Tuesday, March 30, 2010

はやしまる (Hayashimaru)

Not a whole lot to tell this time around. I had heard good things about Hayashimaru, a relatively new shop that opened in the last year or two in an alley in North Koenji. Despite being such a major hangout zone (or perhaps precisely because of it?) Koenji is a bit starved for good ramen, or at least was until the recent opening of the Koenji Ramen Street beneath the station.

Tucked away off one of the main shopping drags a few minutes north of the station, Hayashimaru is a popular spot, with a short line manifesting itself by lunch time. The crowd was almost impressively well-balanced, with a few older people, a few younger couples, a few single dudes, and a whole family of four on the way home from little league baseball practice.

Perhaps the reason why Hayashimaru draws such a broad crowd is because its ramen is so accessible and the staff is so courteous, with a clean new kitchen a far cry from the back alley ramen shops of yore.

For whatever reason, I was expecting something of an old school, deep, strong shôyu (soy sauce) broth, but Hayashimaru's soup is pretty close to the standard model for 21st century new school shôyu - pale brown, mild, a bit sweet, a bit fishy, not too oily. It almost tasted like tsukemen broth from a mainstream tsukemen shop that had been diluted to a sippable level. This is ramen to be loved by all...

...well, all but dedicated ramen freaks like me who eat multiple bowls a week. There was just nothing going in with Hayashimaru to get me excited. It was executed smoothly, the noodles were homemade, fresh, and above average, and the egg was bursting with flavor, but the soup just didn't have that punch I was looking for.

To be fair, it seems like Hayashimaru's big menu item is the shio (salt) ramen with extra wontons. The soupless Chinese-style tantanmen also appeared to be quite popular. The meat seemed to be the star here, with huge cuts of fatty pork on most bowls, and even huger, fattier cuts of braised pork belly served as side dishes. Being the non-meat eating pseudo-vegetarian that I am, I think I'm just not the ideal customer for what Hayashimaru has to offer. So, I'll pass on any future visits to Hayashimaru, but if you like meat or wontons or meaty wontons, give it a shot. I can't in good faith talk shit on a shop that has made itself into the well-loved neighborhood shop for the new ramen generation.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

西麻布五行 (Nishiazabu Gogyô)

By now, there's a good chance that plenty of y'all know Gogyô. I wrote it up upon my first visit about a year ago, I rave about it as a point of comparison from time to time, and uh, it got featured in the New York Times. The place is not starving for good PR. But yknow what? I ate there again recently so I'm gonna tell you about how great it is all over again.

A few weeks back, my pal Y and I caught a show by my favorite cross-dressing torch song singer, Gallantique Kazue. Sipping on whisky in a smoky cabaret style lounge, we enjoyed an evening with one of the last remaining kayôkyoku (1970s Japanese dark and loungey pop) singers, as Kazue belted out the back catalog of Chiaki Naomi, one of the greatest of that generation.

Now, I happen to know that Gallantique Kazue himself is a big ramen fan, but as a Hakata boy born and raised, his tastes run to the same kind of porky smelly tonkotsu that I choose as my own superlative slurp. But it was a classy kind of evening, so where better to eat than the classed-up brand of the most classed-up shop from Hakata? World-famous Hakata ramen purveyor Ippûdô has been expanding into new genres, most notably, the fancy ramen dining chain Gogyô.

Gogyô is not your average ramen shop. The name is a reference to the five traditional Chinese elements, but Gogyô's own five elements are probably high-end ramen, tasty appetizers, fancy interiors, a sumptuous sake selection, and relaxed pace of dining. Relaxed enough that Y and I shuddered in the cold for 20 minutes waiting for a table.

We started out with some whisky on the rocks and plum wine...

...and an appetizer of vinegared cucumbers served with sesame oil and Chinese five spice. That was our sommeliers recommended pairing. Not. The place is fancy, but the day I see a sommelier at a ramen shop I'll choke.

That said, we were in fact asked if we would like our ramen "with our drinks and appetizers, or afterwards as a main course." Ooo-la-la! Not wanting to let go of the smoky vibe that Gallantique Kazue had created for us early in the evening, we both went with Gogyô's famous "burnt" ramen. This time around I got the burnt shôyu (soy sauce), which has a great musky, charcoal-like flavor on top of the already deep and strong, nearly black soy base.

But the burnt miso, which Y got, is even blacker, stronger, and smokier. The smokiness isn't just a metaphor - you can see flames leaping up from the kitchen. At the same time, both bowls manage to maintain a sweetness that put them at the level of some of the best soups I've ever tasted. I also like how Gogyô keeps the rest of the bowl so old-school, with a big slice of yellow-yolked egg and a pink and white twirl of naruto fishcake.

Gogyô's soup may be top flight, but my impression of the noodles last time around was lest positive. While definitely well-done, I don't really care for the thin but flat shape. My only other complaint with Gogyô is that the heavy ceramic spoons they use conduct heat from the freshly fired soup a bit too well, making it easy to burn one's lips on the first couple sips. But these are both minor quibbles easily forgotten when confronted with the sheer deliciousness in the rest of the bowl.

And besides, a scorched tongue is easily soothed with a dessert of smooth blueberry ice cream. You can go to Gogyô for a full-course meal, a loungey place to relax, or just a simple bowl, but I'm willing to be you won't walk away disappointed. The prices are also very reasonable for what you get, cheaper than even some more standard shops. I'll have to see if Gallantique Kazue has an opinion next time I talk to him, because this is ramen worth crooning over.

Friday, March 26, 2010

九州らーめん (Kyushu Ramen)

There are different reasons for wanting to eat at a specific ramen shop. Maybe you saw it on TV. Maybe you saw it in a magazine. Maybe a friend told you it was good. Maybe the master trained at your favorite shop. Or maybe you'd just walked by it so many times that you couldn't help but get curious.

Kyushu Ramen falls firmly in the last category. Located at one of the major intersections in the seedy nightlife district of Kabukicho, I passed Kyushu ramen countless times while stumbling my way home at blue'o'clock AM after drinking in Golden Gai. "One of these days, I will eat there, but for now, I am drunk, and I want to go to bed," I told myself. I figured the ramen would most likely be horrible, but at least there would probably be some yakuza, cabaret hostesses and other denizens of the 3 AM shift inside.

Well, a few weeks ago, after a *few* drinks, my pal A and I found ourselves stumbling along that same familiar route, and we deemed it a good call to put some more calories in our bellies for sustenance on the long walk home.

Needless to say, the place was properly packed with drunken salarymen, yakuza types, hostess girls, and even a few old-guard mama-sans in fur trimmed kimonos. "Hey, how come those guys got their food before we did even though they ordered after us?" A wondered. "Probably because they are in the mob, dude."

One broken glass, several tired looks from the staff, and an indefinite number of minutes later, we got our food.

Kyushu Ramen offers everything under the sun a drunk person might want, from chicken and dumplings to "variety meals" (whatever that means), to of course, several different kinds of ramen.

I was half-surprised to see that the ramen I got did indeed resemble ramen from the southern island of Kyushu, a pretty passable stab at reproducing Kumamoto Ramen - milky white but relatively thin yet garlicky tonkotsu (pork bone) soup, medium thin extra straight noodles, an overcooked egg. No wood-ear mushrooms, but we're not exactly splitting hairs here. They pulled off a better bowl than the Waseda University Cafeteria attempt at Kyushu ramen (which wasn't bad at all).

My taste buds weren't exactly firing at full bore, but you know what, it tasted pretty good. Most likely anything would have tasted good after that much distilled barley liquor, but hey, with their clientele, Kyushu ramen could slide by serving up a lot worse. To be honest, I even preferred this to famous Kumamoto ramen shop Keika in Shibuya. As much as the ramen world changes and advances, a major purpose of the stuff will always be filling the bellies of drunk single dudes, and we were that.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

虎龍 (Kotatsu)

This one is pretty low key. My buddy Y and I met up to grab lunch on the way to school, so decided to hit up one of the recently opened shops in Shinjuku.

Located right in the heart of Kabukicho, Japan's most notorious evening entertainment district, Kotatsu (Tiger and Dragon) is just down the block from some seriously old school sex shops. Maybe they chose the name to express virility and/or alacrity, such as one might need when cruising cabaret clubs? Like most Kabukicho ramen joints, it's open until 4 AM, or 29:00 in Japanese parlance.

Kotatsu just opened a couple of months ago, and it was recommended by the team at A, Gachamen. Though there's no direct lineage, Kotatsu, like Gachamen is one of many shops offering miso ramen in the model of Sapporo's famous Ramen Sumire.

When the bowls came out they seemed to be essentially standard to the Sumire model - medium light brown miso with lots of oil on top, stewed white onions, medium curly bright yellow noodles. One beef (as it were), was the excess amount of ground pork. I ordered my bowl with no meat, making it clear I didn't want the ground meat as well as passing on the sliced pork châshû, but that's not what happened. Negative points for not listening to customers.

The soup was tasty enough, very rich miso with hints of garlic and ginger, a very solid egg, and noodles without fault. All in all a solid bowl, but if you want to eat the best Sapporo-style ramen in Tokyo, get thee to Junren, two stops up the line in Takdanobaba. Sister shop of Sumire, I've yet to find a traditional miso bowl to top that one. All in all, this is probably one of, if not the strongest miso options in the Shinjuku area, but it's probably not journey-worthy.

Monday, March 22, 2010

一福 (Ichifuku)

We were pretty lost. Pretty prettttttty preeeeeettttttttty turned around. Wandering through the back streets between Hatagaya and Hatsudai stations in the western suburbs, Keizo, Brian and I felt like we were going in circles through the little known neighborhood of Honmachi, tucked away just out of sight of the freeway.

Having already attained copies of all the ramen guides currently on the market, I had scored a few out of print mags at a used bookshop, so we took a little time travel back to the recent past of 2006 to try and seek out some new spots. Our eyes landed on Ichifuku, which looks like your neighborhood ramen shop. And it is. But it's much more than just that.

Run by not-so-little old lady Ishida Kumiko, Ichifuku celebrates twenty years in business this fall. The inside was cozy and decorated with fresh plum blossoms and faded magazine postings; many of the customers seemed to be regulars, which isn't surprising, as there is essentially zero chance of finding the shop just walking by.

But numbering among those regulars is a certain Ishigami Hideyuki, one of the main mover and shaker ramen critics today. "The man with the tongue of a god," Ishigami gained fame about a decade ago by winning a taste test to become the Ramen "TV Champion", catapulting to instant (relative) fame. Any shop he deems worthy of pantheonic status has its future essentially assured.

Over the years, Ichifuku has been visited by not just Ishigami, but nearly every generation of TV Champion Ramen King, making it a secret pilgrimage spot for each who takes on the crown. And now we were here. Just sayin'.

We flipped through some vintage magazines, including the much sought-after guide written by Shinasoba-ya master Sano Minoru. With hunger panging away, Brian tried to eat the noodles straight out of the magazine, but to little avail.

I ordered the spicy miso ramen, a nearly bright orange broth with a big dab of Korean-style tobanjan (spicy chili miso paste) on top. Thin and relatively simple,this is neighborhood-style miso ramen from before the boom, lacking much influence from the Sapporo Sumire / Junren tradition, or the flash and pizazz of the post-Kururi era. Diced onions, bamboo shoots, and mysterious little crunchy things round out the bowl. Keizo tried to ask as to the nature of these little croutons that never got soggy, but Ishida-san responded with a coy "hmm, I wonder what they might be..." Who says old ladies don't have secret weapons?

The noodles were thick, fairly straight, and tasty. And the soy poached egg was absolutely bursting with flavor. Overall a tasty enough bowl, but to be perfectly honest a bit salty and not so special. So what's the big deal with this place?

This is the big deal. Keizo was smart enough to order Ichifuku's famous Irori (hearth-style) noodles, which is unlike any other bowl of ramen any of us had ever seen. In addition to the standard pork, chicken, and seaweed, blonde miso, sake lees, and soy milk go into the soup. It's all topped off with fresh mizuna greens, diced pork, and um, shark cartilage. "It sounds like old people Chinese medicine," Brian remarked. But it tasted real, real nice.

I was a bit scared off, having had a bad experience once with shark cartilage. But one sip made me wish I could drink this every day. More than ramen, this tasted like a fancy traditional dish that might be served in a countryside inn that just happened to have manifested itself in the form of ramen. Absolutely delicious. In addition to the Irori noodles, Ichifuku also has a rotating menu of other interesting items, like plum-flavored tsukemen (dipping noodles), curry ramen, and so forth. Essentially, this is what highly experimental ramen looked like 20 years ago, and it stands the test of time admirably.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

ジャンクがレッジ (Junk Garage)

You may have already heard tell of this epic journey through the blog of Brian the Ramen Adventurer, but any good epic should be told by multiple narrators. Do you think a single guy went all the way around Greece telling the story of the Odyssey by himself? (this is a rhetorical question; that is a picture of Armand Assante as Odysseus).

The mission was simple, or so it seemed. Travel to the town of Higashi Omiya in neighboring Saitama Prefecture and eat at the famed shop Junk Garage. Which is sort of like the Tokyo equivalent of setting out from Troy to find your way back to Ithaca (Greece, not NY). Or heading out from Brooklyn to go eat in Secacus, NJ. Take your pick.

We made it 90 percent of the way, as far as Omiya, two stations away, when our Odyssean hunger struck a proverbial iceberg of train delays. All trains had ceased running on the line that links the two station, but we were unstymied by either technical difficulties or mixed metaphors and decided to weigh our options.

The next train - delayed 50 minutes. And that was an optimistic estimate. We never really did figure out what the issue was - midday train suicides generally don't take half that long to clear off the tracks. The station attendant put on her best forced "I feel your pain" grimace and told us that our only options would be to wait or to ride back from whence we came and take the bus. Or give up all together?

But did Ulysses give up when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? No! We would not be swayed from our quest to eat at a restaurant called "Junk Garage." We made the brave sacrifice of leaving the safety of the station to venture out into suburban Omiya.

Surrounded by menacing colossi (or at least colossoid department stores), we overcame our panic to find the best possible way to kill a few hours - an emergency visit to the Japan Railways museum, conveniently located a 15 minute walk away.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Fortunately, eating a bowl of oily ramen at a restaurant that sounds like an auto body shop in Long Beach does not count as a good intention. The road to the railway museum, however, is paved with stones bearing the express train schedules of yore. The irony was not lost on us.

All sarcasm aside, the Japan Railways Museum is really pretty awesome. It just opened a year or two ago and is a cavernous structure packed with more train parts than you can shake a stick at and occupied by hundreds if not thousands of excited Y-chromosome bearers and approximately zero women unaccompanied by overzealous husbands, sons, and school children.

We ourselves being dudes, we easily spent two hours exploring the premises, thrilling to...

Railway-themed stained glass windows!

Demonstrations of snow-plow technology!

Impressively sized dioramas!

Displays of electrical cords!


Driver simulators!

Vintage station lunchbox covers!

The first ever bullet train!

And much more. But when you've seen a real train driving past a pretend train driving past a pretend kiddie train, it's time to go back to the real train station.

We hurried back and rode to Higashi Omiya without incident! Oh wait, no sorry, that's the inside of a display car at the museum, so you can pretend that you are riding the train that you actually rode on your way to the museum.

We made it back to Omiya station almost three hours later...just in time for the first train to take off in our direction. If it wasn't for a breakdown in railway service we might never have made it to the railway museum...

...or gotten to mosh at midday. We had intended to be at Junk Garage before the door opened, but we ended up having to haul ass, just barely making it in 15 minutes before they closed for lunch.

Here it is, Junk Garage! No, wait, sorry, that's the offensively caricatured ramen shop down the block.

THIS is Junk Garage. The feeling of victory upon our ultimate arrival was almost worth all the delays and confusion.

Where to even begin with Junk Garage? It's a part of the Rokurinsha group empire, one of the most powerful movers and shakers in the ramen world. Rokurinsha occupies the rank of most popular tsukemen (dipping noodle) shop in Tokyo (ergo the world?), and was one of the main shops to kick off the tsukemen boom we find ourselves in, as well as set up the recent tsukemen festival. Taishôken may be the tsukemen progenitor, but Rokurinsha is tsukemen for the 21st century, and Junk Garage counts itself among Roku's many progeny. Like Rokurinsha (and FUTO and Tasukiya, they use noodles from Asakusa Kaikarô, the thickest, chewiest, and curliest in town.

Inside, the vibe is all rock and roll, with metal blaring, band paraphenalia tacked up on nearly every wall, and an all around fun atmosphere. So fun, in fact, that we couldn't help but notice the huge hickey on the peroxide blonde waitress' neck. But what's the deal with Junk Garage noodles? What noodles best fit the Saitama-metal-hickeyed waitress-rock dude mode?

These ones, man. Junk Garage has single-handedly revolutionized the concept of abura soba / mazemen / shirunashi soba (soupless noodles), turning a simple bowl of noodles sitting in a bit of flavor essence oil into these heaving behemoths of carbohydrate.

This rogues gallery includes, from the top - a raw egg, bean sprouts, cabbage, lard, shrimp mayonnaise, crunchy fried things, raw garlic, and dried fish. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - verily, this is the Japanese nachos.

So mix it up real, real good.

And take a big, big bite. It may look like the wrong end of a hangover, but trust me, it is extremely delicious. Remember, this place is called Junk Garage after all. It is our Penelope. With one bite all the pain of the long journey instantly vanished. Salty, savory, chewy, crunchy, and more, Junk Garage's tokusei mazemen (special mixed noodles) are a big mess of taste sensation well worth the trip. Just in case you want soup with your noodles, the ramen at Junk is also comically over the top, featuring Jirô style piles of veggies and lard stacked as high as the rest of the bowl combined.

At this point, you are either totally disgusted or shamelessly salivating. Junk Garage is not for everyone, but if you like a good calorie bomb to your arteries now and then, then this is the place for you. I'm willing to bet it would be even better after a few beers....