Wednesday, October 30, 2013

大つけ麺博 Grand Tsukemen Fest: 無鉄砲 無心 Mushin and 信州鶏白湯 気むずかし家 Kimuzukashi-ya

If you're just tuning in, this is the third installment of the Tsukehaku here at Ramen Love (see parts one and two). This is also quite possibly my favorite week of the fest as every shop is different and, with the exception of IKEMEN, a tsukemen heavyweight (sorry IKEMEN, you are indeed different, but you don't quite deserve to be mentioned alongside this distinguished company yet).

Week Three headlines Nara-based Mushin, one of the most well-regarded shops in all of Japan as it is the tsukemen shop of legendary tonkotsu ramen Muteppo.

We promised to try shops outside of Kyushu for the remainder of the Tsukehaku, but we didn't promise not to try any more delicious, porky tonkotsu, especially when Mushin is bringing out an extra thick bowl of broth.

Tonkotsu baka ga tsukuru dochokkyu noukou tsukemen (850yen)

Their special bowl translates to "super thick tsukemen made by tonkotsu fanatics." Tsukemen is normally supposed to be thicker and richer than a typical ramen broth, but Muteppo's broth is already so thick that I had trouble distinguishing Mushin's thick pork sludge from a regular bowl at Muteppo. But Mushin does magic with pork - despite the density, the bowl doesn't feel heavy, largely due to slivers of yuzu peel that accent the soup.

Their homemade noodles are thick and chewy, intended for maximum soup stickiness.

The result is that we are able to eat a bottomless amount of Mushin's umami-rich caloric overload until we explode. Mushin has a sister shop in Tokyo called Mukyoku, which I will definitely be checking out very soon.

Each round allows customers to vote for their favorite bowl, and I immediately cashed in my coin for Mushin's delicious entry.

And immediately regretted it. For I was deceived, as another bowl was made...

In the land of Nagano, in the fires of Shinshu, the dark ramen lords forged in secret a master bowl, to control all others. And into this bowl, they poured their experience, their generosity, and their love for all forms of ramen life. One bowl to rule them all.

Yorizukushi tsukesoba (850yen)

Okay, so Kimuzukashi-ya is not the grand dark lord and master of all tsukemen ever made, but it is the most surprising and satisfying of the fest thus far. Their shop name translates to "hard to please," but they are part of a larger ramen group called Bond of Hearts. I was already won over by their name, but this bowl is special.

The flat, silky noodles are specially made for the fest and are somewhere in-between ramen and udon in texture, perfectly equipped to sop up the creamy tori-paitan chicken broth.

But the toppings! Kimuzukashi-ya goes all out with a large piece of sanzoku-yaki - a Nagano specialty that involves deep-frying a chicken thigh. The chicken is slathered with a home-made tartar sauce that is replete with eggs and chopped veggies, which also goes great mixed in with the noodles. Rounding it all out is a pile of green onions and a raw egg.

Kimuzukashi-ya's entry is a hearty and fun bowl, with a range of flavors that we could dip and mix to our hearts' content. I wanted to fish into Mushin's box of votes to withdraw my voting coin and deposit it into Kimuzukashi-ya's box.

Only one more week of tsukemen sampling from across Japan, which makes me sad. Tune in next week for our final installment, where we will sample not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven...okay, actually more like three bowls, but I'm fired up for the NBA season.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

大つけ麺博 Grand Tsukemen Fest: 竹本商店 Takemoto Shoten and 博多一幸舎 Hakata Ikkosha

Let's go, round two of the Tsukehaku! Autumn cold makes me crave tsukemen even more than usual.

Like last week, we made an informed decision to choose two different styles of shops. Every time I go to a festival like this, I wish I could there was some way to prevent stomachaches so I could eat bowl after bowl like a ramen black hole.

The first shop we tried was Takemoto Shoten. I think this is their second year, and from what I recall, they were quite popular last year.

Takemoto is from Akita prefecture in the northern part of Japan, an area famous for its high quality livestock and seafood. Takemoto's signature tsukemen uses these ingredients to full effect.

Hinajidori to ebinibo tsukemen (850yen)

The soup is topped with small dried shrimp, which creates a great aroma.

To be honest, I'm not a big fan of ramen with shrimp, or shrimp toppings, or even shrimp-flavored stock, but I actually really liked Takemoto's take. It was clean, without any icky, fishy aftertaste, and deep chicken flavor using regional Hinajidori fowl.

The slices of chopped lemon made for a great accent to the shrimpy soup!

The second sampled shop was Hakata Ikkosha, which translates to "happy Hakata people" and is, naturally, from Hakata, Kyushu.

We thought Ikkosha would do something similar to Vigiya in creating an all-pork bone broth, but Ikkosha instead brought out the staple tonkotsu gyokai, a pork and fish blend broth.

Ikkosha noukou tonkotsu gyokai tsukemen (850yen)

Living and eating tsukemen in Tokyo, this taste is all too familiar. We were expecting thin noodles like a Hakata bowl of ramen, but Ikkosha's noodles were surprisingly the springiest and most elastic we've yet encountered at the Tsukehaku. The pork was, unsurprisingly, outstanding.

This is the second Kyushu shop we've tried already, so we apologize for not spreading the Love around. Hearts just really loves Kyushu-style shops, We promise the coming weeks will be more representative of the rest of Japan.

Festivals often have quality control issues serving each bowl exactly the same, but I've been really satisfied with the level of bowls served thus far. Check back in next week for round three!


Friday, October 18, 2013

大つけ麺博 Grand Tsukemen Fest: 毘侍家 Vigiya and 稲葉 Inaba

The next four weeks of Ramen Love will be consumed by the consuming of the best bowls of tsukemen that Japan has to offer. Make way for Prince Ali, for the 2nd Annual Grand Tsukemen Fest, or Dai Tsukemen Haku (Tsukehaku for short), is here.

In case you're late to the show, tsukemen is the "dipping noodle" version of ramen. A plate of cold noodles is served alongside a bowl of a broth typically richer than your average ramen soup. This year, 24 bowls around Nippon have gathered to compete for the honor of greatest tsukemen in the country - and by extension, the world.

While we can't sample every single bowl, we will do our utmost to bring you two highlights of the week. This week features two rich and heavy bowls from Ibaraki and Kurume, Kitakyushu.

First up is Vigiya. They specialize in, like most Kyushu shops, a creamy tonkotsu.

For the Tsukehaku, they brought out a creamy broth made solely of pork bones.

Fuurin Kazan Tsukemen (850yen)

Theirs comes with a ton of gu, or ingredients. Chashu pork, bamboo shoots, and half of a half-boiled egg are part of the standard bowl.

Vigiya's broth was downright outstanding, so much so that this is almost a mandatory stop on my inevitable trip to Kitakyushu one day. There are two types of oil also mixed in: a rayu red chili oil, and a mayu burnt garlic oil. The soup kicks up a notch once all of that is mixed together...

...but it's the smattering of fried onions on top which give the broth a touch of sweetness, and really bring out the deep umami flavor of the pork.

Inaba, on the other hand, specializes in highly-regarded tori paitan chicken base ramen.

Some shops will bring out a limited-edition bowl for the Tsukehaku, and Inaba took their usually creamy bowl of chicken soup up to 11 with a soup featuring additional soul.

Tsukemen Ultra Soul (850yen)

This is, without a doubt, the thickest broth I've ever encountered. It has the flavor and consistency of turkey gravy, and is a taste that, I imagine, most Americans like myself would find very pleasing.

Cream of chicken coating the chopped chicken parts is just a fantastic combination, and would be a welcome addition to any Thanksgiving feast.

The oily richness, however, might be too heavy for Japanese palates. Lum could not stomach more than a couple mouthfuls. Make sure you leave some of that "soup" for the "wari." Mixed with some of the leftover noodle water, the gravy becomes a soothing chicken broth.

Bring the Love for these master chefs, who will be rotating every Thursday for the next month. Check out the Tsukehaku homepage (translated by Ramen Adventures) for the shops featured every week. And check back here for your weekly rundown of the top shops!


Friday, October 11, 2013

鬼そば藤谷 Onisoba Fujitani: from taku-chan

It's quite popular for celebrities or comedians to produce their own restaurants in Japan. Some work, some don't. Onisoba is produced by one such comedian. His name is not actually Fujitani, but Taku-chan, comedian who specializes in impersonations. 

Most comedians will lend them name to the shop and step away back to the safety of TV land So you might imagine my surprise to see Taku-chan was working as the shop master!

I ordered the shio (salt) with a flavored egg.

Onisoba shio with egg (800yen)

I don't know why the bowls here are called onisoba. Oni means "devil" or "ogre" in Japanese, but this shop is known for its salt ramen.

The smell was the first thing I noticed as soon as the master brought me the bowl. The soup has a very good, distinct odor!

The noodles are outstanding. I was looking for information on the noodles while I was eating to find out their ingredients or source, but I couldn't find anything. The quality of the flour and water must be very good.

The broth is not too salty and is accented perfectly by yuzu and a pinch of sliced dried red pepper.

This is my first celebrity shop, mostly because these types of shops get really popular due to the owner's name, but quickly close once it's no longer fashionable to go. I usually don't like trendy shops like this.

But I could feel Taku-chan's strong motivation to make good ramen. I hope his passion isn't some passing trend.

Tokyo, Shibuya-ku, Udagawacho 24-6 Shibu Bldg 5F
Closest stn: Shibuya

Open from 1130am-1030pm (closed Thursdays)


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

GACHI Abura soba: oil is good for you

Tomoharu Shono, the mastermind behind such experimental ramen shops like Menya Shono and 2-Chome Tsukemen GACHI, opens the shop dedicated to his latest obsession today in Akebonobashi. This time, his chosen muse is abura soba, a type of soupless ramen that focuses on oil, tare (sauce), and chunks of pork fat.

We were invited to a special pre-pre-opening to check out the new scene. Many thanks to Hiroshi of No Reason!! for being a gracious host.

The inside of GACHI is all clean wood lines and soothing bassa nova music. A compact counter that seats probably no more than a dozen, it's an intimate setting for what is traditionally an artery-busting bowl.

You have a choice between two types of noodles, both of which are freshly cut in the back of the shop from 100% Nippn durum semolina. Thin like Hakata-style tonkotsu...

Abura soba with hosomen (680yen)

...and the more typical thick noodles. Think udon-like thickness.

Abura soba with futomen (680yen)

The ingredients include some very high quality oil and fat, and the chef's secret tare recipe. A generous hunk of chashu, some purple sprouts, green onion, menma, and a slice of naruto round out the bowl. These are easily the most visually appealing abura soba I've ever seen.

The instructions are to taste the noodle first, then mix, mix, mix.

That visual appeal only lasts a few seconds. Bet you don't know that oil is not the artery clogger that everyone thinks. In fact, copious amounts of oil and fat have a sort of cleansing effect on the internal organs. Or at least that is what Shono-san claims. I, for one, believe him.

Both noodle types sop up the oil well...

...but you should definitely go with the thick noodle for your first time. The thin noodles tend to clump together and become soggy after several minutes of stirring and slurping.

The thick noodles, on the other hand, keep their chew and bite til the very end.

I don't know abura soba, but I know what I like. This bowl is outstanding, and another winner from Shono-san, who is gachi (seriously enthusiastic) about ramen and life.

Tokyo, Shinjuku-ku, Sumiyoshicho 7-10
Closest stn: Akebonobashi

Open from 11am-4pm