Thursday, April 22, 2010

凪「渋谷店」(Nagi [Shibuya Branch])

I'm certainly banging down bowls a lot faster than I can post them up, and I'm doing my best to work through the now substantial backlog. Which brings us to this blast from the past. A few of you may have *cough cough* caught the blog in the New York Times epic ramen article a little ways back. Though I was unfortunate enough to be out of town when the Frugal Traveler Matt Gross rolled through, I did have the opportunity to escort around the story's photographer Basil Childers to snap some pics and eat some bowl.

Ramen Adventurer Brian led Basil and I to one of his regular ramen jams, Nagi, located on an obscure corner in Shibuya. I had already eaten one bowl for lunch and I would go on to enjoy Bassanova's green curry ramen that night for dinner, but someone had to eat the ramen these guys were photographing, so I took one for the team.

Nagi's is one of the more interesting ramen stories around town, and a testament to hard work and good taste. Starting out doing "aida kari" - running a restaurant a few hours a week borrowing a friend's store front, the Nagi team, led by Ikuta Satoshi worked their way to several of their own shops, a spot in the Tachikawa Ramen Square, and general ramen world reknown, becoming one of the more recognizable names on the Tokyo scene. For the full story, check out my post on Nagi's branch in Shinjuku Golden Gai.

One of the cool things about Nagi is that each shop has a different soup concept and a different vibe - the Shinjuku locale is fishy Aomori ramen-influenced soy stock packed with sardines, and the Shibuya shop serves something resembling a straightforward Hakata tonkotsu (pork marrow) broth. The shop is really more of a restaurant, with tables to sit and kick it at, a decent alcohol menu, and a friendly and hip staff.

It's also home to the biggest, raddest most impressive ramen-related library I've ever seen. Dozens if not hundreds of books and guides are on the shelf; if it's in print and it's about ramen, chances are you'll find it here. I need to get back to Nagi just to do research!

Brian remembers the days when Nagi served a new and different experimental ramen nearly every day, and so often laments their reduction of the menu to the simple bowl they now serve. This was my first to Nagi, so I was more than satisfied with their strong yet smooth rendition of my own number one ramen genre, the Kyushu style thin noodle pure tonkotsu soup. While not quite as raw (and certainly not as smelly) as many "proper" Hakata-style joints around town, Nagi delivers on taste, and I give it a hearty thumbs up, as did the Times - the shop is rightly deserving of its reputation.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

旅の途中 (Tabi no Tochû)

Life is a journey that's hopefully as long as a ramen noodle, and sometimes you need to take a little rest along the way. So while you've got your legs kicked up, why not put your head down and take a slurp? You could find a lot worse places to do just that than Tabi no Tochû - "A Stop Along the Way", located on a side street in South Kôenji.

The solo-flying shop master has a favorite journeyman of his own, none other than the wandering minstrel Bob Dylan. The shop BGM is all Dylan, all the time, so besides ramen fans, any hungry followers of a one Robert Zimmerman should swing by and try a bowl here. Don't think twice, it's alright, just open up that door.

Keizo and I wandered in one lazy morning, but unlike a character in a Dylan ballad, didn't meet any brown-haired damsels, only the taciturn but friendly cook and a few fellow travelers on the road to noodle satisfaction. Between the music, the decorations, and the demeanor, the shop master's done a nice job making Tabi no Tochû a relaxing place to have a bowl.

With only 7 or so seats in a boxy little room, there's not much to do but take your time and watch the cook take his time preparing each bowl from scratch in the tiny kitchen filled with tiny pots.

While you wait, you can snack on a few stems of greens provided for free to each customer. No complaints there. Ain't got no quarrel with free veggies.

In addition to the standard menu of shôyu (soy sauce) ramen, shio (salt) ramen, and tsukemen (dipping noodles), Tabi no Tochû has a rotating monthly menu of in-season appetizers and special noodles. In March, snap peas were on offer, served with some coarse grain salt and plum paste. Who knew a visit to a ramen shop could be so healthy?

Keizo got the standard shôyu, which was very light, but with lots of complex flavors. I couldn't tell you just what ingredients go into the soup, but a lot of thought went into this bowl. 900 yen is a bit pricy for a bowl of noodles, but how often does 9 bucks get you a meal of slow food prepared from scratch? I tried a sip and savored the flavors expanding through my mouth.

Bob Dylan isn't know to be the most observant Jew, and sorry Bubbie, neither am I. I decided to go with the monthly special bowl of "milk soup ramen" - a carbonara creation made with plenty of dairy, parmesan cheese, cauliflower, parsley, white mushrooms, and bacon. Being the pseudo-vegetarian that I am, I ordered no bacon, but the cook told me that he had to leave the bacon in to properly flavor the soup, so he just decreased the portion (which Keizo happily munched down). Definite points for splitting the uprights between catering to customers and properly protecting the flavor.

The milk soup noodles were eminently tasty, if resembling a gourmet bowl of pasta as least as much as a bowl of ramen. The soup was thick, more of a sauce, but creamy (duh) and delicious - I'd be happy to get this dish at any good Italian restaurant. The mushrooms and cauliflower added an earthy note (and I don't even like mushrooms!), and the soup never felt overly cloying or fatty. The noodles were nice and stretchy, with lots of give and chew.

Good to the very last drop, I didn't even need any bread to sop up the soup. To be fair, though, I think I liked Keizo's even better; a good carbonara is certainly impressive, but there's nothing quite like a bowl of simple ramen crafted so thoughtfully. I don't know what Lily, Rosemary, the Jack of Hearts (or Big Jim, for that matter) might think of Tabi no Tochû's ramen, but I'm planning on going back.

So, next time you're in Kôenji, think about making Tabi no Tochû a stop along your own journey. Provided, that is, that you're OK with having a hundred sets of Bob Dylan eyes staring back at you while you use the bathroom.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

屯ちん (Tonchin)

I feel like I've put up a number of posts recently that begin something like "So I was eating ramen in Kabukicho again, but don't get the wrong idea, it was the middle of the afternoon..." This is another Kabukicho bowl, and this one was eaten at a properly Kabukicho-appropriate time...something like 3 AM.

It had been another late night out drinking in Golden Gai, and you wouldn't believe how time flies when an off-duty wrestling referee with crooked teeth is explaining the tricks of the trade. Not wanting to end up in a sleeper hold on the street, I decided that a quick bowl would be in order to put the rumbles in my stomach down for the count and make sure I didn't wake up with a wicked hangover.

Right along one of the neighborhood's back boulevards, Tonchin occupies a prominent place on the promenade of pimps, pushers, playboys, Yakuza, and uh, camera-toting Taiwanese tourists that is Kabukicho. I had heard good things about Tonchin from rockabilly ramen critic Takahashi Jôji, as well as a couple of friends and acquaintances, and I had been meaning to try it for a while, but like with Kyushu Ramen down the block, had been saving it for one of those late nights.

I tried snapping a couple shots of the inside of the shop, but I'm gonna be honest, they all came out too blurry to use. They seemed clear at the time...surprise, surprise. Nonetheless, by dint of not having my head down on the counter, I was still doing better than plenty of the other patrons. Tonchin keeps it clean and professional, but the same probably can't be said for the motley crew of bouffants that find their way in here at 3 AM - mostly drunken salarymen and assorted sex industry errand boys and girls. They come for this - Tonchin's Tokyo Tonkotsu.

When you've got the beer munchies, nothing hits the fat quite like a bowl full of creamy spots...or is it the other way around? This creamy but smooth broth is loaded with suspended fat, which probably isn't too good for the body, but then again, neither is finding yourself in Kabukicho at 3 in the morning. Tonchin works off a tonkotsu (pork bone soup) model with plenty of salty soy essence, rather than Hakata or Kumamoto style purer pork taste.

This Tokyo tonkotsu (which is really a tonkotsu shôyu for those keeping track) is also kissin' cousins with Yokohama ie-kei ramen, as here you'll find side servings of garlic and two kinds of chili oil. But of course, this isn't Yokohama, so don't go looking for the trademark three slices of nori seaweed - you'll only find two.

Tonchin's noodles are also surprisingly excellent - fat, curly, and a bit flat. Tonchin, which also has a branch in Ikebukuro, serves only jika seimen - their own brand of specially made house noodles. You can't go wrong with tasty noodles from factories like Mikawaya Seimen or Kaikarô, but jika seimen almost always taste that much fresher.

Tonchin really hit the spot, and I'm pretty sure that it'd be (almost) as good sober. The bowl here is pretty close to what my initial platonic ideal of ramen was years back - hearty, creamy, satisfying, begging to be wolfed down. I love carefully sampling all the new developments and subtle soups the ramen world has to offer, but sometimes a back to basics bowl is best. Just be sure not to get snagged by the offers for massages that fly your way as soon as you step out the door.

Friday, April 16, 2010

竹虎 (Taketora)

I'm not sure why so many ramen shops have the character for tiger in the name - there's Menya Musashi Takatora, Kotatsu, and a host of others around town. Eating a lot of ramen is in no danger of bestowing anyone with any alacrity or ferocity. Maybe the stripes sorta look like noodles?

This time around we have Taketora, the "tiger in the bamboo." Nope, sorry, I couldn't tell you if it's crouching or not. In this case, we might read "tiger" as a metaphor for ramen, and "bamboo" as a metaphor for the dense thicket of cabaret clubs in central Kabukicho, ground zero for "evening entertainment" in Tokyo.

Fortunately, unlike many of its neighbors, this tiger is awake during daylight hours. I feel like Kabukicho is one of the great unsung ramen zones of Tokyo - sure it's plenty sketchy at night and weirdly dead while the sun is out, but all those denizens of the dark have to eat, and they seem to choose ramen with some frequency. There's a branch of Jirô, the great Hitotsubo, the tasty Tonchin (review coming soon), and plenty of other serviceable joints.

On this particular day, I shared Taketora with a gaggle of young and fresh-faced big haired hosts out on their lunch break - well-coiffed dudes designated with the task of relieving females of their cash with coy looks and overpriced champagne. To be more precise though, I wasn't really sharing the space with these dudes at all, since behind the counter there are a few "private rooms", because nothing says romancing a professional like a tete-a-tete over ramen, right?

I wasn't prepared to give Taketora second shrift, and in fact I'd walked by a number of times without noticing it - in general photo menus are a bad sign when searching for good ramen. But the meal started out right, with a nice warm towel handed to me by a pretty girl with a bad dye job - what do you think this is, NOT Kabukicho? Hot towels and pretty girls with bad jobs are literally what keeps this town running.

It was good notices from one of my favorite ramen critics, the equally well-coiffed Takahashi Jôji that convinced me to give Taketora a try; the shop's only been open a year and change, but I've yet to be led astray by a Takahashi rec.

Next up was a small dish of fried noodles to snack on while waiting. Sâbisu sâbisu! Or, for the non-Japanese speakers reading the blog, "service, service!" Taketora is one of those new-fangled "ramen dining" restaurants, so they offer lots of little bonuses to give you a feel-good experience, including a free upgrade to large size and a free topping at lunch time. But all that's moot if the ramen is no good, right?

Fortunately, Taketora's bowl is quite tasty, a new school shôyu (soy sauce) soup that manages to avoid resorting to the cookie cutter post-tsukemen boom mildly fishy mode. Rather, the broth is a blend of quite strong but not overly oily chicken and pork soup with a shôyu taste at once deep, light, and almost sweet. It's important for soy-based shops to have a good shôyu supplier, and Taketora seems to have found one I haven't tasted before. I dug it like I was digging the decent jazz on the stereo. Big, chunky and flavorful bamboo hunks, an extra egg-half, and sippable soup. I wonder what the hungry hosts in the next room thought?

Taketora's noodles are somewhat unusual for ramen of it's type - rather than go with the medium thick straightish, whiteish noodles in vogue with new school shôyu, Taketora uses very yellow, curly noodles made with raw egg, not dissimilar from those you might find in a bowl of Sapporo ramen. They stayed chewy and firm all the way through the (generously sized) bowl, so I think some of the yellow color might also be due to a high kansui (alkali water) content.

"Are you familiar with tiger oil?" the waiter asked me. Umm, is this some kind of Chinese medicine sex vitality thing? Far from it, the shop's trademark "tiger oil" comes free alongside your bowl, and is a tangy but not overpowering garlic oil to drizzle on top. Nothing mind-blowing, but it's nice to mix it up halfway through. This was a solid bowl, and I found myself slurping down to the dregs. You could do a lot worse than bagging this tiger when bush hunting (oh god!) in Kabukicho...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

一竜 (Ichiryû)

Sitting and hanging out with Keizo at Bassanova (see below), we started talking about (what else?) ramen. It turns out that shop manager Komuro-san used to work two doors down at neighboring Ichiryû, so full as I may have been off ramen, rice, and couple of beers, i found myself hankering to give that shop a shot too. "Dude, I'm pretty full...I know I'll regret it later." I protested. "Man, just shut up and go eat it," Keizo countered. Don't try and argue with a man who eats two bowls a day.

Well, it doesn't take too much convincing to get me to try out a bowl of Hakata ramen. That milky, creamy pork marrow soup and those thin noodles are at the roots of my ramen obsession, and I'm still on my quest to find the best bowl in Tokyo. Ichiryû just happens to be the Tokyo branch of one of the all-time favorites of none other than Rameniac, who is definitely a dude who knows his way around Hakata ramen.

Ichiryû claims to have first started serving way back in 1955 (wowzerz!), permanently affixing their outdoor stall along the riverbank in 1974 in the Nakasu area of Fukuoka, ground zero for Hakata ramen. I've never been to Fukuoka (...yet!), but I've heard that down there ramen is still very much tied to its roots as a street food snack, and Ichiryû is one of the highest regarded street stalls along the river.

Well, maybe my expectations were just a bit too high. While certainly serviceable, nothing really seemed special to me about my bowl at Ichiryû. Even given that Nakasu-style ramen tends to be a bit thinner and lighter than ramen served across the way in the Nagahama area, the soup tasted a bit weak to me.

I tricked out the bowl in proper fashion with red pickled ginger, takana mustard greens, garlic, and sesame, but the taste just never came together with the whirlwind that I'm looking for when I gruzzle my Hakata ramen. I later found out that I happened to eat there on a day when Kawagoe-san, the shop master, wasn't around, so I think I need to try it again when his expert hands are preparing the soup. The Ichiryû team and the crew at Bassanova are buddies, so I'm sure I'll find myself back here at some point. See you again Ichiryû, I want you to show me everything you got!

Monday, April 12, 2010


Passover just passed us by, so maybe it would be an appropriate time to modify one of the age-old questions associated with the matzah party. Ask not "why is this night different from all other nights", but "how is this Bassanova bowl different from all other Bassanova bowls?"

I've eaten at Bassanova plenty of times at this point, but this time was different. This is the first bowl I had at Bassanova since my good buddy Keizo started working there! I first met my fellow ramen bloggers Keizo and Brian just about a year ago, and the very first bowl we ate together was at Bassanova. Little could I have known that only a number of months later I'd still be sitting at that same counter...while Keizo stood behind it, prepping my ramen!

After interning at Ivan Ramen, Keizo recently moved down the road to Bassanova. Another great story of a valued customer learning the tricks of the trade, Keizo is now literally living out his dream at his favorite ramen shop in the world. When head cook Harada-san had to head home to Fukuoka, he tapped Keizo to take over the shop. It brings me great happines to see my buddy doing exactly what he wants to do. And it doesn't hurt that Bassanova's ramen rocks!

The other thing that makes this Bassanova bowl different is that every other time I've eaten there I've always ordered the spicy Thai-style green curry ramen, but this time I opted for the even more fusion-y Tom Yum ramen, which is allllllmost as tasty, but I have to give my personal edge to the green curry, since it's just a bit spicier and I'm a sucker for thick noodles. But make no mistake, this is a great bowl you're not gonna find anywhere else in the city...or the world, for that matter.

The other nice thing about having a buddy behind the counter is being able to hang out and have a few beers, chat a bit, read some comics, and order a tasty snack of rice topped with gried onions, seaweed and a nice gooey egg. It doesn't hurt that Bassanova keeps a good soundtrack going all night. Even if I wasn't biased, I'd still tell you not to miss Bassanova - it's a delicious, unique shop with a great vibe and great noodles. Be sure and say hi to Keizo if...I mean WHEN you go!

Friday, April 9, 2010


Let it be known far and wide that TETSU is one of thee premier tsukemen (dipping noodle) joints about town. Along with the veritable (and yet unvisited by me) imperial noodle powerhouse Rokurinsha, TETSU is widely reknowned as one of the top spots in Tokyo to get your dip on. The tsukemen boom that has resulted in near identical dipping noodle dishes at nearly every shop in the metropolis, but TETSU was one of the first and best of the 21st century tsukemenification movement, and the difference between the TETS and the rest is still clear.

The original TETSU location is located in the Sendagi area, a quiet neighborhood not far from Ueno in northeastern Tokyo. It had long been on my hit list, but I had yet to bother braving the inevitable hour plus wait for my noodles. So, if you want a rundown on the original locale, be sure and check out Brian's post of a few months back. Since seizing success, TETSU has become a fixture in ramen roads and theme parks, and numerous venues offer these famous noodles, including the Shinagawa Shinatatsu zone, and my own neighborhood underground ramen food court, Kôenji Ramen Yokochô.

Kôenji Yokochô hosts some pretty stellar shops, like Môko Tanmen Nakamoto and Daiki, in addition to TETSU. Though the lines aren't as bad as the original locale, a wait is still certain, so it's not a spot for a quick lunch.

The most popular dish at TETSU is the "atsumori", which is standard tsukemen with the noodles served hot, rather than chilled. TETSU takes it a step further, leaving the noodles simmering in a light thin broth made of katsuo (bonito) stock, which not only keeps the noodles warm but adds another layer of flavor prior to dipping.

The soup, while at the deepest level based on the classic Taishôken tsukemen model of thick, vaguely fishy stock with a balance of sweet, salty, and vinegary, is it's own warthog. But yknow, much more delicious than a warthog. It's that much creamier, spicier, complexerer, and betterer than most likely literally any other tsukemen dipping brew I've ever tasted. And if you order the spicy dish like I did then it's that much spicier too. Just when I thought that every tsukemen was the same, TETSU comes along to do the same thing, just much much better.

After all, the kanji for TETSU may mean "philosophical knowledge" but the name is a homonym for "iron" and general badassery:

Like Tetsuo from AKIRA (remember him?)!

and of course TETSUJIN-28 (better known as Gigantor to US audiences)!

and then there's Tetsuo the Iron Man. None of whom are dudes to be messed with. Just like TETSU's noodles.

Lest I forget, I should also mention the total al dente perfection of the noodles, which are so so thick, so so curly, and so so good. I don't know if they are also coming from the famous Kaikarô factory in Asakusa, but they're at least as good. If you like thick noodles, then these are absolutely not to be missed.

Then there's the table side fried garlic chips to make it all even deliciouserer.

While I was gruzzling down on that with great gusto, my buddy A had ordered the abura soba, the soupless noodles. Abura soba translates as "oil noodles", which usually just means a bit of thick flavor essence to blend at the bottom of the bowl, but at TETSU, they take their oil seriously:

Yep, that's plenty of lard in oil with a raw egg tossed in for good measure. To be honest, as big of a hit as the tsukemen was, these boys fell flat. Abura soba shouldn't actually be all that oily, and should be packed with flavor, while these were almost too light in taste and a bit overly greasy. My homey A was not a fan, and I felt bad for having lead him astray.

There is one more thing about eating at TETSU, a thing which probably played a large part in getting the shop remembered as the great boom took flight. Take a gander at your cartoon guide (is his name TETSU?) and...

...order a hot rock. Yep, call for that yaki-ishi, the baked stone. A lot of people complain that tsukemen gets lukewarm, and you can count Ramenate in that number. But when you've got a red hot rock handy...

You can dip it in the soup to warm it right back up. Just be sure you've already diluted the broth down a bit with the tableside pitcher so as not to scorch the soup. I'm not a big fan of drinking down tsukemen broth, but if you haven't got the impression yet that TETSU is a bit of an exception, then I don't know what to tell you, dood. I can't say whether or not there's a great gap between this TETSU and the original, but I'd tell anyone travelling to Tokyo that if you want tsukemen this is a purty fab option.