Wednesday, October 28, 2009

花道 (Hanamichi)

Since moving out to the Araiyakushimae (stands for "in front of the new well medicine teacher," folks) area, I've been taking the opportunity to check out some shops along the Seibu Shinjuku train line. The line runs right behind my house (in fact you can see it from my window), and if you follow it west a few stops you get to Nogata, home to a buddy of mine who plays drums in a punishing hardcore band. Nogata is also home to Hanamichi, which serves one punishingly spicy bowl of thick miso ramen.

The head cook at Hanamichi, spent time cutting teeth (and noodles. and cutting cutting noodles with his teeth) at both Môko Tanmen Nakamoto and Inoshô, two of the spiciest shops around, so it's to be expected that when he comes with the chilis, he comes correct.

Hanamichi literally means "flower road," and it refers to the portion of the Kabuki stage that extends like a walkway out into the middle of the audience. The hanamichi is where the actor goes to strut his stuff, do his dance, strike his best pose and flaunt it. Say what you will about Kabuki, but it is not a subtle art, just as the ramen at Hanamichi pulls no punches with its strong flavor.

The shop staff exude a similar blend of masculinity and floridity, each with matching shaved heads and black and pink shirts bearing a blooming flower pattern. You'll wonder what they're doing back there for so long while they prepare your noodles, but you'll be served up with this fine bowl just as Ol' Dirty Bastard takes the mike from Method Man on the shop stereo.

Yep, there's miso under that chili oil somewhere. This is the real stuff, the kind that makes your tongue tingle and your brow bead with sweat as you keep on slurping. There's cheap spice that masks all flavor, then there's nice well blended pepper like this, which stays sweet as it stings. The miso underneath is strong enough in its own right, and doesn't get overwhelmed by the capsaicin.

The bamboo shoots are veritable bricks, big blocks with lots of fresh woodsy crunch. I just got a regular helping of veggies, but a free upgrade is also available, in case you want to make your ramen look like the towers of terror served across town at Jirô. There's also an option for a free side of fresh cut garlic which makes the soup even more intense than it already was.

The thick gritty soup looks a lot like Inoshô, but it's not a fishy blend like that of the cook's old haunts. It's got a spice factor to beat the band laid atop a miso mix, but it's clearly a different animal than Nakamoto's superficially similar bowl. In other words, this flower master learned his lessons well, then gone on to create his own distinct style, rather than merely imitate those he studied under.

He also takes pity on those of us who don't do châshû - when I ordered my ramen with no roast pork on top he plunked down a hundred yen discount. I thanked him and took the coin to the stand next door where it bought me bean jam pastry branded with a smiling frog face. Hanamichi's ramen might be too strong for some, but if you like a punch in the tongue, don't miss it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

わ蔵 (Wakura)

There I was, lost in the middle of Kabukichô, Japan's biggest red light nightlife district. But don't get the wrong idea. It was 11:30 AM, and I was shielding my eyes from the sun as I searched out another shop to grab a quick lunch. In Kabukichô you're never far from a sketchy nightclub, a big hairdo, an overpriced bouquet of flowers, or a low-level Yakuza tough. But you're probably just as close to a bowl of Hakata-style tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen, which seem to be located on nearly every corner of this den of men.

Left to their own devices, dudes will eat the food that is worst for them. It's science. Ergo, plenty of ramen made of melted pig marrow in this town. Some of the best Hakata ramen in Tokyo can be found in a lean-to between cabaret clubs, and the always trusty Hakata Tenjin can satisfy a salaryman's beer-fueled craving in a matter of minutes. But I figured I'd try a new place this time, and Wakura was in a dirty enough tucked away corner that it just might be great.

What see you at Wakura is what you get, a straightforward bowl of Hakata ramen with no frills. The shop advertises a founding date of 1954, but the lineage seems questionable - the head shop is in Itabashi, Tokyo and not Fukuoka, and the history hinges (as it so often does) on the interpretation of the word "tradition" - does "Hakata denshô" mean "traditional Hakata ramen" or "ramen in the Hakata tradition"? I feel like a solid bowl of Hakata ramen should be a bit whiter in the soup and a bit creamier, with the fat worked into the soup rather than floating on the surface.

I tricked it out with toppings, but was a bit miffed that they wanted extra cash for spicy takana (mustard greens), which should be standard at a joint like this. Why pay seven bucks for a proper bowl when you can get the same thing made better down the block at Tenjin for just five? Wakura was in no way bad, just totally plain and a bit thin. In Japanese you'd say "futsuuuuu." Even mediocre Hakata ramen hits the spot, but this was just that and nothing more - mediocre.

They did get the noodles right though, offering a full list of boiling options, ranging from an extra soft boil of 60 seconds to the toothsome "kona otoshi" - knocking the flour off with a two second boil. Mediocre as it may have been, I still got a kaedama (second helping), which I slurped down as I listened to an off work hostess beg her big-haired boyfriend not to make her eat any tonkotsu ramen. "Oh my god, if I take even one bite, I think I'll puke. It smells terrible, oh my god. Baby, I'm not gonna order this, you can eat the ramen if you like, I'll just get some rice and pork. Why do you like this stuff? I swear I'll puke, I'll puke." The ramen/gender stereotype playing out in a nutshell. Just getting to listening to that exchange might be worth the price of admission.

Monday, October 26, 2009

札幌らーめん てつや (Sapporo Ramen Tetsuya)

Last post, I was saying how when it comes to ramen maniacs, there are those who hop to new shops, and those who keep coming back to their favorites. If I'm a member of the former group, my buddy D is a member of the latter. He found his jam and he keeps on rockin' it. That shop is Tetsuya, a small chain based in Sapporo with a Tokyo branch located along the Kannana ramen corridor.

D had been plugging Tetsuya for a long time, but for whatever reason I hadn't got around to trying it yet. I was shaking off the last of a mild but extended hangover when D buzzed me - today was the day, and a nice piping hot bowl of ramen was just what I needed. I dunno a whole lot about Tetsuya's history, but I know it's got a good reputation in Sapporo, and that's saying a lot, since the Hokkaidô capital ranks in the top tier of national ramen.

Now, if Sapporo is known for one kind of ramen, it's miso. In fact, the two are nearly synonymous. Some of the first ramen journalism in Japan, written back in the mid-1950s, describes Sapporo "city of ramen," and how one can barely go a few steps without stumbling into a bowl. The porky miso tonkotsu of the town was one of the first styles to get a bona fide boom in Tokyo (spurred on by shops like Ezogiku), and recently we've been blessed with a branch of Junren, one of the very best Sapporo shops.

But miso ramen is not what I ordered at Tetsuya. D had been into the miso, but a couple months back he confided in me: "dude, I know I'm supposed to get the miso...but I think the shôyu (soy sauce) soup is better." Then sure enough, I opened up a review of Tetsuya in a magazine, which stated "though Tetsuya is known for their miso, those regulars in the know prefer the shôyu." What, did they interview D for this article? So Shôyu I got, and I did not regret. The soup is a very rich and very fatty tonkotsu shôyu (pork and soy), but smoother and sweeter than the salty, almost pungent Yokohama ie-kei tonkotsu shôyu.

There's plenty of suspended fat, but hey, that's what you need to warm you up on a chilly wet night as the seasons change. Garlicky and deep, Tetsuya's shôyu ramen is the kind to make you lick your lips, both to savor the taste and suck off the grease. It doesn't hurt that the bamboo shoots taste extra fresh, the onions are extra crisp, and the egg yolks shines a beautiful orange against the pretty blue bowl.

In the Sapporo style, the noodles are very yellow (from alkali "kansui" water), and very curly, though Tetsuya's are a bit thinner than standard. Though I tend to prefer thick noodles with soup like this, the unusual size means they are most likely home made, and shows the shop isn't just settling for the default. Eminently slurpable, my only regret is not ordering a large. Somewhat strangely, straight tonkotsu and shio (salt) broth options are also on offer, but I'd stick with the shôyu or miso. At least, so sayeth my buddy the regular.

Before that night, I knew Tetsuo the Iron Man...

...and I knew Yoshida Tatsuya, drummer of the Ruins...

...but I didn't know Tetsuya. Thank goodness I changed that state of affairs!

もう一回の紅蓮 (Guren, Again)

Some people say that there are basically two kinds of ramen freaks - "repeaters" and "collectors." That is to say, those who find a couple shops they really like and go there regularly, and those who are always jaunting off to try something new and different, always searching for the next good bowl. It should be pretty clear at this point which of these camps I fall into. That said, sometimes circumstances call for, nay, demand, a repeat visit.

A couple weeks balk, I went to a talk on the Waseda University campus about the author Miyazawa Kenji, national identity, and liquor licensing. Long story. I was walking out to grab a whiskey before heading home when I bumped into my adviser Professor T, who had also attended the talk. He asked what I had eaten dinner yet, then asked if I knew any good ramen shops in the area. My mission was clear.

I suggested we hit up Guren, just a few steps from the main campus gate. Professor T noted the chic polished steel interior as we perched atop our stools, and for once I was the one giving him advice, recommending the shop's extra thick shrimp soup tsukemen (dipping noodles). I had gotten the shrimp last time, so this time I decided to try out the new menu item of abura soba - soupless "oily noodles."

The abura soba at Guren is a bit more "up to date" than similar dishes around the corner at Menchintei or Niko Niko. Abura soba is a secret Tokyo tradition dating back decades, but these were in the new high end ramen model - the noodles that much thicker, the garlic chips that much crunchier, the pork medallion perfectly blowtorched brown.

As we sat slurping, Professor T politely complimented my technique, but he was the impressive one. Unshakable as always, he left his (elegantly tasteful) suit jacket on, and kept his tie untucked. Needless to say, not a drop of soup got anywhere near either. Between bites I confessed that I had taken the study skills I learned in his seminar and applied them to my ramen research. Thankfully, this did not seem to disturb him.

Guren's abura soba may lack the raw junk food quality of say, Bubka, but the bowl is eminently tasty and satisfying. The best part is the fat slices of white onion, sauteed to a soft yet still crunchy sweet yellow. Even the white of the egg is nearly liquid, held together by a thin outer shell. If I could make one complaint it would be that I wanted to see the standard abura soba accompaniments of chili oil and vinegar squirt bottles - the straightforward soy-based oil at the bottom of the bowl did the job, but a few squirts of acid and spice never hurt anyone.

More importantly, Professor T seemed satisfied. I pity the fool who does not give Professor T what he wants, and I would hate to think that I might be that fool. My adviser is an eminent scholar who has taught at Japan's top universities, delivered national radio lectures, collated hefty literature compendiums, published dozens of articles, and hobnobbed with top authors and editors. And I have eaten ramen with him.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

ラーメン二郎三田本店 (Ramen Jiro Mita Honten)

This day was a long time coming. The original Ramen Jirô, located in Mita. Some have been known to call the gargantuan, oil-soaked bowls at Jirô "something other than ramen, a unique food called only Jirô." But that doesn't make the original Mita location any less of a mandatory place of pilgrimage for anyone aspiring to the title of true ramen fanatic. I had eaten plenty of bowls of Jirô in various locations in the past, but had never paid homage to the first and foremost, the monster, the colossus, the progenitor.

The occasion was the renewal of my visa, and I decided that there was no better way to celebrate my continued stay in Japan (and my triumph in a months-long process of bureaucratic wrangling) than with a big greasy bowl of noodles. At 10 AM.

Because 10 AM is when Jirô opens its doors and starts dishing out the day's bowls. But don't think that you'll have the place to yourself for a relaxed ramen breakfast. Jirolians (for that is what devotees of Jirô are called) start showing up well before the shop's shutter comes up, hoping to avoid the famous lines to get in, which rival even Jirô's portions in their gargantuosity. My timing was perfect, and the first batch of customers was just finishing up as I arrived, and I only waited about 4 minutes, probably the shortest recorded time ever for a Jirô visit. By the time I left (and this photo was taken) at a quarter to 11 AM, the line was already 25 long. Don't even think about showing up anytime after 2.30 PM, as the day's soup will be long gone.

On the way in I picked up a laminated Jirô membership card listing the shop's six guiding principles:

1. Live purely, truthfully, and beautifully. Go for walks, read books, and smile when saving money. On the weekends, fish and practice copying sutras.
2. For the world, for people, for society.
3. Love & Peace & Togetherness. [in English]
4. Sorry, but you've got to have the courage to speak your mind.
5. Disorder of flavor is disorder of the heart, disorder of the heart is disorder of the family, disorder of the family is disorder of society, disorder of society is disorder of the country, and disorder of the country is disorder of the universe.
6. You want garlic with that?

The man behind the maxims is Yamada Takumi, the boss of Jirô, the one who started it all back in 1968. At this point, the shop's story of is well known, having been covered by NPR, various newspapers and magazines, and countless blogs. The shop won the hearts and bellies of students at the nearby Keio University with its massive portions, each trainee of the master went forth and spread the legend (and the lard), and now there are over 20 Jirôs all over the greater Tokyo metropolitan area. In just the last two years or so, Jirô has ceased to exist as a cult phenomenon and has caught the attention of the general public. Imitators now abound, each doing their best to copy Jirô's massive bowl piled high with thick noodles, mountains of bean sprouts and cabbage, cujungous cuts of pork, and generous blobs of fat all suspended in a rich tonkotsu shôyu (pork bone and soy sauce) broth. But there's only one original, and this is it.

While not the same level of Jirolian as the writer of Ramen Tokyo, who has made it his mission to eat at every last Jirô location, I'm seasoned enough to know to come prepared. I was ready for battle - a bottle of green tea, a can of oolong tea, a handkerchief for the sweat, and a generous helping of toilet paper procured from the bathroom at the immigration office to use as napkins. I was feeling good. This was to be my day at Jirô. I kept my eyes peeled for the appearance of "Al Qaeda," the pigeon that has been known to take lodging in the shop's rafters.

I sat at the famous red counter, watching the master do his work. My eyes kept returning to The Vat, the bubbling cauldron overflowing with sundry pig parts, from whence my bowl was to emerge. The silence was near total, with the customers maintaining a reverent quietude while in this temple of the noodle. The only sound was that of slurping, occasionally punctuated by the incantations known to every member of the cult of Jirô - when the shophand asks "you want garlic with that?" the Jirolian replies with the names of the toppings he (and trust me, it's usually a he) wants - ninniku (garlic), yasai (extra vegetables), karame (extra salty and tangy soy essence), and abura (pure lard). Just saying the name of each will give you plenty, but if you're up for the challenge, toss in a few shakes of the word "mashi" to double or even triple the quantity.

And then it arrived. Being sans roast pork cuts and with only the standard amount of vegetables, my bowl may have lacked the voluminous verticality of some, but there's still 300 grams of noodle under there, which is no trifling amount. I took my first sip and my first bite, eating slowly not only to savor the moment but as a part of a strategy to make it all the way through. Some say the true secret of Jirô is in the soy sauce used for the soup base - sourced from Kaneshi Shoji production house and made specially for Jiro, it has an almost sweet, salty richness incomparable to your average shôyu-flavored bowl.

But then, just as I was lowering my bowl from the counter, the unthinkable happened. A girl walked into the store. A young, thin, unaccompanied, fashionable girl. She might as well have been a conehead, fresh off the spaceship from Remulak, so much did she stand out among my sweaty fellow slurpers. When asked "you want garlic?" she replied by asking "oh, is it good with garlic?" A chuckle ran through the room as the old man laughed and replied in the affirmative. The girl, sitting right next to me, made grunts of satisfaction and pleasure as she began eating, and I considered trying to chat her up, but decided against it for fear of breaking the room's reverent silence.

I worked my way through the noodles, those thick, wheaty, rough cut noodles that never seem to decrease in volume no matter how much you eat. I was still feeling good. I was going to make it, I could feel it. The girl to my left, however, was not so lucky, as she seemed to have entered the shop without knowing what she was in for. After finishing about a third of the bowl she started slowing down, before finally lifting her bowl to the counter and uttering "Gibu appu." Give up. She asked old man Yamada if anyone without a Y chromosome had ever finished the bowl, to which he again chuckled and replied in the affirmative. She apologized profusely, vowed to come back to challenge again after further training, and left the store, leaving in her wake a flurry of chatter and giggling in disbelief.

Undeterred, I kept my pace steady, working my way through the bowl, and deciding that if ever I was going to go for the gusto, this was it. I drank the thick oily soup down to the dregs, completing my Jirô challenge. I was shocked to realize that for the first time, Jirô had become something I could eat without major physical difficulty, and my pile of toilet paper stayed nearly untouched. Granted, I skipped the pork, which constitutes a great deal of Jirô's black diamond difficulty, but I felt that next time I might even try and tackle a large bowl. For what I had was only the small size. But, as absolutely delicious as the original Mita Jirô is, I think I prefer the Takadanobaba branch. Maybe it's just my Waseda-area pride showing, but the bowl in 'Baba seems that much bigger, burlier, and rougher than its father at Keio.

I lifted my empty bowl, shouted my thanks to the cooks, wiped the grease off the counter, then stepped out into the morning sun, leaving behind the little triangular corner shop and the megalithic line that had grown outside. I just read the story of a ramen writer who ate at four different Jirôs in a single day. That's pretty unthinkable, but I had won the day nonetheless. I stumbled along holding my stomach, and spent the next hour walking across town in a fruitless attempt to walk off the (oh so sweet) pain and the pounds. As I shambled through the town, I muttered the only word that I could manage to get through my lips. Jirô. Jirô. Jirô.

よってこや (Yottekoya)

Sometimes the ramen comes second. A shocking statement i know, but have i ever been anything than truly honest with you? Brian had scored a coup and downloaded the first few episodes of the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and this bowl of ramen came as a precursor to sitting down to watch Larry David put his foot in his mouth for the umpteenth time.

In Komagome, not too far from Brian's pad (and I do mean pad, you should see the setup!) is Yottekoya, a branch of national chain with far too many franchises. Yottekoya ostensibly specializes in Kyoto-style ramen, but unlike the refined courtiers from the old capital, they've taken a few plays from the "please all the people all the time" book. The sign says "Kyoto street-stall style ramen," so why does the banner out front advertise spicy tantanmen and shrimp tsukemen (dipping noodles)? They're definitely aiming for the biggest possible draw, which might not be so surprising, considering that the name means something like "Come on over!" in Western Japanese dialect. Or, to put it in the parlance of our times:

Inside, the main choice one is confronted with is between the "Red Gate," "Black Gate" and "White Gate." I've heard of the Suzaku Gate in Kyoto, and of course the famous Rashômon Gate, but these were new to me. The white is the standard soup, a tonkotsu (pork bone) and chicken blend, and the black is the same with a dash of mâyu (burnt garlic and sesame oil), which in the red is replaced with a generous layer of bright crimson chili oil.

Brian went with the black, which despite being tasty enough, didn't really seem to have a whole lot to do with Kyoto ramen. There's no refined elements to this classic capital dish - Kyoto marks the eastern front of the Western Japanese ramen zone, which is largely based in greasier and fattier pork broth rather than the chicken, seaweed, seafood, and soy that constitute the base in most Eastern styles. The basic elements were there at Yottekoya, but the trademark thick, almost gravy-like grittiness of the soup (as at Tenka Ippin) had been substituted for small bits of floating fat, giving the overall impression of a knock-off Kyushu tonkotsu rather than constituting the mikado manifest.

I got the red, which was laden enough with pepper oil as to be essentially unidentifiable as Kyoto ramen or even really ramen at all. If you put that much salt, fat, and spice in anything it'll taste good, but the overall impression was of a Korean dish, maybe a chigae soup more than anything else. Granted the Kyoto-Osaka area is home to Japan's largest population of resident Koreans, but I don't think that was a conscious factor in Yottekoya's menu writing process.

So far, so serviceable, but Yottekoya's noodles were truly an embarassment. They were thin, cheap, characterless, and seemingly right out of the package. They were so weak as to be almost clear, which reinforced the overall Korean feel to the bowl. After about three bites I leaned over and remarked "I call bullshit on these noodles man," to which my companion readily agreed. Though truly amazing noodles can make good ramen great, after a point they cease to matter as long as a certain minimal standard is met. Yottekoya did not meet that standard.

We got full, but both agreed that Yottekoya's had been the weakest bowl in a while. You can find great ramen at some chain shops (like Hakata Tenjin or even Tenka Ippin), but Yottekoya's bowl just tasted too mass-produced. I'm not going to say you'd be better off eating your shoe (ask Werner Herzog about that one), but there are plenty of superior options around town. The ex-Kyoto resident in me resolved to continue the quest for a more legit bowl of miyako munchies.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

ラーメン峰 (Mine)

My pal H was busy for the day, so she asked me to show around her pal D, who was visiting from the States. It was pouring rain, but we spent the day wandering around the relaxed Chuo line neighborhoods of Nakano, Koenji, and Asagaya and taking in the slow side of Tokyo. It seemed that my reputation preceded me, so when hunger struck at midday, there was no question that ramen was on the menu. I whipped out one of my trusty mags, and we set off for the heretofore unknown shop of Mine (which is pronounced as if there was a little french accent mark on top of the "e").

Mine is located just north of Koenji station along Kanana-dori, the famous "Number 7 Loop Road" encircling suburban Tokyo. The plan for a series of Tokyo beltways was divised by a certain Viscount Goto Shinpei, mayor of Tokyo and Home Minister in the early 1920s. Homeboy also founded the Japanese Boy Scouts. Goto was in charge of city planning after the great earthquake of 1923, and devised a series of ring roads not unlike those Beijing has today. But the plan never came to full-fruition, so we ended up with Loop Roads 7 and 8, but only partial circles further in. In any case, Kanana is home to more than its fair share of ramen shops, since when you're on the beltway and hunger strikes, you can't be troubled to head into town. Some other Kanana shops include the always awesome BASANOVA, and O.G. tonkotsu purveyor Nandenkanden.

Mine is definitely the kind of ramen shop you want to take a Tokyo novice to, at least, if you want to show him what the very image of an old school ramen shop looks like. Nothing reconstructed here, just a ratty old counter with a hefty old man and a heftier old lady slinging pork parts for the masses.

The place hasn't gotten a good drubbing in what probably amounts to years, but hey, when you're a mom and pop ramen shop, that's by no means a bad thing. If you look closely, you can see the proprietors have amassed an impressive collection of pig-themed knick knacks. Wiiiiiilllbuuuur!

The phrase "I felt like I was in some far-flung countryside ramen shop" definitely applies, but what particular far-flung corner of the countryside are we talking about here? Kagoshima! The southernmost prefecture in Japan aside from Okinawa, Kagoshima is known for its sweet potatos, sweet potato vodka, unintelligible dialect, volcanoes, and oh yeah, black pigs. Formerly known as Satsuma domain, Kagoshimian dudes helped lead the Meiji Restoration to birth Japan as a modern nation-state in the mid 19th century. But don't hold it against them.

Kagoshima ramen may be based in pork, but it's notable as the only style of ramen (ignoring the outlier of Nagasaki champon) from the southern isle of Kyushu NOT to trace its lineage back to the town of Kurume. As a result, the soup is less greasy and less creamy than the more famous ramen of Hakata, since more soy sauce is used, and the base broth is a mix of pork, chicken, and veggies. My boy Keizo has the haps on Kagoshima ramen from his recent trip. The bowls we got were decidedly rustic and fitting for the setting.

Kagoshima ramen does however, share its regional cousins' predilection for free toppings, and Mine takes this one whole hog, as it were. There are of course the mandatory spicy pickled mustard greens (takana), house-made kimchi that was at least as spicy as the cook warned me, garlic, sesame seeds, black pepper and more. If you want, there's an option to pile on fat cuts of stewed Berkshire pork. Up yours, David Chang, you didn't come up with anything new.

And one I hadn't seen before - curry powder. Whuuu? There's enough on the table that you could try a different topping with every bite, changing the flavor of the soup over and over throughout the meal.

Don't worry, you'll have plenty of time to do so, because the staff at Mine are, pardon my french, not fucking around with the portion sizes. About 600 yen gets you a massive lump of noodles topped with ultra-thin pork slices cut from a specially rigged pork shaving machine in the back. But here's where Mine runs into trouble. Kyushu ramen noodles, extra thin and extra white, should also be nice and firm. As a result, most shops serve small portions to keep the noodles from getting soggy. If there's not enough for you, plunk down a buck and get a noodle refill. Mine's soup was a welcome change from your typical pure pork Hakata broth, but man, the noodles sure did get soft by the end. They may have even started out soft, but I'll give them that one, since I've heard that such is the style down south.

We were both completely stuffed to the point of rolling out the door, and apologies may have been made for the newcomer American who had to leave a few noodles in his bowl (don't worry D, it happens to everyone once). The salty mixed soup was tasty, but I can't give full stars to Mine due to those soft noodles. Bonus points for the atmosphere, though.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

へいぼん (Heibon)

Would you eat at a ramen shop called "regular?" What about "average?" "Ordinary?" "Commonplace?" Well, you should. Just north of Nakano station is Heibon, whose name means all of those things, and whose ramen is none of the above. But let me back up a bit. My buddy D was DJing one night, and Kid Creole and the Cocunuts may or may not have been involved.

The morning after, my new pal Y and I met up with D to grab a late breakfast bowl to kill the last of the hangover and get the day going, and we decided on the decidedly less-ordinary "Ordinary." Heibon serves a light and mild shio (salt) broth soup piled high with brightly colored vegetables in what amounts to a glorified tanmen (salt and veggie ramen). Not oily, but nice and refreshing, just the thing for a fuzzy, early afternoon.

Heibon turned out to be a lucky pick, since they select their veggies not only for taste and color, but also for their traditional healing properties as ascribed to in the tenets of traditional Chinese medicine. Which couldn't be bad for a hangover, right?

Yknow, cabbage is good for your kidneys, purple peppers for your colon, all that jazz.

Located down a dark alley just near the entrance to Nakano Sun Mall, Heibon may look sketchy from the outside, but it's spacious and well lit inside, with soft jazz tinkling as families slurp away. The spot has been home to "Heibon" for decades, but the well-loved old-fashioned salt shop closed its doors a few years ago - apparently it was a bit too "ordinary" to stay abreast of ramen world trends. But last year, a popular noodle company offered a young cook the capital to revive Heibon, transforming it into a new shop in tune with the times.

So, rather than just serve a simple salt soup with a few bean sprouts and carrots on top, the new cook decided to go the high-end healthy route, rotating something like 15 types of fresh seasonal vegetables. With so much going on, every bite has a different taste, a different kind of crunch. The soup is thin and light, allowing you to really appreciate the popping flavors in the veggies.

In addition to Chinese greens, peppers, and plenty I couldn't recognize, some of the highlights include tender young bamboo shoots, and my personal favorite, straight up potato. The potato was left barely cooked, made just soft enough to eat through soaking up the soup. I have never tasted a potato before that has so thoroughly embodied the essence of potato. If that makes any sense. My point is, these were not your average salad veggies, but legumes and pommes de terre fit for a fine dining table. Not bad for a pick made while still hungover.

The noodles, in the classic tanmen tradition, were thin but dense and stretchy, clinging together in a lump in the center of the bowl. What's really impressive about Heibon is how they've taken a workhorse dish favored by old men and transformed it into something totally tasty and different, while at the same time not falling into the trap of over-bougification. Much props.

I don't know if the "regular guy" characters of postwar Japan would find themselves stopping in the new Heibon, but I'd go ahead and recommend it to anyone of the present age who loves ramen and loves getting their veggies too.