Thursday, August 29, 2013

凪豚王 Nagi Buta-oh: pigs and battleships

Nagi is a reputable chain of ramen shops in Tokyo. Their golden child is in Golden Gai, a funky little shop with one of the best niboshi (sardine) infused shoyu ramen in the city, maybe even in all of Japan.

Today, the Buta-oh, or "King of Pigs," was calling us. Nagi serves up a solid Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen.

Lum ordered the aka-tama, or "red ball" version: their regular Hakata broth served with a lump of pork and red chilis the size of a golf ball.

Akatama (880yen)

Overall, a nice and spicy bowl, though the red hot stuff mutes the flavor of the pork a bit too much for my taste.

In the past, I've ordered the kuro-tama, or "black ball" bowl, which is a lump of pork infused with burnt garlic oil. But on this sweltering summer mid-day, the hiyashi (chilled) tonkotsu seemed like the perfect recipe for cold and crazy delicious.

Hiyashi tonkotsu (850yen)

Some shops will offer bowls of cold noodles during the summer months as a limited-time offering (this isn't unusual to residents of Korea, but cold ramen is much less abundant in Japan).  Filled with ice cubes, green vegetables, umeboshi pickled plum, and steamed, cold shabu shabu-like pork, this cold tonkotsu seemed like a strong idea...

...felled by meek execution. The thin noodles - a staple of any good Hakata bowl - were a bad match for the soup, which was strangely sour. The steamed pork was rubbery and flavorless. Rather than quench my ramen thirst, it made me long for another bowl immediately.

Adding insult to injury is how much this bowl cost - 850 yen is steep for Hakata ramen, even if it's only served for a limited-time. Bowls of tonkotsu are meant to be cheap so you can order a kaedama, which is another round of thin noodles to finish off the soup. But at 750 yen for even their simplest bowl, I don't see how anyone can be satiated with Buta-oh without shelling out a premium.

Nagi has been great in the past. They are capable of more.

Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, East 1-3-1 Caminito 1F
Closest stn: Shibuya (8 min walk)

Open from 1130am-4pm and 5-9pm


Monday, August 26, 2013

甲斐 Kai: old school

I've been curious about this ramen shop because it's close to where I live and was recommended to me by a co-worker. I was looking forward to this bowl.

The appearance of the shop itself looks a bit cruddy. Once I entered the shop, the sound of slurping was blaring.

I realized this is a good place to concentrate on eating ramen.

Ajitama soba (700yen)

I ordered the very reasonable chuka soba with seasoned egg. This bowl is what we would call "old school ramen." The soup is dark and strong, not too salty. In other words, very good.

The noodles are curly and have a nice, al dente texture.

But I was especially amazed at how delicious the egg is. I couldn't help but smile when the yolk hit my lips.

I have to add that I was the only girl in the shop at the shop at the time, and everyone was staring hard at me. I understand young people and women are more likely to avoid dirty and small shops like this one, but Kai's ramen should be loved by the young and old alike.

Tokyo, Suginami-ku, Kugayama 2-27-1
Closest stn: Kugayama

Open from 1130am-3pm and 6pm-Midnight Wednesday-Monday (closed every 4th Monday)


Thursday, August 22, 2013

勢得 Seitoku: one man band

Ubiquitous tonkotsu gyokai tsukemen. Pork and fish dipping noodles, they are everywhere in Tokyo. One cannot go ten feet without tripping over some slob at a Matsuya, Starbucks, or tonkotsu gyokai tsukemen shop. Ever since Rokurinsha pioneered the bowl several years ago, it has become the go-to bowl for tsukemen in Tokyo, much to the detriment of noodle variety or novelty.

Seitoku, however, is one of the most respected in the city, possibly only outside of Matsudo's Tomita, champion of the Grand Tsukemen Fest last year.

This shop deserves your respect. The entire operation - about a dozen seats wrapped around a bright red counter - is run by one man, a former disciple of a well-known tsukemen shop, who is never still for more than two seconds. It is one of those elusive shops, open for only four hours a day at lunch. The lone chef moved the shop from Machida in 2007, and it has been stocked with lines ever since.

These are extremely flavorful bowls. Packed with chunks of fatty pork belly and a thick pork-shoyu broth, the trademark here is an intense shrimp dashi that packs much more of a punch than your standard bonito or sardine stock. Your lips will be left sticky and glistening from all the delicious grease and complex oils infused into this bowl.

Tokusei tsukemen (1000yen)

While the shop is known for its tsukemen, the ramen is also excellent, with a more balanced approach than the tsukemen.

Tokusei ramen (920yen)

One might be tempted to go with the tokusei (special bowl) at a shop called Seitoku, but buyer beware: the standard portion of noodles is 330g, which is what most shops would consider an oomori, or extra freaking large. The tokusei is one of the best values for a bowl I've ever seen.

Your bowl of dipping sauce will be filled with so much extra pork that instead of swishing your noodles around in the sauce, you'll be dabbing them in little pockets of spare soup. If you don't have a large stomach for ramen, you might find yourself sick of the bowl before you can finish.

Or you might just finish it anyway, like we did. This much flavor is too good to waste.

Tokyo, Setagaya-ku, Sakuragaoka 3-24-4 Yamada Bldg. 102
Closest stn: Chitose-funabashi (about a 15 min walk)

Open from 11am-3pm Tuesday-Sunday


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

麵屋 翔 Sho: fo' sho

I'm always craving oishii ramen and my co-worker wanted me to take her on a mini-ramen tour. After a tiring day of work, we wanted something light and not fatty.

We chose Sho.

Despite it being 7pm on a weekday, the seats were all full. A sure early sign that this shop is loved by many.

I chose the special shio...

Tokusei shio ramen (950yen)

...and my coworker ordered a limited-time gentei: gazpacho ramen with summer vegetables.

Gentai gazpacho ramen (900yen)

The appearance of these bowls are beautiful. The soup is very simple, but deep and rich. You can really taste the toppings because of this simplicity, and the giant piece of chashu actually tasted sweet despite its fattiness.

The noodles weren't outstanding, but the soup (and flavor) clung to them well. This is a bowl that is very kind to the tongue.

I only had a couple bites, but my co-worker's bowl was amazing. Sea lettuce was kneaded into the noodle dough, and paired with the cold tomato soup, the entire bowl had an appearance and consistency of a cold pasta.

The staff was very, very friendly and caring. They came back to check on us, asking us if we needed paper aprons or how we liked the taste. They talked to other customers in this way too, and people seemed to be really happy.

I really like friendly, bustling shops like this one.

Tokyo, Shinjuku-ku, Nishi-Shinjuku 7-22-34
Closest stn: Shinjuku

Open from 11am-3pm and 6-10pm


Friday, August 16, 2013

無鉄砲 Muteppo: the midnight meat train

From all-seafood to all-meat...such is ramen life in Japan.

I still remember my first bowl of Ippudo that got me hooked, off the deep end like that blue. That wonderful brown. I became an addict, staggering from shop to shop, bowl to bowl, looking for the next hit. And while I found some great new highs - bowls that eclipsed Ippudo's skills in every way - I could never find the bowl that replicated that first wave of ecstasy.

Until now. Enter Muteppo. The new reigning king and conqueror of tonkotsu in Tokyo.

Like Ramen Jiro or Taishoken, Muteppo cobbled together parts from other bowls to become an earthy creation all its own. Hailing from the Kansai region, it is unlike the milky white bowls of tonkotsu from Hakata, Kyushu, nor is it like the fish and pork bowls of gyokai that have taken over Tokyo. These aren't even like the ubiquitous jiro-kei bowls of pork, fat, and cabbage that have dominated the ramen rankings for the last couple of years.

Ramen (700yen)

Muteppo makes their soup every day entirely with pork bones and fresh water. There is no bonito, vegetables, or chicken stock added. Just 300kg of pig bones in a steel pot, stirred with big wooden planks by strapping cooks. The meat and bones are melted so long and hot that they become a sort of congealed pork stew. The soup becomes a brown sludge, coating every crevasse of the firm noodles, shipped straight from Kyushu. While this might sound as disgusting and heavy as a bowl of Jiro, Muteppo remains refreshing and much more flavorful, with hints of sweetness and complex umami. This is because the master chefs use no lard or other fats and oils to make their broth. They have the utmost confidence in their pork and their ability to extract the deepest flavors from every ounce of meat, gristle, and bone. If its still too heavy, you can cut the fat with a bit of fish broth or extra green onions. And if its too light, get an extra helping of noodles and wipe that bowl clean.

Muteppo's bowl is the ultimate ode to the swine. It is a creation from an unassuming shack by friendly but seriously dedicated cooks that is every bit as savory, thoughtful, and brilliant as anything that might come out of your glistening Michelin kitchens.

One wishes Muteppo was less difficult to access out in the nether reaches of Nakano, but this simply adds to its treasured status as a crazed and solitary genius, like an Ingmar Bergman directing masterpieces on a secluded island. Muteppo has also put out a tsukemen shop nearby and, legend has it, a bowl of even more intense tonkotsu that is served only in the middle of the night, because ramen addicts can't sleep. The next bowl, the next hit, awaits...

Tokyo, Nakano-ku, Egota 4-5-1
Closest stn: Numabukuro

Open from 11am-3pm and 6pm-11pm Tuesday-Sunday


Thursday, August 15, 2013

大漁まこと Tairyo Makoto: big fish [CLOSED]

Ramen is usually composed of broth which has various kinds of fish or seafood. They usually take a supporting role to the rest of the bowl, but have you ever tried a bowl with seafood as the lead? At Tairyo Makoto, you focus on the fruits of the sea.

I usually eat with Hearts, but today we had a special guest from the rock band Negative Zero. This also meant we could try three bowls of crustacean goodness.


Kani tsukemen (950yen)

Uni, or sea urchin...

Uni tsukemen (1000yen)

Ise ebi, a large shrimp from the Ise region that is like a spiny lobster...

Ise ebi soba (900yen)

Each bowl included a flavored egg, which was a nice bonus (it's buried underneath the soup in the ise ebi soba). The appearance of each bowl was pretty surprising. The lobster was topped with a creamy, lobster-infused mousse, which clung to the noodles very well. The soft texture and flavor melts in your mouth.

The sea urchin was also creamy, like you are gorging on a massive bowl of uni.

Of all the bowls, the crab might have been the mildest, but also the best til the very end.

Each bowl is very rich and the main ingredients assert themselves like any good leading role should, but after the first few slurps, these bowls got boring pretty quickly. Maybe ramen needs meat, after all.

If you still have room after finishing your bowl, I recommend getting a soup wari, which means adding some of the hot broth used to cook the noodles into the leftover tsukemen liquid. It was like drinking a luxurious sea urchin soup.

If you like sushi or seafood, you should give Tairyo Makoto a shot!

Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Dogenzaka 1-11-2
Closest stn: Shibuya

Open from 1130am-11pm Monday-Saturday


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

ラーメン考房 昭和呈 Showa-tei: the ramen think tank

Ramen is undergoing constant evolution. In fact, at Showa-tei, the mad ramen scientists are experimenting with strange, new flavors as I write this.

Nagoya is a land of poorly conceived mass transit, but most shops are still navigable by train. Showa-tei, on the other hand, is pretty much impossible to access without a car. The nearest station is approximately 4300 meters away.

A humble shack, decked out in early 1950s and 60s era pop culture, the period most Japanese imagine when they hear the words "showa." Think of the film "Always: Sunset on Third Street" for the most hackneyed caricature of such a period and its paraphernalia.

Look at all those buttons! This menu would take weeks to sample, and then would likely be replaced by another buffet of new thought experiments. The offerings include a habanero shrimp cream sauce ramen, a rich crab mazemen (soupless noodle), and Italian ochazuke.

Ideally this place would be frequented by a dozen enterprising ramen freaks, everyone ordering a different bowl and swiping at each other's like a group of starving orphans. But it was just myself and my cousins, and we all wanted the same bowl of their most popular offering: a shoyu infused with the dashi of flying fish.

Tobiuo shoyumen (980yen)

A work of art, with a rich, almost syrupy shoyu full of powerful fish flavor. Not many options to trick out the bowl with eggs and things, but the standard has great chashu...

...and good, thin noodles that paired well with the dense broth.

All bowls here are a little more than you'd pay elsewhere, not surprising considering the constant and copious amount of limited-edition bowls. Their location probably doesn't get a lot of regulars out here , but that also means the competition isn't stiff either.

If anyone reads this and makes it out there (the shop also serves exclusive jiro-kei bowls on Mondays and Tuesdays) let us know which bowl you tried.

Aichi, Tokoname-shi, Kariyacho136
Closest stn: Rinku Tokoname (60 min walk or a 10 min drive)

Open from 1130am-2pm and 6-9pm Wednesday-Sunday


さいころ Saikoro: que bonito!

I'm a big fan of the flavor of bonito, or sardines, especially because I've been eating Eifukucho Taishoken since I was little. I was looking forward to trying Saikoro, which is heavy on the bonito flavor.

This shop used to be Jiraigen in Honancho, Suginami, but they changed their name for reasons unknown to me and moved their shop to Nakano in 2011. The menu changed with the move as well.

Niku niboshi chukasoba (730yen - a steal!)

I had the niku niboshi chuka soba. Large cuts of seaweed, lots of chashu, a nice flavored egg, bamboo, chopped scallions, and a piece of naruto (the white fish cake with the pink swirl). Old school style.

If I could describe this shop in one word, it would be "smooth." The soup has a soft smell of bonito. The homemade noodles are silky and elastic.

I especially liked the bara chashu, which was sliced thin and well-balanced with both fatty pork belly and solid meat. It looks hearty, but even small girls like me can easily eat this bowl. The gyoza is also solid.

Ramen continues to evolve, and there are lots of peculiar bowls around Tokyo these days, so I really hope great old-school bowls like Saikoro continue to thrive without losing their way.

Tokyo, Nakano-ku, Nakano 2-28-8
Closest stn: Nakano

Open from 11am-11pm