Monday, June 29, 2020

わかば亭 (Wakabatei in Hiroshima)


Hiroshima-style tsukemen, let's talk about it. Clear, spicy broth covered in sesame seeds. Thin, cold noodles topped with crisp cabbage and green onion. Keep the hot side hot and cool side cool.

Wakabatei is a classic shop on the Takanobashi covered shopping street, a bit south of where the tourists hang. I suppose locals would know if this run down 商店街 is cool or not; I personally love an old school shopping arcade. Cool enough to have its own website at least.

Wakabatei is one of a handful of Hiroshima shops to serve some of the city's semi-famous noodles. Hiroshima is much better known for their okonomiyaki and oysters, with spicy tsukemen coming in a distant third.

What sets Wakabatei apart? The staff is hilarious. Two old biddies, talking trash and cracking jokes at the customer's expense. Let me rephrase. Two kind old ladies, welcoming anyone with a nice bowl of tsukemen.

I rode my motorcycle here, taking a few days to ride the coast from Tokyo to Hiroshima. A morning ferry from Matsuyama in Ehime put me just a few kilometers from Wakabatei's door.

Places like Wakabatei let you choose your spice level. The zero to ten scale is a good indicator of what you should order. I went with a four and it was a good choice. Just enough heat to need the cool vegetables. You can, if you want, go up to level 100 here at Wakabatei. If you do so, you get your name written inside on a plaque. Let me know if you do.

Hiroshima-style tsukemen never really caught on outside of its hometown. Occasionally you will find a place in another large city, like Karamaru in Tokyo, but you will need to search. 

Thursday, June 25, 2020

ラーメンル・デッサン (Le Dessin in Shizuoka Prefecture)


Le Dessin was on my list for ages. It came as a recommendation from not one, but two of Tokyo's most well-regarded chefs. Chef Hasegawa from Den and Chef Kawate from Florilege both had it on their lists. The kicker was that neither of these Michelin-starred chefs had actually tasted the ramen at Le Dessin. Word of mouth travels faster than the bullet train. And you'll need to take the bullet train a good hour from central Tokyo to Shizuoka to get here.

It isn't even in central Shizuoka, rather halfway to Hamamatsu City. If these places seem unfamiliar, it's because most tourists wiz by them at 300 kilometers an hour on their way to Kyoto. I had a different plan, to exit the highway around where Le Dessin is located and take my motorcycle along the coast. I had three days to get to Hiroshima, and coastal non-highway roads are the way to go.

Le Dessin was the perfect ramen for the start of a three-week road trip to Kyushu for many reasons. Of course, the geographical location, though quite terrible for normal folks, was ideal for a motorcycle ride. Secondly, they open at the ungodly hour of 7:00 am. Again, bad for normies but perfect for a motorcycle rider who wants to head out early. I'd be camping in Wakayama Prefecture before the sun was down. Lastly, this textbook-perfect refined bowl would be the last of it's kind during my time in creamy pork bone biased Kyushu.

Chef Toshiaki Masuda ran a small French bistro in Tokyo by the name of Le Dessin before shutting down and moving back home to make ramen. And oh what ramen it is. Five different soups. Four different tare bases. Eight or nine flavored butters. I wish I had a better appetite at 8:00 am.

From left to right we have:
  • Duck and chicken
  • Specialty ほろほろ鳥 chicken from Iwate
  • Hakodate scallop
  • Gamecock
  • Chicken niboshi
Plus a few seasonal limited bowls for good measure.

I went with the upper left choice, as I always tell people to do. Deep duck flavors enhanced with a solid shoyu tare. It was an exquisite bowl with some of the best 麺線を整える (noodle layering) I've ever seen. 

Official site here.

Monday, June 22, 2020

らーめん飛粋 (Hiiki in Kamata, Tokyo)


Hiiki strays from the ie-kei norm of including the 家 kanji in the name (an homage to the originator of this porky ramen style Yoshimuraya), but the flavors un undoubtedly Yokohama-style. Powerful chicken and pork broth mixed with aromatic chicken oil, topped with some bomb pork. The master here worked at a famous ie-kei shop before opening Hiiki in 2018.

The Ramen Beast approves! Go to the tokusei ramen (特製らーめん) in the upper left. The only decision you really need to think about is whether you want lean momo-niku or fatty bara-niku.

You know a spot is good, or at least has some hype around it, when the Ramen Rally stickers cover the wall.

Garlic, ginger, and spicy paste. The ginger is particularly nice in an intense ie-kei tonkotsu ramen.

Fatty pork belly (ばら) for that visual impact. Yokohama-style ie-kei ramen is easy to spot. Just look for the large sheets of nori seaweed, spinach, and golden broth.

I found Hiiki to be a bit more refined than other ie-kei shops. Ie-kei has a tendency to border on heavy. Some may say it ventures into the realm of Jiro. Hiiki won't knock you down like some other shops will.

Definitely one of Tokyo's top choices for this style.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

ラーメン二郎 (Jiro in Shinjuku Kabukicho, Tokyo)

ラーメン二郎 新宿歌舞伎町店

It's Jiro. If you know it, you know it. If you don't, you should give it a try once. This new location of the Kabukicho Jiro is conveniently located in the middle of Tokyo's sin district.

Jiro should be a sin.

Someday I will understand the sheer obsessiveness that people have for Jiro. It is common for someone to dream of visiting all the Jiro shops around Japan (there are 40 ish shops). I think I'm at five.

Official site here.

Monday, June 15, 2020

味噌ぶりnoodleみやみや (Miyamiya in Sakuragaoka, Tokyo)


Miyamiya was the rookie miso of the year back in 2017. Actually, they were tied with Kaede, a miso shop that recently rebranded as Hook, which was the shop I visited the day before Miyamiya. The world is funny that way.

Miso ramen shops that want to get a step ahead of the pack will go deep with their miso blends. Miyamiya uses five main misos plus a few more to balance the flavors out.
  • Aobata miso (青ばた味噌) from Yamagata. Miso made from unripened edamame beans.
  • Baikoji miso (倍糀味噌) from Shimane. Miso from a famous shoyu maker. They use natural koji mold and natural salt in the production.
  • Kodawari miso (こだわり味噌) from Oita. This miso maker has been around since the Edo Era and their miso was presented to the emperor of Japan (天皇献上). Gotta be great!
  • Tokujo shiro miso (特上白味噌) from Kyoto. A kind of Saikyo white miso (西京味噌). This miso is often used as a marinade for cooking meats and fish.
  • Hacho miso (八丁味噌). Heavily aged miso.

I gotta give props to these shops that display their special ingredient information on the counter. Makes my life much easier when it comes to writing these places up.

The ramen is top-level. All kinds of miso funkiness, miso saltiness, and miso aroma going on. I'd be a liar if I said I could distinguish the subtle differences that using a particular white miso makes, but their efforts pay off in the end.

Excellent shop out on the west side of Tokyo.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

味噌っ子ふっく (Hook in Ogikubo, Tokyo)


Hook is a rookie-of-the-year miso spot out in Ogikubo. It is questionable about that rookie status though, as this used to be Kaede, another rookie-of-the-year. These shops are descendants of the Hanamichi family, considered the OG of Tokyo miso styles. As expected, the latest shop is excellent. Worthy of a trek along the Chuo Line in search of miso ramen.

Hanamichi was called the first Tokyo-style miso ramen shop, a claim with little to back it other than that the shop's physical location is in Tokyo. Every ramen publication uses the phrase, though in the world of writing dozens of ramen-only magazines a year, any adjective is a welcome adjective.

Thick noodles are an ideal match for the hearty soup. Is that what makes Tokyo-style miso? Thick straight noodles that would be at home in a bowl of heavy tsukemen? Or maybe it is the use of some moyashi bean sprouts as a topping. Jiro comes from Tokyo, and a mound of moyashi makes any bowls look like a Jiro clone.

Choices are simple. Miso ramen and spicy miso ramen on the menu at Hook. You do you, but I have to say that the spicy one is the way to go. The homemade chili oil is made from two kinds of chili and numbing sansho peppercorn. It isn't so spicy, to be honest.

Two kinds of miso, red miso from the Shinshu region (Nagano) and white miso from Sendai (a few hundred kilometers north of Tokyo).

Miso ramen (味噌らーめん) and spicy miso ramen (辛味噌らーめん). Miso ramen and spicy miso ramen with an egg. Simple stuff. They also have tantanmen on the menu, which looks like the miso with a helping of spicy ground pork and some sesame.

Official Twitter here.

Monday, June 8, 2020

焼鳥 山もと (Yamamoto in Mitaka, Tokyo)

焼鳥 山もと

Yamamoto is one of my favorite higher-end yakitori shops in Tokyo. It's located out in Mitaka, so your chances of scoring a seat are much better than one of the great shops in central Tokyo, like Torishiki, Bird Land, or Imai. Recommended without hesitation.

Recently, they started opening at lunch to serve chicken ramen. Chicken ramen from one of Tokyo's best yakitori joints?

Many yakitori shops serve a carb dish at the end of the meal. Oyakodon (親子丼) is the most common. Literally meaning parent and child bowl, it's chicken and egg on rice. Some spots make a simple chicken broth with noodles. So ramen is a natural progression.

Deep chicken soup with legit toppings. Oyama chicken chashu, duck chashu, and wontons. Soup is made with chicken carcasses, chicken meat, and a lot of chicken feet. Chicken feet (足首) have little flavor and a lot of nice fat, something a yakitori restaurant wouldn't really use on the grill. By utilizing it for the soup, nothing is wasted.

The tantanmen was also outstanding. Japanese-style, meaning a delicate, umami-rich soup with a lighter-than-China level of spice.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

茶禅華 (Sazenka in Hiro, Tokyo)


Sazenka isn't a ramen restaurant per se, rather an ultra-high-end Chinese restaurant that serves some noodle dishes as part of their course menu. Chef Tomoya Kawata is an expert in both Japanese and Chinese traditional cuisine, blending the two for this two-starred experience. 

Hairy crab from Shanghai was in season.

Chashu grilled over bincho charcoal at the table.

The famous Jumping Buddha soup; this soup is so good that it would make the meditating buddha jump for joy.

White truffles from Alba.

Hairy crab risotto with white truffle.

Ok, so this one was obviously great, but by the time the end came, we were stuffed. Many of these high-level Chinese spots in Tokyo end with both a noodle dish and some mabodofu.

Ending with these carb dishes is smart. If someone still has room, they can have a large serving. If you are comatose, just a bite.

Creamy tantanmen. Chef Kawata trained at the now-closed Azabu Chuko from the age of 16 to 26. His original reason for dropping everything to make Chinese food was Chuko's dandanmien.

We were also served light ramen with a chicken broth. Noodles and a soft, clear both. Some of the leftover crab miso served as a topping.

All in all, this was some good, expensive stuff. In recent years other Chinese restaurants of this caliber have begun planning noodle-only sister shop expansions, where a bowl of their dandanmien or lamien would be served for around 10,000 yen ($100). There's a market in Tokyo, so I wish them luck.

Official site here.