Wednesday, December 30, 2015

かつ屋 Katsuya: a married couple

I always crave Eifukucho Taishoken, but because of its large portion, it's not always practical, so sometimes I try to find something similar. Katsuya, not too far from ET, was a nice surprise.

There was a line when we arrived, but it moves fast. Young and old couples, parents and their kids, this seemed like a place loved by the locals for a long time.

Chukamen (770yen - half noodles, half wontons)

Most customers seemed to order a half ramen, half wonton portion ("han-han" in Japanese). Here, the policy is that you can substitute half the noodles for wontons. ALWAYS GET THE WONTONS.

The staff is comprised of a married couple, serving ramen silently but professionally. Their passion came through when we were watching them make one bowl in particular. The wife cracked the raw egg yolk that comes as a topping, and threw the entire bowl down the drain. Mottainai! If I were waiting for that ramen, I wouldn't care about a cracked egg. After the mishap, they continued to make perfectly crafted bowls quietly and efficiently.

The flavor is like a milder version of ET.

I really like the ability to get a smaller portion with wontons, as opposed to the mountain of food at ET, and the price is also quite a bit more reasonable.

If you're an ET fan, you'll want to try Katsuya.

Tokyo, Setagaya-ku, Umegaoka 1-22-11
Closest stn: Umegaoka

Open from 11am-230pm and 530-8pm (closed Wednesdays)


Monday, December 14, 2015

らーめん 茂木 Mogi: always

Several shops in the Sangenjaya/Ikejiri-Ohashi area were closed for a holiday, but Mogi was open.

Smoky and dingy inside, with every bowl slowly and painstakingly put together by a single master, this shop was a nice surprise. Mogi serves up a light tonkotsu-gyokai. Everyone was ordering wontons, so we did too. This is, without a doubt, the smartest thing you can do at Mogi.

Wonton men (900yen)

For a couple extra bucks, you get a heaping mound of thick-skinned wonton filled with juicy minced meat. If a shop serves up a wonton option, always go with the wontons. Always.

The light and chewy noodles are the perfect foil for the large wonton because they not only soak up the soup, but pick up a good amount of the finely chopped scallions.

A fine old-school shop that serves up a hearty bowl in a ramen diner setting.

Tokyo, Setagaya-ku,Taishido 2-13-1
Closest stn: Sangenjaya

Open from 1130am-230pm and 6-1030pm (closed Sundays)


Friday, December 4, 2015

饗 くろ喜 Motenashi Kuroki: hospitalité

Rain on my days off normally makes me sad, but today a special bowl blew away the blues. Even though it was pouring in Akihabara, a line of over a dozen people had formed in front of this special shop. Kuroki has gotten kudos from just about every major ramen publication. It's a small place, but the line moved faster than expected.

Miso for me...

Miso soba (800yen)

...and shio with wontons for Hearts.

Wonton shio soba (1050yen)

When I ordered the miso, the staff took the time to explain that the bowl is normally too rich for most female customers and wanted to make sure that was what I wanted. I guess some foreigners might feel the staff is being intrusive, but this concern is actually a sign of consideration for the customer. It's a good example of omotenashi, the Japanese word for "hospitality," where the staff goes above and beyond to make you feel like you are being cared for.

The miso looks heavy and rich, and it's thick like potage, but the broth was balanced by lots of vegetables, some special tart sauce, and thick, flavorful noodles. This might be "ramen for men," but I'll be craving it in the cold of winter.

The shio, however, was even more surprising. One bite in, I tasted the strong flavor of the dashi, comprised of a half dozen different types of salt and lots of seafood stock. More than any bowl I've had, this shio tasted rich but delicate, like the sort of umami-laden broth you might be served in a kaiseki meal at an expensive Japanese ryokan. Everything else in the bowl is of the highest quality, from the hand-made noodles to the flavorful chashu to the crisp menma to the juicy wontons (always get the wontons). Hearts said this was one of the best two or three bowls of shio ramen he's ever had, and I'm inclined to agree.

Kuroki has some interesting side dishes and a Friday-only duck soba. They deserve all the awards, and probably a few more, though let's keep Michelin and it's star system away. We don't want the lines at this place getting any longer.

Tokyo, Chiyoda-ku, Kanda Izumicho 2-15
Closest stn: Akihabara

Open from 11am-3pm and 6-9pm (closed Sundays and Wednesday nights)


Friday, November 13, 2015

麺尊 RAGE: the big chill

This was the Summer of Shoyu, and we're still catching up to all the innovative bowls that we tried over the hot holidays.

RAGE is a cool new shop in the ramen holy land of Ogikubo. Despite the aggressive shop name, the place is spacious, laid back, and run by some chill dudes willing to pump hip-hop music. One guy was wearing a San Antonio Spurs jersey when we walked in, and was able and willing to talk about the NBA. I will definitely be back to talk shop during the NBA season.

RAGE serves up a fantastic niboshi ramen that is loaded with sardines and chopped onions. Rich but easy to slurp, this is the go-to bowl on a first visit and one of the best of its kind in a very niboshi-heavy 2015.

Niboshi soba with ajitama (850yen)

In a strong attempt to set itself apart from the countless new chuka soba shops around the city, Rage also serves up a very high quality chicken soup, with shamo dori birds. Originally used as cockfighting game fowl, shamo chicken is now a special delicacy, with a taste that most resembles Red Cornish hens.

Tokusei shamo dori soba (1050yen)

It's an excellent idea for a chuka soba, and the extra cuts of shamo chicken are a great addition. The noodles from Mikawaya Seimen, on the other hand, pair well with either bowl.

"Menson" is to pray at the noodle altar, and these guys live what they preach. Also one of the top five new shops of the year in the Ramen Taisho rankings, these are men to watch.

Tokyo, Suginami-ku, Shoan 3-37-22
Closest stn: Nishi-Ogikubo

Open from 11am-3pm and 6-9pm (closed Tuesday and for dinner on weekends)


Friday, November 6, 2015

東京ラーメンストリート店 ソラノイロ Sora no iro Nippon

We're huge fans of Miyazaki-san's Sora no iro branches, including his original Sora no iro and his second shop, Salt and Mushroom. His beautiful third shop, Sora no iro Nippon, just debuted at the Tokyo Ramen Street, occupying the stall of the now relocated Shichisai (more to come on that!).

The inside is an eclectic blend of modern Japanese and traditional Okinawan style decor, with relaxing Okinawan music playing in the background. This is a signature of Miyazaki-san, who imparts all sorts of subtle nods to Okinawa in his various shops.

Sora no iro is famous for their vegetarian ramen, a bowl filled with vegetables and with a soup heavy on carrot puree. But unlike the original shop's Veggie Ramen, the veggie bowl here is vegan, with absolutely no meat used in the process of making the soup.

Veggie ramen (vegan style - 900yen)

This is the first vegan ramen we've ever had, and while we'll probably stick with the carnivore options, this bowl isn't lacking in substance considering it uses no pork or chicken bones for the dashi. The noodles, like the original, are infused with paprika for the orange color.

We actually prefer the shop's other signature, the fantastic chuka soba.

Edo-shiki chuka soba (800yen)

Described as Edo-shiki, evoking old Tokyo, this is a hearty shoyu with a strong smell of dried bonito and a dark, rich color. The original shop's chuka soba is mild and soft, and this one is a lot bolder; your mileage may vary depending on your preference, but both are excellent bowls.

After work, travel, or commute, the Ramen Street fulfills the body and mind. I was actually feeling pretty stressed from work, but Sora no iro's chuka soba blew my cares away. If Shichisai must go, I'm really glad it's replaced by a dedicated shop like Sora no iro.

Tokyo, Chiyoda-ku, Marunouchi 1-9-1
Closest stn: Tokyo

Open from 11am-11pm


Friday, October 30, 2015

Japanese Soba Noodles 蔦 Tsuta: drifting elegant

Our other favorite shoyu ramen shop in Tokyo, Tsuta is more elegant than Shibata in both appearance and presentation despite being located in the "granny paradise" of Sugamo. When we first went, the shop was still and quiet, the customers silently revering the master's prep work like one would at a sushi counter. The shop is a little more relaxed now, with pop music playing in the background.

The shoyu was chosen as one of a select few ramen shops to grace the Tokyo Michelin Guide. The chicken-stock soup is comprised of a blend of several different high quality shoyu (including a smoked shoyu from Wakayama) and seafood dashi (including clams and konbu from Aomori), but the master recently leveled up the already strong bowl through the infusion of Italian truffle oil. The fragrance and taste now brings out the fowl, but also hints of mushroom. This is a bowl that understandably appeals to Westerners.

Ajitama shoyu soba (950yen)

The shio isn't as eye-popping, but is no less attentively constructed. Using clams and sea bream for the dashi, Okinawan sea salt for the soup, and topping it off with olive oil, this is another bowl that combines Japanese and Western flavors.

Ajitama shio soba (950yen)

Everything here is homemade and uses no artificial flavors or preservatives, including the delicate but firm noodles.

Shio and shoyu serving shops have really stepped up their game in the last couple of years, and Tsuta is one of the best examples of bowls that are approaching culinary art.

Tokyo, Toshima-ku, Sugamo 1-14-1
Closest stn: Sugamo

Open from 11am-4pm (closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays)


Friday, October 16, 2015

中華そば しば田 Shibata: duck tales

The summer was remarkably hot, but not matter how hot it gets, the ramen love never ceases. Shibata is a sweaty 15-minute walk from Sengawa station. Rated the top new ramen shop in last year's Ramen Taisho, it's definitely a destination shop, with the master having trained and created many a limited-time bowl at Kichijoji's Raku Raku.

Only open on weekdays, this is also not an easy shop to frequently frequent. Get there when they open and you won't have to wait in much of a line, but the shop fills up quick.

The shop serves both a shoyu and niboshi. Normally we like to try each bowl, but Hearts and I couldn't compromise and we both ended up going with the chuka soba.

Chuka soba with ajitama (850yen)

This is the go-to bowl. The shops takes a page from Hototogisu and uses a mix of niboshi and hamaguri clams for the soup, but also infuses kamo dashi made from large cuts of duck meat, something we haven't ever seen in a ramen. The soup is dark and brown and might look a bit salty, but the seafood and high quality mix of shoyu brings out the clean fat, smoky flavor, and gamey smell of the duck.

These silky Mikawaya Seimen noodles provide the perfect harmony.

The chashu is also soft, chewy, and of very high quality. Hearts regretted not ordering an extra portion, but even the standard comes with three big pieces. A bargain! The pinkness of the meat also provides a colorful contrast to the brown of the soup.

Shibata's chuka soba is umami in every morsel. One of the very best shoyu shops, served in a no-frills setting by a single dedicated master who seems intent on improving every day.

Tokyo, Chofu-shi, Wakaba-cho 2-25-20
Closest stn: Sengawa

Open from 11am-230pm and 530-830pm (closed weekends)


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

たんたん亭 Tantantei: inception

Last year, after a visit to the wonton masters at Yakumo, we asked who the genius was who crafted the first wontons and ramen combination. We still don't know the answer, but we decided to visit the old school mind masters who trained the wonton craft at Yakumo.

Tantantei serves up a classic shinasoba, which is basically an old-fashioned way of saying chukasoba, since the word "shina" is a slightly derogatory way of referring to China and conjures up some vague connotations of Japanese imperialism. In the ramen world, however, shinasoba, as Keizo Shimamoto has pointed out, is just a classic shoyu ramen that is usually served with wontons.

The classic mix (both pork and shrimp wontons) is the way to go.

Mix wontonmen (1150yen!)

The noodles are thin, chewy, and just excellent. They pair well with the niboshi-rich soup.

Half a dozen juicy wontons cover the bowl. The high price is somewhat justified with this much content. Pop the wonton in your mouth, burst the ball of minced meat, and swallow the juices while the flat, silky wonton skin glides down your throat like a comet's tail.

Tantantei serves up a rather pricey bowl of wonton ramen which has inspired a vast legacy of shinasoba practitioners in Tokyo. Whether Tantantei is better than our other favorite wonton bowl, Yakumo, probably just depends on your mood and wallet, as Tantantei's broth has more umami flavor, while Yakumo's shoyu soup - especially it's sublime white shoyu - is more refreshing. Living in Tokyo, we're glad that we don't have to choose.

Tokyo, Suginami-ku, Hamadayama 3-31-4
Closest stn: Hamadayama

Open from 11am-830pm


Monday, September 28, 2015

つけ麺 えんじ Enji: local hero

Right after getting off the train at Kichijoji, you can find Enji in under a minute. Many convenience points.

Enji is a precursor of veggie-potage, or "vegepota" style ramen.

Vegepota tsukemen (800yen)

Enji uses a tonkotsu gyokai broth and adds a third vegetable soup, giving the sea-pork broth a rich sweetness. Some shops serve only vegepota, but Enji's might be the first and it's addictive!

The noodles are of medium thickness and made from a combination of flour and wheat germ, which supposedly contains more minerals and vitamin E than ordinary flour noodles.

You can see that the color is duller than normal white noodles, which doesn't look as nice next to the soup, but does the job when dipped into the creamy broth.

I've gone here many times, but the line seems to grow longer with each successive visit. I'm happy to see that. Kichijoji is my favorite area of Tokyo, and I think it's pretty welcoming to ramen fans.

Tokyo, Musashino City, Kichijoji Minami-cho 1-1-1
Closest stn: Kichijoji

Open from 11am-10pm