Saturday, February 20, 2010

ラミューネーション イン 韓国、その二 (Ramyunating in Korea, Part Two)

A couple of weeks back, I posted an update about a bowl of ramyun gruzzled on my recent trip to Korea. I had fully intended to make another post about my other bowl of ramen on the continent, but then there was that whole thing about being featured in the New York Times. I figured it would probably be unbecoming for all the new visitors to show up on the site and only see posts about instant noodles in Korea, rather than ramen shops in Tokyo, so I put off the second half of the trip report...until now!

After leaving Seoul (a day later than originally planned...I'd like to thank the third worst hangover of my entire life), I headed to the southeasternmost corner of the Korean peninsula, to a town called Mokpo, from which I caught a boat oat to the remote offshore islands of Heuksando and Hongdo.

Needless to say, this part of Korea is a very different world from the megalopolis a half day's bus and boat ride away. When Ramenate goes on vacation, he heads to remote fishing villages in the dead of winter, folks. My vacation this time last year was to Manchuria. What can I say, I get bored quick on sunny beaches.

Despite being part of a maritime nature preserve, Heuksando and Hongdo aren't exactly scenic in the traditional sense, or at least not pristine sense. Which, of course, makes them much more interesting. I can look at pretty rocks anywhere, but how often do you get to experience what one Korean friend of mine called "Escape from Bum Island?" After watching a lot of stingrays and monkfish auctioned off to seafood merchants, I befriended a vacationing couple who helped me find some grub, which is not an easy task in this part of the world, at least, not in the off season.

We traveled from Heuksando further into the sea, to the even more remote island of Hongdo, which seemed to be sort of like the Korean island equivalent of Mad Max. I don't want to give a bad impression about the place - I met all kinds of nice people on this godforsaken rock that harkened images of postapocalpytic end times. I know you didn't sign up for a travelogue here, but I feel like I need to give some context for the second most far flung bowl of ramen I've ever eaten.

I was dozing on the heated floor of my hotel room when my new friends knocked on my door making the East Asia-wide gesture for dinnertime - miming chopsticks shoveling rice into your mouth. We wandered out into the near pitch black down to the pier.

Fortunately, the inside of the vinyl lean-to was kept nice and warm thanks to a small space heater, a chubby proprietress, and plenty of alcohol. Warm enough that halfway through our meal an 80 year old man wandered in for dinner in his bare feet.

The shop specialized in sashimi, raw cuts of obscure shellfish that I couldn't begin to name. I think there was probably some abalone in there, but otherwise, your guess as to the original identity of these life forms is as good as mine. Unlike in Japan, where soy sauce is the standard, most people in Korea dip their seafood in chili paste, garlic, and sesame oil, which is fine by me.

But weird and possibly still alive shellfish parts do not a full meal make, so it didn't take too many glasses of beer until we ordered a piping warm bowl of ramyun. Actually, we ordered a whole pot, brought to our table in situ. I opted for the provided styrofoam bowl...

...but my buddy showed me how they do it "Korean countryside style" and started heaping noodles onto the metal lid. We both slurped away for all we were worth, to keep warm, to absorb the soju in our bellies, to risk offending the fishermen at the next table. Oh yeah, and because it was totally delicious. Did I mention that the homemade kimchi was also killer?

This was a piping hot bowl just like mom used to make. Literally - my love for ramen took me to Shin Ramyun early on. Going through the comment thread on the recent NYT article, there seems to be a bit of back and forth about how much ramen is just "about the food", how much is about the search, and so on. You can't think about the experience of a meal without thinking about where you ate it, and who you ate it with, and no bowl in Tokyo can taste quite like instant noodles slurped in a shack on a rock in the middle of the Yellow Sea.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

じゃぐら (Jagura)

Properly scouring the metropolis for the most properly proper ramen shops can be a properly time consuming job. If you do it properly, that is. The noodle in one's head becomes overwhelmed with a glut of noodle shop names as numerous as the globules of fat in a bowl of Tsubame ramen. There are web databases, magazines, TV shows, books, email tips, recommendations from friends, recommendations from teachers, recommendations from faithful blog readers... But the problem with food media (as most mass media) in Japan, is that hardly anyone is inclined to say anyone bad about anything. By virtue of appearing in a magazine at all, a shop is certain to get nothing but praise, even if, well, it sucks. Which makes the investigative eater's job that much harder. I try not to chase down every praise-blown shop in the glossy new mags, but sometimes, well, those shops downright rule.

Included in this happy number of newly opened shops that actually deserve the breathless praise they get is Jagura, located on along the shopping street just north of the Shin-Kôenji subway station. My bluesman buddy Junior Ken and I had our sights set on a different shop, but an unexpected closure took us to Jagura, seduced by the signage signaling the most salubrious slurp in south Kôenji.

Just what on earth does Jagura mean anyways? Jaguar?



Jugular? I think I'm gonna go ahead and call it for jugular, because your jugular is the only vein in your body that will be left unclogged after supping on this thick sludge of a soup made from boiled down pork bones.

Jugular is one of the shops subscribing to the current trend of chônôkô (super thick) or gokunôkô (mega thick) soup that can barely still be called liquid. The gooey soup trend has become so intense in recent months that some ramen critics have been known to bring their viscosity-measureometers to shops to measure the viscosity of the broth. The meter readings are naturally prominently featured in magazine articles highlighting the gooeyness of each shop's soup.

It may look like sewage, but it tastes like heaven. I'd eaten extra thick soup at Misoya Ringodô, but this takes the cake, and probably has about as many fat calories. It's like a bowl of Kumamoto ramen on steroids - a sweet, mild and not too stinky tonkotsu (pork bone) soup topped with kikurage (wood ear mushroom) slices and a healthy (or not so healthy, depending on how you look at it) helping of black burnt garlic oil. Then take the whole thing and increase by a geometric factor to get this delicious dish.

The noodles are extra thick too - thin straight noodles would likely collapse under the sheer weight of this soup. If you like your ramen rich, then this is for you - lots of chew drowning in a bowl of porky gruel.

The soup shares some similarities with the recently reborn FUTO, in that it's surprisingly sweet and perfumed with just a hint of shellfish broth to temper the pure pork base.

Like Curtis Mayfield sings, you have a "choice of colors." So which one would you choose, my brother? In addition to the black, which is topped with black mâyu (sesame oil with scorched garlic), there's also the red, featuring spicy chili oil, and the brown, which Junior Ken ordered, in which the oil is made from fish broth, adding to the oceany flavor.

In case that's not enough of a calorie bomb for ya, Jagura also offers a triple cheese topping - parmesan, cheddar, and cream cheese. But you've got to be one of the first 10 heads to order beginning at 5:30 PM, or else your arteries will stay blissfully unclogged. Limited time, limited number menu items are definitely one way to get customers in the door at slow hours. I'll try that one next time.

Fortunately, the Jagura team is thoughtful enough to keep you from walking out with putrid breath and a limp tongue. Each seat has a small decanter of concentrated jasmine tea - add a few drops to your water and feel instantly refreshed.

Oh yeah, there's one more item on the menu - the shop itself! Only 10 million yen (about $100,000 dollars) will buy you Jagura itself...too bad that item is already sold out. But that's OK, I think the present team is doing just fine the way things are. This was a good one, kids!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


It's hard to get people together these days. Not so much with the social movements and mass gatherings in the 21st century, at least not in Japan. What might bring 200,000 people together in this day and age? A free concert by the biggest band in the land? A political event? Nope, comic books!

Twice a year every year, all the geeks in Japan descend on the Tokyo Big Site convention center, located on the artificial island of Odaiba to buy all the manga they can in three days. Comic Market, known as Komike for short, is something of a social phenomenon, and quite a scene to behold. I'm not up on the latest cat-eared girl comics or cute boy romance quarterlies, but I wanted to witness Komike once in my life. My pals K and K and I set off with our own geek guide B and joined the jostling mob.

I have much love for manga, but my tastes run to the classics and the crazy, so most of the fun was in gandering at the endless parade of woodwork comer outers. And of course the costume players! My favorite costume (and the only one unscantily clad enough to post on a public blog) was the guy dressed as Miyazaki Hayao, animation director of films like Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, Totoro, and Spirited Away, the "Walt Disney of Japan."

Close contact with 200,000 of your closest friends (most of whom have crazed looks in their eyes as they scramble for the nearest limited edition book) is enough to make anyone hungry, so once we made our escape we headed straight for the nearest bowl. The original plan was Tsukishima Rock, but we were stymied by an unexpected day off, so we skipped around the corner from the Tsukishima subway station to find TASUKIYA.

Located on the first floor of an old-fashioned house in this traditional neighborhood of Tokyo, TASUKIYA is actually the shop behind the noodles at the famed FUTO. FUTO, written with the "ta" from TASUKIYA, means "FAT", and is a ramen shop located in the Takadanobaba neighborhood.

A collaboration between TASUKIYA and the team at the famed Asakusa Kaikarô noodle factory on one hand, and Fukuoka's Gen'ei on the other, FUTO proved so popular that it's gone from temporary installation to regular contender. Don't worry, TASUKIYA's own proprietor packs a few pounds himself!

The ramen at TASUKIYA, available in either strong (kotteri) or thin (assari) taste, is a creamy but mild tonkotsu (pork bone) blend, and it goes down smooth. There are some hints of seafood in the broth, and the kotteri ramen comes with an extra layer of fish soup oil and dried bonito skin across the top. Nonetheless, it's not too fishy for the unaccustomed, and there's enough going on in there to be eminently sippable.

A bowl like TASUKIYA's comes close to the platonic ideal of a new-school bowl of tonkotsu ramen balanced out with shôyu (soy sauce) and fish stock. It doesn't hurt that the egg is that much softier and runnier, the bamboo that much fresher, and the onions that much greener than at most other shops.

And the noodles, coming from the artisanal Kaikarô factory also located in an older part of riverine old Tokyo, are second to none. I love thick noodles, and these have just the right around of curl, just the right amount of "mochi mochi" chewiness.

The noodles are also available in tsukemen form, served dry to be dipped. Kaikarô came to prominence by providing the noodles to Rokurinsha, which is generally acknowledged as sitting at the top of the heap of Tokyo tsukemen shops, which is saying something, considering tsukemen's booming popularity at present.

The tsukemen soup for dipping is a bit sweeter, more vinegary, and milder than the ramen, and it goes well with a slice of lemon, just like the Campari and soda I am about to drink. A soup like this can trace it's heritage to the Taishôken tsukemen tradition, but they've twiddled the formula enough to keep it interesting. TASUKIYA is good stuff, so next time you find yourself on this little manmade island in an obscure corner of Tokyo bay, give it a shot!

Monday, February 8, 2010

ラハメン ヤマン (Rahmen Yahman)

Nope, that's not a typo, but an H firmly rooted in the middle of the noodle. Some people debate over the "proper" romanization of the word ramen, but this H is here for a much simpler reason - to make "ramen" rhyme with "yah man." Because Rahmen Yahman, located in the western suburb of Ekoda, is totally devoted to Jamaican rasta culture.

I don't know if the shop master spent time living in Jamaica, or if he just really, really, really, really likes reggae music, but Yahman is somewhere between the set of The Harder They Come, a Jamaican Travel Agency, and, well, a ramen shop.

If you look closely, you can see the carefully coiffed J-fro on the head cook. The soundtrack inside is, of course, a blend of roots reggae and classic dub tracks. Here, some Lee Perry should put you in the mood.

The music sets a relaxing vibe, and both cooks and diners seem to be operating on island time. I'd want to stay and hang out for a while, sipping on a few Red Stripe beers...if it wasn't for the line ten long out the door.

Like the Bob Marley "Legend" CD that half the kids in your college dorm played on every warm sunny day, Yahman's rahmen is available at "The Nice Price." A mere 650 yen gets you a bowl of the standard shôyu (soy sauce soup), and feel free to choose from a standard, large, or extra large helping for no additional charge. After all, what kind of rastafarian doesn't have a high end scale handy? For measuring the noodles, right? In addition to the basic shôyu, Yahman also offers shio ("salt") ramen in clear chicken broth, and for the duration of the winter, miso ramen as well.

But keep your eyes peeled inside, since there are secret menu items hidden behind menus and on tabletops. You can get a slice of lemon for your tsukemen dipping noodles, "Junk Ramen" packed with extra oil, "aburaha" soupless noodles, or something called a "zannen tamago", a "bummer egg," which I didn't order in time. Bummer.

And the noodles come out! Yahman's shôyu rahmen is a seemingly straightforward bowl - the standard toppings of chashu pork, nori seaweed, menma pickled bamboo, and sliced scallions, as well as a bit of leafy veggies called edona. The soup is extremely well-balanced, with just enough fish stock (probably from either bonito or sardines) to keep it interesting, without being overpowerlingly oceany. It's neither thick and drippy, nor is it the uber-thin classic style Tokyo broth.

But soup alone does not a great ramen make (I think Halie Selassie said that). Yahman's noodles are absolutely top tier, thick straight, and round. I'm pretty sure these guys come hand rolled. Firm, chewy, and copious, they stayed strong to the very end of this deep bowl.

Yahman's egg is equally out of this world, with a gooey orange yolk. Although most ramen eggs are "ajitsuke" - poached in soy sauce, they often taste like...regular boiled eggs. Yahman's is bursting with flavor and incredibly rich, almost the essence of both yolk and soy.

And of course, what would a bowl of ramen be without a side of green?

Come on, this may be a Jamaican ramen shop but it's still Japan! I'm talking about an extra helping of veggies to get your roughage!

My buddy S got the limited time only miso, topped with a grip of minced garlic, stir fried cabbage, and sprouts, and of course, a hint of butter. It was certainly solid, but I think I preferred the shôyu.

If for some reason you find Yahman's rahmen lacking (and you shouldn't!), you can get it spiced up. Lots of restaurants in Japan advertise head-exploding spiciness on the menu, but the baseline is so low that you barely get a tingle. But Jamaica is the kind of place where Scotch Bonnet peppers go in the rice and peas, so proceed with trepidation.

Like curry miso ramen joint Yahiko, Yahman provides Blair's After Death and Sudden Death sauces tableside. I'm something of a chilihead myself, and this stuff is not a joke. The tiniest dab of Sudden Death is enough to give you a near death experience and make you choke. In a good way, of course.

If you'd rather go native, there's Jamaica's own Grace's Hot Pepper Sauce, which seems downright mild next to Blair's. If your mouth lights up like the cherry on a Jamaican spliff you can wash it all down with a nice chilly Dr. Pepper, which is a true rarity in Tokyo.

If you find your nose running and your eyes watering, tissues are thoughtfully provided by the Tiki God. Rahmen Yahman is a great ramen experience from start to end. Good music, good vibes, good food, good drinks, good times. Maybe some day they can get more experimental and come up with a jerk sauce ramen akin to the reimagined Thai green curry ramen at Basanova?

And if you spilled any soup on your shirt while slurping, you can get the stains taken care of at the equally irie dry cleaners right next door...

Saturday, February 6, 2010

麺の房砦 (Men no Bo Toride)

If you've ever spent time in New York or Tokyo, there's a very good chance that you've heard of Ippûdô. A few decades ago, the chain shot to superstardom by reimagining the gritty and stinky tonkotsu (pork bone) Hakata ramen of the southern city of Fukuoka as fine dining for the whole family. Love that creamy melted marrow taste but don't want your pores smelling like pig? Then Ippûdô is the place for you. There are now outposts all over Japan, and the shop caused big waves (is a soup bowl big enough for waves?) when a branch opened in New York in 2008. Are the lines to eat at the Manhattan shop still 90 minutes long?

Ippûdô has always been one of my own favorite shops, since I'm something of a dedicated follower of Hakata ramen. Their empire has also come to include the excellent and even finer dining restaurant Gogyô, whose burnt miso ramen also made an appearance in the Matt Gross's NYT article. A more distant relation in the extended Ippûdô family is Men no Bô Toride (Noodle Kitchen Fortress), founded by Nakahira Masakatsu, who spent 13 years (and three months!) working at Ippûdô before striking out on his own.

Nakahira was one of those "ramen youths" whose total eating devotion rivals even Go Ramen' Keizo's Epic Ramen Journey across Japan. Nakahira hit the road with his sleeping bag at age 19, sometimes plowing through as many as eight shops in a single day. A true pilgrim, Nakahira found his perfect bowl, and his calling at Ippûdô, and Toride, while not run by Ippûdô, seems to have received the patriarchal blessing.

Located just up the hill from Shibuya station, and an even shorter stones throw from the Shinsen station on the Keio Inokashira line, Toride's comfortable dining room plays host to plenty of hungry salarymen (and even hungrier slackers) every lunch and dinner. Taking a page from Ippûdô's play book, Toride is running a ramen restaurant, and a very popular and efficient one at that.

Toride's bowl is a cleaned up version of a Hakata ramen even more traditional than that reimagined at Ippûdô. The soup, while still creamy, is a bit thinner, the noodles a bit thinner, the toppings that much more bare bones. But all this in no way makes Toride inferior. Ippûdô, while based on Hakata ramen, is really an entity all itself, Toride's bowl is very close to the classical model. It may look a bit plain now...

...but squeeze in some fresh pressed garlic, then toss in a healthy handful of the free tableside pickled red beni shôga ginger strips, and a generous amount of spicy takana (pickled mustard greens), and shake on a few sesame seeds...

...and yo've got something a bit more like this. Half the fun of Hakata ramen is tricking the mother out until you've got a virtual garbage pit of garlic, ginger, sesame, pork, and chili to pull up with every strand of the superthin noodles. Like any Hakata shop worth its salt, you can choose from no less than seven degrees of al dentosity, ranging from bariyawa (extra soft), to barikata (extra firm), to harigane (downright wiry), to kona otoshi ("with the flour knocked off" - code for cooked for only one second).

Don't worry, these noodles are fresh enough to eat raw - I can say that with certainty since I spied Toride's own noodle factory less than 100 meters down the road.

In case that's not enough cholesterol for you, 200 yen gets you a ball of freshly boiled white rice served alongside a saucer of mentai mayonnaise - mayo mixed with sweet and spicy pink cod roe.

What can I say, I'm a sucker for this stuff!

STILL Hungry? Do what the locals do and call for a kaedama, an extra helping of noodles to soak up the last of the soup. Since Hakata noodles are so thin and low in water content, they tend to get soggy quickly, so it makes sense to eat repeated small portions, rather than start off with one big serving.

It's possible for your stomach to be delighted and angry with you at the same time, which is what happens when your bowl ends up like bottomed out:

Good to the last drop. Don't worry, I rode my bike 6 kilometers home after this, I promise!