Tuesday, December 22, 2009

またアイバンで (Back to Ivan)

Keizo's been working at Ivan Ramen for about a month and a half now, throwing himself into the world of ramen chefery and learning the tricks of the trade. And, even though I'd had the opportunity to spend a day working with him in Ivan's kitchen at the Tsukemen Festival, I had yet to go visit my buddy at work and eat a bowl cooked by Keizo. Or at least, cooked whilst Keizo was doing prep work and washing dishes in the kitchen.

I rolled up midday on Sunday - hey, sweet, no line!

JUST KIDDING. Turn the corner and you're sunk in 25 deep. What can I say, the hungry masses know what's good and they're willing to wait for it. Ivan had devised a special new menu item - a "Tacomen."

There's recently been a surge in popularity of something called "Taco Rice", which is essentially rice topped with lettuce, cheese, tomato, chili-spiced ground meat, and occasionally some crumbled up tortilla chips. I'd call it the bastard child of a misunderstood cultural union, but since it hails from Okinawa, land of ill-fated GI couplings, I'll hold my tongue. What Ivan's done is reimagined the concept, but with a proper American-style chili, good cheese, and smokey peppers.

Too bad I didn't get to try it. I arrived right between batches of beans, so I had to "settle" for the more standard Red Chili Mazemen (mix noodles) that you see here. Fresh housemade noodles sitting in just a bit of soup and oil, topped with chopped onions and several different types of dried chili. Just the right amount of spicy, smokey, and sweet, this is another damn delicious dish.

A delicious dish that reveals itself slowly. Buried under there is another hidden treat - a layer of stewed eggplant and onion that makes each bite even better. And nothing needs to be said about those lovely gooey and wobbly eggs. By the time Ivan came by to see if I wanted some soup to dilute and drink the oil in the bowl I had already sucked it all down.

Afterwards I got to go back and hang out in the kitchen and at try out each element of the Tacomen individually. Ivan's a fun guy to shoot the shit with, even if I could never hope to match his level of New Yorkness. Before I left, Keizo pulled his most badass "ramen chef" pose. There's an unwritten law that no noodle cook can be photographed without his arms folded and a knowing look on his face. Keep on cookin' Keizo!

Monday, December 21, 2009

大山 (Taizan)

My buddy M had been in town for a while, and though we had taken a trip to the aforementioned Misoya Hachirô Shôten, he had yet to eat a truly delicious bowl of ramen on his trip to Japan. I couldn't let him go home like that! So Brian, M, another guest, and I pulled a hungry quartet together and headed to Kanda to go check out Taizan, a hot looking shop we had culled from the ever trustworthy "Girls Guide to Ramen."

Ramen has been a man's world for a long time (and in many ways still is), but many shops, and now the publishing industry have realized that there's a whole other gender out there, a gender that loves noodles...provided said noodles are healthy, pretty, and served in a fashionable setting. Of course there are plenty of girls who can gruzzle pork soup with the best of them, but this book is for the gentler set. Fortunately, most of the shops listed tend to be really, really good, and Taizan is no exception.

I mean, nothing says appeals to women more than a poster of that lovable tramp and old Tokyo hero Tora-san stuck next to a model of a Terminator skull, right?

Kanda is located in the older, eastern part of Tokyo, and the shop plays up the postwar era vibe, with walls covered with old baseball memorabilia, advertisements and aluminum toys, not unlike the late 1950s atmosphere recreated at the Shinyokohama Raumen Museum.

But Taizan's ramen is anything but old fashioned. Order the DX ("deluxe") and you're presented with a truly inventive bowl. The base is a mild shio (salt) broth, which is then topped with a veritable mountain (Taizan means "big mountain" after all) of "pink diamonds." No, they're not serving Lucky Charms - pink daimonds are sakura shrimp, taken fresh from Suruga Bay in Shizuoka Prefecture. These "cherry blossom shrimp" can hardly be found anywhere else, and they might not be found there any longer at the rate Taizan is deep frying them and piling on your ramen. Top the whole thing with a dusting of Garam Masala indian spice blend and you have one very special bowl.

Let's get a close up to fully appreciate it all. A lot of thought and effort and trial and error went into crafting this one, from balancing the raw onion, garlic, and spice with the soup, to frying the shrimp just right so the flavor changes as they sink into the soup. You start out with a nice crispy topping that then dissolves into the broth, turning it almost into a thick stew as the fried bits soften and fan out. With so much going on each bite is a little bit different,

The noodles are thick and grippable, making for one extremely satisfying bowl. All present agreed that this ramen was the shiznick. For every few mediocre bowls, or bowls that are "pretty good", you get treated with one that just blows you away, and Taizan was one of those bowls.

So good that I dumped in some rice to make porridge...

...and joined the Clean Plate Club.

My belly may have felt as big as Mt. Fuji, the "big mountain" for which the shop is named, but a little gut gripping was well worth the pleasure. But, uh, how did the "Girls Guide to Ramen" manage to file this one in the "healthy" column?

And if all that isn't enough for you, Taizan is also open for breakfast!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

中華そば戎 (Chuka Soba Ebisu)

I had some free time and it looked to be one of the last clear days before the winter weather arrived, so I hopped on my bike with no direction known, headed off to undecided precincts. My pedals took me to the far northwestern corner of central Tokyo, where the (moderately) mighty Arakawa river runs out from suburban Saitama Prefecture.

I found myself navigating a veritable forest of Danchi, the massive concrete apartment blocks built as planned communities and public housing by the city of Tokyo during the postwar period. Massive concrete edifice after massive concrete edifice lined the road as I rolled through a very different side of Tokyo.

And then all of a sudden it stopped, as I bumped up against a levee marking the end of the city and the beginning of the river. I paused to take a gander at the setting sun, then realized I was ravenously hungry. Fortunately, the danchi dwellers need to eat too, and even more fortunately, they have good taste in ramen.

Located near the Nishidai station near the end of the Mita subway line is Ebisu, a neighborhood shop specializing in Wakayama-style ramen. The neighborhood in question is Takashimadaira, a danchi zone so big it spans three subway stops. When Wakayama ramen originator Ide Shôten was named "the best ramen in Japan" on TV back in 1998, a glut of imitators sprung up all over Tokyo. But only the strong survive, and Ebisu had what it took...

...which isn't surprising, considering the shop's moniker namechecks both the god of good fortune...

...and powerful hairy barbarians. The shop master may not be a native Wakayamanian (Wakayamaniac? Wakayamanite?), but he travelled extensively in the prefecture, learning what makes a good bowl of the extra strong pork, chicken, and soy sauce broth.

Which looks a little something like this. Imagine a bowl of Hakata ramen with plenty of rich shôyu (soy sauce) dropped in, or maybe a thinner noodled, thicker brothed Eastern Japanese soy soup. Either way, Wakayama ramen (along with Tokushima ramen and Kyoto ramen), falls right on the East-West divide between the richer tonkotsu (pork bone) soups of Western Japan and the thinner soups of the East (which was itself once called the "land of barbarians").

While perhaps not quite as strong a soup as Ide Shôten or Macchibô, Ebisu is a solid contender, with that simple yet deep-cutting and warming pork and soy broth with more than a hint of chicken. There's more than a hint of sweetness, and the thin straight noodles (which are perhaps a bit softer and thicker than at similar shops) slurp down easy. I had been nursing a head cold for weeks and this busted it right quick.

And then there's one more thing about Wakayama ramen that makes it near and dear to my heart (and stomach) - any shop worth its salt offers a side menu of mackerel sushi. The oily, oceany fish doesn't sound like a natural pair with ramen, but it works for me. Ebisu goes a bit skimpy with the fish, but at least they press 'em fresh, rather than serve prepackaged sushi like many other shops. Ebisu is very solid stuff, but I dunno if it's worth schlepping out just for this ramen. Having said that, it's definitely your best option if you get hungry in this hood sandwiched between the river and the projects.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

せい家 (Seiya)

Another fun night in Asagaya, another rad bowl of ramen. My buddy K knows how to make 'em happen.

That night, K was appearing as his alterego of Junior Ken, wherein he takes the stage as a wisecracking one-man band and serenades the room with heavy blues drone. Beer and R.L. Burnside covers have been known to go together, but did you know that the third part of the trifecta is hot ramen?

Last time K and I had got our gruzzle on in Asagaya, he had taken me to the excellent Kôkaiya, but this time around we faced repeated stymies before finally finding a shop open on a fine Sunday evening. In the end, the post-concert crew settled on Seiya, a Yokohama-style ie-kei joint in the shopping arcade just south of Asagaya station.

Ie-kei ramen is nothing like a box of chocolates - you always know exactly what you're going to get. Salty tonkotsu shôyu (pork bone and soy sauce) soup with three sheets of seaweed, a grip of stewed spinach, adjustable levels of oil, soup strength, and noodle firmness. It's the open source ramen par excellence. I gave my bowl an extra tweak with an extremely generous helping of spicy sliced onions, which began with a pleasant crunch then slowly dissolved into the soup, changing the taste and texture with each bite.

Then of course, no bowl of ie-kei ramen would be complete without a few dabs of the mandatory tableside toppings of minced garlic, ginger, and Korean style spicy miso paste. This is definitely good stuff after a few beers - good enough that my buddy A, who is a bit of a ramen hater, declared this the best bowl he'd ever eaten.

A few of us ordered takana (mustard greens) on top, which were tasty, but left the soup as an almost green sludge that by the dregs was almost too salty to eat. But like I said, this is ramen for after a few beers.

You've got the choice between thick and thin noodles, which is somewhat unusual. I went with the standard thick, which were excellently chewy and stood up well to the soup.

But I mixed it up with the thin when I slurped down an ill-advised second helping that left me holding my belly with fullosity. Seiya's ramen manages to avoid the oversaltiness that often plagues ie-kei ramen (such as at Butôya), and I'd rank it in the upper echelons of ramen in this mode that I've eaten. Consider the fact that a basic bowl clocks in at an eminently reasonable 500 yen and you've got a real solid shop.

Friday, December 18, 2009

太 (FUTO)

(EDIT: Despite claims that they were a "limited time only" shop, the crew at FUTO have reopened for (seemingl) long term business in the new year. Great news!)

A few months back, cheap low-end tsukemen purveyor Asahi brought down its shutter for good. I can't say I'll miss Asahi, but they did nearly save my life when I was hit by The Big One. Hangover that is. I hadn't given the vacant storefront much thought until last week when I was biking by and saw a massive line huddled beneath a sign bearing a single character: 太. (Futo) FAT.

That's the name of the shop, and that's just what this ramen was - Fat fat fatty boom batty.

Blog reader Christopher had also tipped me off to the new hot spot, and online chatter abounded. The deal: A limited time only team up between Asakusa's Kaikarô (開花楼) and Fukuoka's Mengekijô (Noodle Theater) Gen'ei (麺劇場玄瑛) . The former, a noodle factory that supplies the slurp to many of the top tsukemen shops in Tokyo would bring the wheat, and the latter, a high end Hakata shop known for both its classic tonkotsu (pork bone ramen) and unusual new wave stylistic experiments would bring the broth. But you've better move fast, because this collaboration is only lasting until December 30th, when both teams go home for the New Years Holiday. Hence the killer line about 25 deep when I rolled up at dinner.

Compare - the same counter last winter at Asahi Tsukemen, populated by a few drunks and a very hungover me:

And now, a bunch of ramen fans delighted to be getting their gruzzle on at Futo:

The line may have been long, but there was a friendly festive atmosphere as people buzzed with excitement about the shop. I chatted it up with a ramen freak couple in their 60s, comparing favorite shops around north Tokyo. It's a lifelong addiction, don't let anyone tell you otherwise!

There's only one option on the ticket machine inside - a button marked, yeah, you got it - 太 FAT. But wait, how can you get Futo's 800 yen bowl of ramen knocked down to a mere 650 yen? Press the 650 yen button, take one of the cards by the machine, write out a sentence in Japanese using the character 太 , and hand it to the waitress. Make her giggle and you might get your card posted on the gallery by the ticket machine. I wrote out: "Eating ramen every day will make you fat." Luckily I've been managing to keep the pounds at bay by riding my bike to each bowl.

The bowl that comes out isn't quite like you've ever seen before. Two-toned, the left half is a creamy milk tonkotsu white, while the right half has an unidentified brownish orange oil laid atop the soup. Toppings include the unconventional raw onions on the white half and the even more unusual-for-ramen slices of stewed kabocha pumpkin on the orange half. Smack in the middle is a little pile of shaved dried skipjack tuna, splitting the difference between the two. Too bad I didn't get a pic of the open egg - you've got your white, then you've got the inner yolk, and I don't think I need to tell you what color that is.

Let's get a closeup just so I can keep drooling over this soup. The broth is extremely thick and gooey, and retains that rich porky tonkotsu taste while staying mild and even sweet. It's actually a blend of two soups, but this ain't your average fish "W" (double) soup. The seafood broth is made up of clams, dried shrimp, scallops cooked in sesame oil to make it extra rich and give the pork a pleasant perfume rather than overwhelm it with fishiness. I ain't gonna lie, the team at Gen'ei knows what their doing, and they don't call themselves "Noodle Theater" for nothing.

But let's not forget to give some love for the local noodlers. The team from Kaikarô (House of Civilization) come correct with noodles that are - take a wild guess - thin. No wait, these noodles are fat. FAT. Anything less would be uncivilized. They may not be the veritable udon of Kitarô around the corner, but they rank up there on the diameter-meter. Much as I love Hakata tonkotsu ramen and its thin wiry threads, deep down I crave that soft and sproingy 'mochimochi' chew to extra thick noodles, and these fit the bill.

Doods, I cannot express how satisfying of a slurp this was. Rarely do you get a bowl of ramen this well thought out, and I can virtually guarantee there's nowhere else to try this taste. It pains me that the world will only have two more weeks with which to appreciate it. Mark your calendar and brave the line, this one is worth it!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

割と重要なお知らせ (Kind of a Major Announcement)

So, as you may have noticed, "Waseda Ramen" is no longer. But have no fear, the site isn't going anywhere. If anything I've upped my ramen consumption, and not given up. When I first started this blog, I was living in Waseda and my primary goal was to eat at every shop in the area. I don't know if I ever made it through every last one of the nearly 100 shops around Takadanobaba, but I came damn near close, and towards the end it became harder and harder to drag myself to the last remaining cheap-looking shops, and I began turning my energy elsewhere.

In the past I marked all the bowls outside the immediate vicinity, as "Beyond Baba", but if you've been following the blog, you might have noticed that the tag fell by the wayside a few months back. At this point, most all of the bowls I'm eating are spread broadly over the city, and so the focus of the site ceased to be "Waseda Ramen" as such.

To reflect this shift (and because let's face it, Waseda Ramen isn't such a catchy moniker), I decided to rechristen the blog Ramenate! The new URL is now www.ramenate.com , but http://waseda-ramen.blogspot.com and all related links will automatically redirect. Brian, Keizo, and I have been pushing each other to ever higher levels of ramen mania, so I figured I'd get with the program and shell out for my own domain name. This whole ramen thing is getting a bit more serious.

In terms of content, things should stay largely the same. I'll keep on posting overly long, soliloquizing reviews of ramen shops featuring noodle pornography, more information than you wanted to know, and scads of non-sequitorious pop culture images and references. There may be a very basic site redesign down the road - I'm getting pretty sick of looking at this blue template, but I also have no idea how to use a computer, so it'll probably just be a matter of snazzing up the basic Blogger frames. I'm also still working on a Google map of Tokyo ramen eateries, so once that gets a little more populated I'll have it up and linked on the site.

Hopefully there will be more exciting ramen related news to share in the future. So, you keep reading, I'll keep eating!

函館らーめん大門 (Hakodate Ramen Daimon)

It was a good night for rocking out. The mosh train had rolled in, and a killer lineup of thrash titans came to Tokyo for a long night of punk rock broootality.

International hardcore sooopergroup Conquest for Death were on a double headliner bill with Holland's Vitamin X, supported by local faves Flipout AA and many more, and the punks were ready to go off. There was circle pitting, creepy crawling, picking up change, slamming, slapping the floor, and other obscure hardcore subgenre dance moves in full effect. You have never seen so many graduate students rock out so hard. A good time was had by all, except for my friend T, who got his nose broken.

Once the smoke had cleared and the sweat had (sorta) dried, the crew decided to grab a quick bowl to replace the salts that had been secreted out in the crush of excited hardcore kids. Hakodate Ramen Daimon was just around the corner, so we decided to keep it quick and simple since we were drunk, exhausted, and covered in other people's punk rock body cheese.

Hakodate is the southernmost major city on Japan's northernmost major island of Hokkaidô. The first thing that springs to most minds at the words Hokkaidô ramen is Sapporo-style miso in the Sumire / Junren model, but the northern island hosts multiple styles, including Asahikawa seafood and pork ramen and the recently popular curry ramen from the port of Muroran. But Hakodate is famous for being the only city in Japan to claim shio (salt) ramen as its local brew.

Most people do not go to Hakodate to eat ramen. They go to take baths in hot springs, admire the famous "million dollar night view," eat sushi, and then engage in sexual congress. It's the kind of place you go (allegedly) for a romantic weekend getaway, which doesn't tend to include ramen gruzzling.

But in a cold city of northern latitudes, nothing warms the belly like a bowl of piping hot chicken soup (with a touch of pork). At some point in the early 20th century, a bunch of Cantonese immigrants ended up in Hakodate (port town connection I suppose), and shops selling southern Chinese thin soup with veggies (tanmen) began popping up. By the postwar period, the word "ramen" had come to mean shio ramen in Hakodate, and it became the default local slurp. It's something of a workhorse style, and not especially flashy given the current state of ramen climes. Daimon, located just inside the Nakano Sun Mall shopping complex, takes its name from the city's major market and nightlife district.

The bowls came up, veritable tubs of noodles in thin yellow soup. The trappings are fittingly old school, including nori seaweed, menma (pickled bamboo), stewed greens, and of course that staple of ramen imagery, the pink and white whirl of naruto fishcake. The soup was simple and warming, but nothing special, more or less a standard chicken soup without too many distinguishing characteristics. Good for a cold night, but hard to get excited about given the nature of today's ramen world.

Hakodate-style noodles are medium thin, straight, and tend to be cooked rather soft, which was the case at Daimon as well. This is comfort food for the empty stomach, but not much else. Shio ramen is an interesting style, in that it languished in obscurity for decades, little known or eaten outside of Hakodate, or appearing as a little-ordered menu item on local shops serving a bit of everything. But the last few years have seen a reimagination of this humble varietal, with shops like SOU, AFURI, Nakamura-ya and others (LINK?) using designer salts, yuzu citron, refined vegetables and seafood to elevate it to a high-end style. I seem to remember grumbling that Daimon pulled about a B- on its report card, but it's good to get in touch with the roots of shio ramen, if only to have a standard of comparison for all its present incarnations.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

味噌屋八郎商店 (Miso-ya Hachiro Shoten)

My old friend M was in town for a little while, so what was I going to do, not take him out for a couple of bowls? We decided to take a stroll down one of the city's main ramen corridors and find something tasty, so we headed up Otakibashi-dôri, which runs north-south just west of Shinjuku station. The Otakibashi ramen zone seems to have sprung up around the original location of the feted Menya Musashi chain, which was one of the first shops to receive major media attention in the ramen boom of the 1990s. The area now has about a dozen shops, including a branch of Môko Tanmen Nakamoto, a Ramen Jirô, curry ramen Cocoichi, a location of the excellent Kurume tonkotsu purveyor Tatsunoya, and many more.

Our target was the newly opened Miso-ya Hachirô Shôten, which is the new shop of Furuya Ichirô's Nantsuttei franchise. Furuya is a shameless self-promoter and one of the most visible celebrities cooks in the ramen world. But he has the chops to back it up, since the pork soup with garlic oil at Nantsuttei is, um, really fucking good.

Though Hachirô Shôten isn't as decked out with cartoon renditions of Furuya's visage as his other shops, the front features a large sticker stating the shop's association, which, to be honest, is what got M and I to go in.

The cooks inside also wear their head towels in patented Furuya fashion with a thin tight roll high across the brow, and the wall proudly displays his patented catch phrase, inviting eaters into his world of "umai ze beibî!" - "It's delicious, baby!"

Bowls are available in four colors - white (original), yellow (curry), black (pepper), and red (tomato). All are based on the same miso and pork bone base soup, and all are topped with a generous helping of Furuya's patented pitch black mâyu (burnt garlic oil). The soup is strong, almost too strong, and a bit salty even for my admittedly salt-loving palette. Rather than create a thick, rich broth that brings out the miso, the soup is thin, almost as if it was just Nantsuttei's basic recipe plus miso.

M got the black bowl, in which the extra pepper seemed to overwhelm the taste. Garlic and miso tend go well together, but the garlic oil seemed to be at war with the broth rather than complementing and deepening it. The tomato added an interesting dimension that thrust Hachirô's soup out of the "same old" category, but the acidity of the fruit made my face crinkle a bit. I'm a fan of the convergence of big, intense flavors, but the elements here didn't seem to be working together here, merely existing together in the same bowl.

The noodles were home made, and were nice and round and plenty chewy, almost like high caliber spaghetti. Thick is definitely the way to go with rich miso, and it was nice to get a bowl that DIDN'T use the ubiquitous Mikawaya Seimen popularized by Kururi.

While I was eating at Hachirô I enjoyed it well enough, but the more I thought about it, the less I liked their ramen. It was a cash in, a trend jumper, an attempt by a big chain to hop on the current popularity of new-fangled miso ramen. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into the development of Furuya's original Nantsuttei blend (at least according to his flash animation biography...), and you can taste it, even years after Furuya stopped cooking at his own shops. But Hachirô's ramen lacked soul. No doubt a lot of effort went into developing the new menu, but it lacks the depth and richness of so many other places. For every excellent Kururi, Ringodô, or Yahiko, there are too many imitators. I think I'm going to take a break from miso for a while.