Sunday, May 9, 2010

健太 (Kenta)

Last time around, I wrote up Nagi, a Tokyo shop that serves a reimagined bowl of the classic Hakata ramen pork bone soup. A number of shops have tried similar tricks, not the least of which is the by now world famous Ippûdô, who transformed the lowly and smelly snack of thin noodles suspended in liquid pork marrow into a family friendly high dining concept.

If you read the blog with any regularity, you've probably picked up on the fact that I'm something of a Hakata ramen junkie. Ever since finding my first favorite bowl back at the eminently tasty and stinky Miyoshi in Kyoto, I've been on the quest to find the perfect bowl of this Fukuoka-style staple. This time up was Kenta, located north of Kôenji along the Waseda-dôri thoroughfare.

Now, I've never been to Fukuoka (a state of affairs I'm hoping to remedy in the near future...), but I get the sense that Kenta does a good job of recreating the vibe of that southern rock city. A big tub of stewing oden fish cakes, a couple of rock posters, plenty of booze, a TV set blaring comedy, and a shopkeeper that looks like he's on the lam from a past life as a bike punk make for that great Western Japan vibe not found often enough in Tokyo. I'm guessing that there's a crew of regulars who probably use the place as a watering hole, drinking until late and snacking on the surprisingly extensive menu.

Even for Hakata ramen, Kenta's bowl is stripped down in true street stall style. The shop claims roots (with photos to prove it) from training at the famous street stalls of Nakasu in Fukuoka city, and something about the feel of this bowl tells me that it's quite close to the "real deal." Which, interestingly enough, means a soup a bit thinner and lighter than many Tokyo-area ramen reimaginings; allegedly Nakasu-style soup isn't as heavy or creamy as it's next door neighbor, the more famous Nagahama ramen that I grew up on.

I decked out my bowl with beni shôga (red pickled ginger) and shook on some sesame seeds, but saw no sign of the ubiquitous garlic that you usually find at Hakata-style joints. When I asked the cook I got a gruff "don't have none" back. Maybe that's how they roll with the bowls in Nakasu? Kenta seems to be all about dedication to Hakata authenticity, so maybe I'm the one who doesn't know better.

I do know that I liked what I was eating, so hurriedly sucked it down and called for a kaedama, the noodle refill that's a Hakata trademark. Since the noodles are so thin and low in water content, they get soggy fast, so it's best to eat multiple small servings rather than get a big bowl. Hakata noodles should be cooked to order hard as the dickens, which means just a second of two in the water, and you best believe that Kenta does it just right, serving the noodles up nice and wiry.

I personally like my soup a bit stronger, but there was something unplaceable about this bowl, some kind of Kyushu soul that most other joints around town don't have. I think my top bowls still go to Hitotsubo in Shinjuku and Goten in Sendagaya, but if you're looking for a really real bowl of Nakasu ramen, look no further than Kenta. It gets the stamp of approval from the Hakatatians in exile that i know here in Tokyo as well.

**Several readers recently asked - why don't you give the addresses for the shops you write up so I can actually find them? The answer to this extremely good question is...I don't have a good answer. I literally have no excuse for not having done exactly that from the beginning, and am baffled at how I overlooked such a seemingly simple fact. It'll take a while before I get the chance to go back and populate the addresses on the old posts, but from here on out, expect addresses at the bottom of each post. And use those addresses to find the shops and let me know how you like them!

健太 Kenta: 東京都杉並区高円寺北3-43-10 Suginami-ku Kôenji-kita 3-43-10. (To find the place, plug the address into Google maps, or just click it for a link to the Supleks Ramen Database page that includes a map).

ラーメン道楽 (Ramen Dôraku)

The cherry blossoms were just starting to bloom as winter at last began its slow retreat. (Yep, I'm way behind on posts again). Check out these psychedelic colors - no digital manipulation here, that moss really is that neon green!

Sakura time is definitely associated with fun for the new season - warm weather, outdoor drunkenness, and generally enjoying of life after the long cold season. So it was only fitting that my friend Y and I decided to grab our next bowl at Ramen Dôraku ("road to pleasure") in Yoyogi.

Located on a somewhat lonely corner on a distant block among the tall buildings of West Shinjuku, Dôraku has been rocking ramen for a full 25 years. Another favorite pick of the always estimable critic Takahashi Jôji, Dôraku has paid its dues since well before the ramen boom.

I've recently been trying to search out tasty shops that have been around the block, rather than just trendy new places, but it can be hard to tell which of the faded old-school awnings house good bowls and which are just mediocre. But there's no way to find out except for hitting the streets hungry to try them out - you can't just sit by the rotary phone waiting for the ramen gods to call.

Inside, Dôraku is simple and no frills, with a spacious steel counter and little else. A good deal of the customers seemed to be regulars which isn't surprising - I'll bet a lot of the salarymen who work in the area make this a standard stop on their lunch rotations. The radio chattered away while the aging master and his wife puttered around with pride in their work.

The star menu item at Dôraku is the negi ramen - a bowl of old-fashioned stripped down tonkotsu shôyu (pork bone and soy broth) topped with a heaping mound of sliced onions. There was a giant plastic bin the size of an industrial strength trash can in the corner used for the sole purpose of soaking the onions before poaching them in soy sauce.

Despite having a satisfying and rich flavor, Dôraku's ramen isn't too oily or salty. The model is what might be called Tokyo tonkotsu - strong pork broth dyed brown with soy and plenty of lard; a far cry away from the bone white Hakata broth, it's like a scaled down Ramen Jirô and shares affinities with Yokohama-style ie-kei ramen... impression made stronger by the fact that chili paste and raw garlic are provided tableside, just as with Yokohama ramen. Ie-kei most likely began as a modification of a style like this - fatty soup being served at a time when ramen still generally meant old-fashioned shôyu and little else. While not mind or tongue altering, Dôraku serves up an eminently eatable bowl that's a hold over from another era - let's hope it lives to see another 25 years.

道楽 Dôraku 東京都渋谷区代々木3-38-11 富士見マンション201号 Shibuya-ku Yoyogi 3-38-11 Fujimi Mansion No. 201