Monday, April 5, 2010

勝丸 (Katsumaru)

Now this is as classic of a ramen success story as you can get. Gotô Katsuhiko grew up in the deep north of Japan, in Kita-Tsugaru county, Aomori prefecture, way way up at the tippy tip top of the main island of Honshû. Hailing from the same area is one of my favorite Japanese musicians, the way out there folk singer Mikami Kan, so let's set up a soundtrack of Mikami's classic track "Village of Tokyo, Tsugaru County, Aomori Prefecture." (Apologies to any sensitive souls who take offense at the background art by Saeki Toshio)

Gotô's ramen is just as deep, raw, soulful, and heavy as Mikami's tunes, and it's no wonder - plenty of sweat, tears, and taxi grease went into its making. Like lots of young people in the late 1960s, Gotô fled the mountainous backwaters of rural Japan to start life anew in Tokyo. Hoping to someday open a ramen shop in Tokyo, he spent four years driving a cab, eating at as many shops as possible between shifts.

Eventually, in 1971, Gotô realized his dream, opening Katsumaru as a portable yatai stall run out of the back of a light truck. He rocked the straight up ramen stall lifestyle for 13 full years, until finally opening the first brick and mortar location of Katsumaru in the Shirokane neighborhood in 1984.

In 1991, the shop moved down the road from Shirokane to Meguro, where the head shop still stands, an unassuming temple of delicious noodles that it's easy to walk by without noticing, which is precisely what Keizo and I did before we found it.

We got the tip off about Katsumaru from Takahashi Jôji, celeb and aging rockabilly dude turned ramen critic. His book, Takahashi Jôji's Ramen Road, is one of the best and most fun to read ramen guides out there. So when Takahashi identified Katsumaru as his all time number one shop, the roots of his ramen love, we knew we had to go.

Inside, the shop is low key, and spacious with a neighbohood vibe and assorted 60s and 70s era knickknacks placed around the room. Gotô himself is too busy running the business end of things these days to cook the noodles himself, but he's got a friendly older guy running the shop who was happy to chat it up. Katsumaru has expanded from the back of a truck to a chain with shops all over Tokyo, in addition to locales in various ramen streets and theme parks around the country. But the Meguro shop is the original, devoted to preserving the old school flavor.

And what an old school flavor it is! The shôyu (soy sauce) soup is thin but oh so rich, like a pumped up version of old fashioned street stall ramen, which is exactly what it is. Gotô's ramen has probably changed little since he first devised it, drawing from his taxi driver days with a bit of help from the strong sardines that go into his hometown Aomori ramen. This is "deep" shôyu flavor that blows almost anything else out of the bowl, and is downright delicious.

The noodles are home made, and a bit flatter than your average slurp. They're chewy and stretchy, but unlike some yatai style noodles, don't get soft or soggy at all. Extremely excellent. The bowl is the very picture of the platonic ramen ideal, rounded out with pink and white naruto fish cake, a slice of nori seaweed, and a bit of onions and bamboo sprouts. And let's not forget a healthy shake of loose lard across the top.

Then there's the egg, perhaps the best I've ever eaten, just bursting with poached soy flavor.

This soup was good to the very, very last drop. As much as I loved it, Keizo loved it even more, deeming it damn near his perfect bowl of ramen. THIS is the type of shop I want to discover more of. No flash, no gimmick, no pretention, serving soup that becomes unique through it's sheer excellence alone. Send me your tips for your favorite shops that have been around the block!