I realized that this, and not the 'Baba branch, must be the 'honten' (original location). It just had that vibe to it, small, wooden, worn in, with no frills besides a fat shelf of manga to read while waiting to eat. Most of the customers seem like regulars, and the only person behind the counter is an older woman in a flower print mumu who calls out orders in a low-pitch sing song voice as she delivers them.

Perhaps since most of the customers are regulars, Takagiya's menu is a bit confusing. Tsukemen (dipping noodles) are the only thing on offer, with no ramen to speak of; various broths are available, including the straightforward shôyû (soy base), as well as gomatare (sesame), standard miso, awase (medium spicy miso), and karashi miso (spicy miso). In addition to standard tsukemen, you can also order your noodles bukkake style (not THAT bukkake, JESUS), with the broth poured over the top. I went with the spicy miso, but forewent the option to up the chili ration for an extra few hundred yen. Prices are cheap at Takagiya - 650 is the base price, most toppings only cost 50 or 80 yen, and you can double or triple the serving size for 200 yen. I ordered an egg and seemed to have gotten a mythical three sided one - either that or half an egg comes default with your order.

You need the protein in that egg to help temper your palette though, since Takagiya's tsukemen is legitimately spicy. Not atomic, but definitely up there; the water cups are nice and big, and they come in plenty handy, as do the tableside tissue packets. No chashû (roast pork) slices come with the noodles, but there are bits of meeting floating at the bottom of the broth. I always appreciate tsukemen that functions outside the mold of the standard sweet vinegar fish-shôyû taste that has taken over the mainstream at the moment.

The broth is on the thick side, and a bit gritty (in a good way), and is definitely of the flavorful chili ("umakara," they call it) variety, rather than a bland and flat pure heat. There's some kind of almost sweet and smoky taste to the broth, which I wanted to say might be a hint of tomato, but it could just be a certain trick to roasting the peppers. The noodles aren't quite as thick as standard Taishôken or Yasubee style tsukemen noodles, but are nice and chewy and almost comically curly, with the kinks in each noodle fixed in place. I wasn't that into Takagiya when I visited the Baba shop, but these really hit the spot. I guess you gotta go straight to the source!

Monday, June 22, 2009

ババ番外地、その二十七:麺や ここいち (Beyond Baba 27: Menya Cocoichi)

My buddy D texted me the other day: "Ramen before the show - are you down?" I texted him back anyways, even though I'm pretty sure it was a rhetorical question. The rain had cleared for a single day so we had plans to bike across town before hitting up a crazy art opening / music / video performance / zine library / party / thing. We stopped for sustenance in Shinjuku, cruising up and down the cluster of 10 or so ramen shops on Otakibashi-dôri just northwest of the station, trying to pick a winner. Our first choice had run out of soup, so we wavered a bit, but in the end decided to stop into a new shop offering the somewhat novel option of curry ramen.

D is not the biggest fan of J-curry, but I had just eaten at the Jirô down the block and Nakamoto was out since megaspicy is probably not a good choice for a man who has an international flight the next day, as D did. So, curry it was. Inside, the place was clean, sterile, totally devoid of customers, and somehow familiar. When we sat down and picked up the menu, I caught sight of the familiar yellow logo - we were eating in the ramen outlet of the biggest nationwide (and now international) curry chain Cocoichi. I've been known to eat at Cocoichi from time to time, but we both felt a wave of skepticism as we realized we had unwittingly stepped into a big corporate chain shop.

There's even a Cocoichi video game! The chain started back in 1978 in Nagoya and since has gone on to open over 1200 restaurants all over Asia. Menya Cocoichi is a newer addition to the franchise family, and as yet the branch in Shinjuku is one of less than a dozen, and the only one outside of the Nagoya area. If nothing else, I figured, it would be interesting to see what happens when a big non-ramen chain ventures into the ramen world, which I can't really think of a precedent for. And as far as I'm concerned, Japanese curry may look like poop, but it tastes delicious.

Most regions of the country have their own local specialty ramen styles (gotôchi) - Sapporo has Sapporo ramen, Asahikawa has Asahikawa ramen, Ôita has Ôita ramen, and Nagoya has...Taiwan ramen. Yup, you heard right - Taiwan ramen is from nowhere else but Nagoya, Japan. Back in 1970, the cook at the Chinese restaurant Misen decided to reinvent the dish of danzimian noodles from his hometown of Tainan, Taiwan and retooled it for Japanese palettes.

So what exactly is "Taiwan ramen"? It's usually shôyû (soy sauce) soup (but here curry of course), topped with tons of nira (Chinese chives), bean sprouts, ground pork, and made plenty spicy with extra chili. Taiwan ramen was a barely known Nagoya-area specialty until the mid 1980s, when the nationwide "spicy food boom" catapulted it into the public eye. Even so, it's a bit of a rarity outside of central Japan, and you see it more often on Chinese restaurant menus than at ramen specialty shops.

Like at all Cocoichi shops, you can calibrate your own spice factor - I went with "gekikara" (intensely spicy), the highest level possible, which is still only moderately spicy compared to shops like Nakamoto, or, god have mercy, Yagura-tei. Nonetheless it was tasty, sweet and a bit tangy - definitely a souped up version of the standard Cocoichi recipe, which works for me. Being curry, the broth is much thicker than most ramen soups, so it really sticks to the noodles. The noodles were cut much, much shorter than average - maybe it's to prevent slurping splash back? Not bad, but nothing special, though D dug the dimunitive dimensions.

But it wouldn't be a visit to Cocoichi without some curry rice, so we both ordered small servings of rice and dumped 'em in our bowls for a kind of curry porridge.

There are even fukujinzuke, sweet vinegared pickled veggies that come along with curry rice, set tableside. Despite our misgivings, we both ended up enjoying Menya Cocoichi a fair amount. Definitely a bit more clean and processed than most shops, but not a bad outing for a franchise chain that specializes in something else entirely.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

千代作 (Chiyosaku)

If you told me that I was going to drink a can of Diet Dr. Pepper this week, I would not have believed you. Hell, if you told me that I was going to drink a can of Diet Dr. Pepper this YEAR, I'm not sure I would have believed you. But there I sat with Brian, the two of us sipping cans of Diet Dr. Pepper between slurps of tasty ramen at Chiyosaku.

Although Dr. Pepper has become slightly more prevalent in vending machines here in the J over the course of the last few years, it still remains a rare find in Tokyo, with Diet Dr. Pepper existing (heretofore) only in the minds and memories of American men and ladies. Japanese people eat plenty of things that most Americans could never stomach, not least of which was the broiled squid intestines I was served last night. But the tastes that make people here squirm the most are those old childhood favorites - Dr. Pepper and Root Beer. They're both admittedly somewhat bizarre, unplaceable, almost medicinal tastes that most Americans are too familiar with to recognize as classic examples of the "acquired taste." Short story long, you want to get started off on the right foot with some white doods, putting Diet Dr. Pepper on your menu goes a long way.

Chiyosaku is all about putting smiles on the faces of everyone who pokes their head under the eaves; the boss checked to make sure we could read the vending machine, offered free boiled eggs to everyone in the house, patted shoulders, made conversation, and spun a soundtrack of 90s New York hip hop and R&B. Based on the number of photos of smiling guys and gals tacked to every available surface of the shop, I'd say Chiyosaku has won a place in the hearts and minds of many of the young people in the neighborhood. Apparently there's even a MIXI community (the Japanese equivalent of Facebook), where Chiyosaku fans organize chat and organize meetups, presumably for the purpose of eating Chiyosaku ramen and discussing how much they love eating Chiyosaku ramen.

Chiyosaku is located all the way at the back left end of the bustling Sakae-dôri alley just northwest of Takadanobaba station, and based on the location, I'd guess that the clientele tends to run towards more of the local junior college and art school students rather than Waseda types. Plus of course the occasional awkward foreigner duo.

The sign out front says "Tokyo tonkotsu" (pork marrow soup), but that can mean a lot of things, ranging from rich blended seafood broth to reimaginations of heavy Kyushu-style pure pork. But what Chiyosaku serves up is Tokyo tonkotsu in location only, since the Ie-kei (house-style) ramen they dish out is, strictly speaking, from Yokohama. To get a full rundown on Ie-kei, check out my earlier post on Shichifuku-ya, but the basic characteristics of Ie-kei ramen include a mandatory three sheets of nori seaweed, cooked spinach topping, and thick straight noodles served in an oily tonkotsu-shôyû (pork bone and soy sauce) and chicken stock broth, with tableside fresh garlic and Korean-style spicy bean paste present-to-hand.

Unlike most Ie-kei shops, Chiyosaku omits the character 家 (meaning "house" and variously read "ie" "ya" "ke" and "ka") from its name, hiding the obviousness of their lineage to the original Yokohama Yoshimura-ya. But it's all made clear inside, with a description of the master's tutelage under one of Yoshimura's pupils, as well as in the use of noodles from the famous Sakai Seimen factory, which is one of the classic noodle providers for Ie-kei shops. In addition to the standard toppings, there are also some mysterious pink sesame seeds.

The soup, while not as thick and rich as at Jirô, is still plenty hearty, and the kind you want when you're hooongry, which we were. In terms of neighborhood Ie-kei purveyors, Chiyosaku is on par with Shichifuku-ya (though the soup is perhaps thinner), and way better than Yamaoka-ya. Dabs of garlic and spicy paste add a bit of kick, but the broth is dense enough in taste to keep from being overpowered, provided you don't go too bonkers. Hard-boiled eggs are free, but I opted for a soft-boiled, which was nearly black from soy on the outside and shining like a gooey orange jewel on the inside. But it's the noodles that make it all work - we took our time eating, but no matter how slowly we slurped, the noodles never got soggy or stringy, staying firm and chewy.

I'm not sure if my love for Chiyosaku is such that I'm going to join the official fan club, but it was definitely a damn tasty bowl of ramen. There's also abura soba (soupless noodles) on offer, a real rarity for an Ie-kei shop. The homey, friendly neighborhood vibe inside couldn't be beat, and when we walked out, we got fliers and stickers slapped with Chiyosaku-themed rock band logo parodies. Shout it out to RC/DC - Ramen Chiyosaku takaDanobaba san-Chome!

Friday, June 19, 2009

ババ番外地、その二十六:らーめん二郎 小滝橋店 (Beyond Baba 26: Ramen Jirô Otakibashi)

This past weekend, my friend S told me about a new kind of ramen - gohôbi ramen. Now, gohôbi ramen isn't any one kind of ramen per se, but a special kind of ontological role for ramen - ramen as reward. Gohôbi is something like a special prize or added incentive, a reward for oneself upon the completion of a task. The task in question was climbing Takao-san, a low-lying mountain in Tokyo's western suburbs.

Less than an hour from the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku station, Takao-san is a 599 meter tall peak that is a popular weekend getaway from metropolites such as myself, S, and the 2.5 million other people that climb the mountain every year. But the best part about climbing Takao-san is that there are 8 separate tracks up, and by taking the most strenuous ridge route (relatively speaking of course; this IS only a 599 meter peak), we left the crowds quickly behind. After taking in a leisurely loop while enveloped in green growth, we figured we had earned ourselves a bowl of gohôbi ramen.

After a quick dip rubbing shoulders with tattooed yakuza in a public bath in the town of Hachiôji, S and I headed back to Tokyo to chow down and undo all of the day's hard work. We spent about an hour flipping through my newest ramen guide book and drooling, but in the end decided to go with a tried and true favorite - the one, the only, Ramen Jirô. I had to be back in Shinjuku to help my buddy interview heavy psych rock god Narita Munehiro, so we decided to hit up the Otakibashi branch of the celebrated chain, just a few hundred meters north from the station's west gate.

The second we walked in, "Danger Zone," the theme from Top Gun began playing on the stereo, and if you know anything about Ramen Jirô, you know how ironically appropriate a musical choice that is. Jirô serves the biggest, baddest, most brutally greasy, and downright ruggedest bowl of ramen in Tokyo. Loaded with lard and garlic, Jirô has been said to transcend the categorization of ramen itself to become, according to its die hard fans (known as "Jirolians"), a "totally independent food that can only be described as 'Jirô.'" A veritable cottage industry of Jirô-related knowledge has appeared on both the English and Japanese interwebs - for a full rundown by the most Jirôed man of the blogosphere, check out Ramen Tokyo's clearning house for all things Jirolian, including a link to the NPR story.

Last time, and every time I've eaten Jirô (usually at the Takadanobaba branch), I've had to nearly roll myself home, satiated to the point of bursting, moaning in pain and pleasure and swearing I wouldn't eat Jirô again for months. Between the volume and the oil, it's a delicious experience, but one that should not perhaps be repeated with too great a frequency, at least for this ramen writer. But the Shinjuku Otakibashi branch of Jirô is a kinder, gentler Jirô. Where was the lard slopped onto the floor? The tense mass of sweaty men hunched over their bowls? The famously frightening shop staff? The Otakibashi branch even boasts (gasp) a table! And, what's this? A Jirô tsukemen (dipping noodle option)? I can't even begin to imagine what that might look like, but it's clear that in the wake of last year's Jirô boom, when the shop moved from cult favorite status into the broad public eye, the shop is making an effort to find new (and perhaps female) customers.

The famous turn of phrase at Jirô is "Ninniku iremasu ka?" ("You want garlic?"), which has since been appropriated by dozens of imitator shops across the city. But those three little words, which must be properly parried by immediately rattling off a list of desired toppings (garlic, chili, veggies, and extra lard), were nowhere to be heard. Instead, the cook asked "Topping wa yoroshii deshou ka?" - imagine walking into a tough old fashioned New York deli and being asked "Would you happen to care for any mustard with your pastrami today, sir?" The pure visual impact of the bowl is perhaps less intense than at other Jirô branches as well - granted I ordered only a half serving of vegetables, but the Otakibashi bowl looks...well, more like an actual bowl of ramen than a terror-inducing mountain of wheat, vegetables, and liquid pig.

The noodles are different from most Jirô branches as well; rather than being unevenly cut, the noodles here are, while duly extra-thick and chewy, not as rough and raw as at other Jirô branches. Now, all this might sound like a big complaint, but if you've experienced Jirô before, the Otakibashi branch seems to be missing something of the ineffable Jirô-ness of the experience. But all it took was one single sip of that sumptuous soup to remember my Jirô-love. My sweet lord is it good. I think Jirô uses a very special kind of soy sauce in their tonkotsu shôyû (soy and pork bone) soup, and it is just exponentially richer and more delicious than anyone else's. Through some magical process of salt and marrow, Jirô has developed a broth that is almost sweet as sweet as sweet sweet lovin'. Toss a few shakes of chili on there and you good to go, holmes.

Nothing but nothing tastes as good as a bowl of Jirô after a long day of hiking and riding trains. I ate Jirô after climbing Fuji three years ago, and after this I may have to make reward bowls of Jirô a post-hiking tradition. I had never even come close to finishing all the soup at Jirô before, but when I looked down, I had nearly reached the bottom. Maybe my recent bowl of uber-fatty Tsubame-Sanjô ramen had recalibrated my tolerance? Despite my earlier whining, it was kind of nice to walk out of Jirô with my head held high and the top button on my pants still fastened. In the last year or two, dozens of imitation Jirô-clone shops have sprung up around Tokyo, but there's nothing like the original. Now to make pilgrimage to the original Mita Honten Jirô shop...

珍珍珍 (Sanchin)

At the far northwest corner of the boundaries which I have (somewhat arbitrarily) designated as encompassing the quadrants of "Waseda Ramen" sits Sanchin. If you asked me to draw a picture of what a stereotypical ramen shop looked like, I'd probably paint you something a lot like Sanchin. Located on an obscure corner far from any train stations, looking a bit rough around the edges, and filled with chubby dudes, comic books, curmudgeonly cooks, and clutter, Sanchin is every bit the ramen shop of your imagination, par excellence. Which is why I was surprised to come home and find that it's a branch of a franchise that stretches from Hokkaido to New Zealand.

But Sanchin appears to be a franchise chain that allows a good deal of freedom to each shop master, rather than provide a cookie cutter formula. The 'Baba branch of Sanchin ("Three Rare Tastes") features a menu big enough to take up every free button on the ticket vending machine, including some unusual options like raw veggie ramen and nanban ("southern barbarian") ramen with spicy fried chicken laid on top. Usually "rare tastes" (chinmi) refer to bizarre local delicacies like salmon liver, shark cartilage, sea cucumber guts, and other similarly gross stuff, but the three "rare tastes" in question here refer simply to the presence of three regional soups - Hokkaido miso, Tokyo shôyû (soy sauce), and Kyûshû-style tonkotsu (pork bone).

The classic default ("defo" in modern colloquial Japanese) is Tokyo-style shôyû, which the staff at Sanchin calls "Edo dashi" (soup), using the old name of Tokyo from prior to 1868 or so. Sanchin has mad Edo pride, and even displays the names of the 15 generations of the Tokugawa Shogunate (who established Edo as Japan's capital) alongside the menu. Which probably goes a long way towards explaining why the stern-faced old lady cook was giving me a dirty looks - I walked in wearing a t-shirt for the Hanshin Tigers, favorite baseball team of rival city Osaka. Imagine walking into a Red Sox bar with a Yankees jersey on and you sorta get the picture.

Most of the rest of the clientele seemed to be true blue Edo-ites, with emphasis on the blue, as everyone in the (packed) shop seemed to be firmly rooted in the working class.

I grabbed an issue of my old favorite comic Crayon Shinchan (kind of like a dirtier Calvin and Hobbes) and ordered the most unusual thing on the menu - celery ramen. Celery ramen? Celery ramen. This is not celery ramen as some kind of nouveau cuisine invention, but more like "heyyyyy, we decided to put some celery on top of some ramen." I chose to go with the "tonkoku" (thick pork soup) base, which wasn't really thick with pork at all, but rather a slightly fattier version of the basic soy sauce, chicken, and seafood stock.

But more than any of the above, I really tasted the celery. There was a heaping mound of the crunchy green stuff piled on top, and the taste had thoroughly perfumed the broth. Add in a nice white American-style hard-boiled egg with a chalky firm yolk, and you've got yourself a bowl of ramen that looks like it got attacked by a suburban Cleveland picnic (sans the jello pie of course). But the celery gave the soup a nice, clean, refreshing ("sappari") taste, which hit the spot on a hot, sweaty, early summer day.

Sanchin's noodles are medium thick, curly, yellow, and chewy, again, every image the stereotypical ramen noodle. Those work for me, but take a pass on the tableside kimchi, which clearly came right out of one of the giant plastic vats that sell for four bucks at the grocery store. When I first undertook this project, I came out of the gates running down all the trendy new school stores on the main streets, but now that those are mostly out of the way, I've worked my way onto the back streets into the scruffy neighborhood joints. What places like Sanchin lack in refinement they make up for in character, and even though the ramen here isn't pure noodlegasm, it's plenty tasty. Celery ramen? Celery ramen.

Monday, June 15, 2009

メルシー (Merci)

"Have you been to Merci yet?" When I told a pal of mine who went to college at Waseda about this blog, that was his first question. Since then, I've gotten a few more of the same. Merci is a true institution, loved by Waseda students for generations, and for anyone who has spent time on campus here, its name is almost synonymous with the phrase "Waseda ramen." The original English-language ramen blogger, BON even reviewed the place. And yet somehow it took me 8 months to get around to eating here. Jesus, am I a poseur.

Located right across the street from the Waseda subway station and just around the corner from the front gate of Waseda high school, Merci has been a favorite of students for decades. The students graduate, become alumni, and move on, but they keep coming back to Merci. They get married and give birth to baby Wasedians, and those babies become students who eat at Merci. And then THOSE students become alumni, and THEY keep coming back. Then THEIR kids grow up and start eating at Merci. Kinda like a "Hundred Years of Solitude" thing, but with less people named "Jose." And more noodles.

According to a Tokyo ramen history site that I found (and from whence this pic comes), the story of Merci is the story of the life of a man named Kobayashi Hideo (who is of no relation to the literary critic of the same name). Kobayashi ran a cafe before the war, but when it burned to the ground in the firebombing of Tokyo, he took a job as a cook working for American occupation troops who had made a makeshift barracks in Shinjuku's Isetan department store. In 1958, Kobayashi opened Merci in its present incarnation, serving hamburgers, cream sodas, and light meals (karushoku). Merci moved to its present location in 1970, by which time Kobayashi had deemed the domestic population unready for hamburgers and shifted to more popular menu items like ramen, dry curry, and rice omlettes.

Just a couple blocks behind Merci is the headquarters of the Kakumaru-ha (Revolutionary Faction of the Japan Revolutionary Communist League), one of Japan's most infamous radical leftist factions, who were kicked out of the student movement in the 1960s after killing members of opposing factions and engaging in general guerilla adventurist activities. I'm sure that over the years, plenty of Kakumaru-ha guys have been regulars at Merci, which has changed very little since the early 70s when the group was at their most active. They'd certainly support Kobayashi's commitment to low prices - the cost of a bowl of ramen at Merci has only gone up by 100 yen (about 1 dollar) in the past 20 years!

Kobayashi Hideo turned 90 this year, and his son is now runs the business day to day, though I'm guessing that Kobayashi the elder will always be number one. Kinda like a Kim Sung-Il / Kim Jong-Il situation. Inside, Merci is all dim lighting, dark wood paneling and metal frame chairs; there's no counter, so just grab a seat at a table across from one of the manga-reading regulars. It's a bit like the Japanese equivalent of an old New York deli.

I decided to dish out an extra hundred yen for one of Merci's specialty items - yasai soba, which is ramen topped with a pile of stirfried veggies like carrots, cabbage, and corn. To date, Merci is the first shop I've visited to offer a meatless topping option - props! The soup is, of course, shôyû (soy sauce), with a healty portion of sardines going into the broth. My pal had warned me that Merci is "soooo fishy," but the taste that knocked me off my feet was the pure density of the soy sauce. It might be a little salty for some, but the shôyû tare (flavor essence) at Merci is darker, richer, and more flavorful than almost any bowl I've had so far.

The noodles are also dense, sproingy, and clumped together, much like down the street at Inaho, and at many other similarly old school ramen joints. Like Inaho, Merci offers a tanmen (salt soup and veggie) option, but it's the basic shôyû that's the stone cold classic here. Merci is truly an institution, and even if the noodles weren't any good, it would still be worth visiting for its historical significance. Fortunately, the ramen rocks, and where else are you gonna get a hot fresh meal for under 5 bucks in this day and age? Don't miss Merci!