Monday, August 31, 2020

ゲンエイドットワガン (Genei Wagan in Hiro, Tokyo)


Just a few weeks after visiting Mengekijo Genei in Kyushu, I finally made it to their more famous Tokyo shop, Genei Wagan. This shop is famous for a ramen course, costing close to $100. I, however, was here for a TV shoot with Ramen Walker to try a new bowl chef Irie-san had created. The episode was based around their neo tonkotsu ramen, a new style meant to give customers a gourmet taste of the least gourmet style of ramen.

Creamy tonkotsu accented with spiced aroma oil. This bowl was all about balancing flavors. Dubbed NEO-tonkotsu, the idea wasn't to make something brand new but to update traditional Kyushu styles for the modern age. Genei was planing on being flush with tourists during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and this was going to be their signature dish.

The soup is made from pork cartilage for extra collagen thickness.

That bit of oil on top is a mix of three kinds of numbing peppercorn (Chinese sansho and kasho along with Japanese green sansho). It's a subtle flavor, despite the intensity of the ingredients going in. Spice with thick, fatty pork chashu and creamy soup is a solid match.

I've known about this spot for years, but the idea of a premium $100 ramen course never really appealed. Foodies would keep going, boasting about how the dishes made with premium ingredients like salmon roe, scallops with karasumi (preserved roe), and chashu stewed in jasmine tea were on the level of fine kaiseki cuisine. It just seemed corny. The icing on the cake was when the guys from the Worth It Youtube show went. Their video has close to 30 million views, meaning more tourists. And more tourists means more nonsense. I recently read the ramen chapter in Michael Booth's book The Meaning of Rice, and the whole first paragraph is him bashing both the shop and the chef Irie-san. The shop gets a ding because of the over-the-top atmosphere. Is this a nightclub or a ramen shop? The chef gets it because he poses with his oversized watches for every customer, a trend that has become popular with a few foreigner-centric gourmet spots in Japan (just google Teruzushi or Wagyu Mafia or Salt Bae). I lie somewhere in the middle; I'm not a fan of the Instagram antics, but the ramen was decent and I enjoyed myself.

Yes, I took a photo of him posing with his watches.

In the end, the whole thing is quite interesting and I hope to check out the full ramen course sometime soon. Irie-san is known as a ramen non-conformist (ラーメン界の異端児) so who knows what you'll get!

You can reserve a spot here.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

きしもと食堂 (Kishimoto Shokudo in Okinawa)

元祖木灰沖縄そば きしもと食堂

The only blue you could see in Tokyo in December was the blue illumination in Harajuku. Get me outta here!

That's more like it. Okinawa in November or December ain't bad. It's not tropical hot, so don't think you are going to be sunning yourself on the beach per se. If you do, though, you'll probably be the only person on said beach. The winter months are the low season in the south of Japan.

Grab some Orion beer and enjoy yourself.

While there are a handful of ramen spots in Okinawa, the ones I tried were always just normal. It makes sense; Okinawa has its own noodle culture in the form of soki soba.

Soki soba (ソキそば) isn't ramen. The noodles are made without kansui, so they lack that special texture. The soup is a fish-based clear broth. The toppings, though pork, are usually stewed meat and local fishcake.

Be careful with the hot chili seasoning (コーレーグス). Koregus is the local way of saying chili pepper. Local reds are soaked in local sake called awamori. Even just a teaspoon of this will take your bowl from zero to spicy.

The usual cast of foodies and TV personalities have all left their autographed plaques on the walls.

Kishimoto is definitely one of Okinawa's most famous shops. The location is a bit far from Naha, where the airport is, but just down the road from the Churaumi Aquarium, one of the only aquariums in the world to house a whale shark. It's a must-visit site, so do yourself a favor and get some rad noodles once you are done looking at the fishies.

I visited a nearby branch of their shop years ago. Both are great, but I think the location of the other shop is a bit nicer, up along the informally named soki-soba road.

Monday, August 24, 2020

麺劇場 玄瑛 (Mengekijou Genei in Fukuoka)

麺劇場 玄瑛

Genei is a famous shop with a strange feature. The shop is designed to feel like a stadium, with customers as fans and the ramen chef as the show. It makes sense when you know that shop was opened by Hideki Irie, once a contestant on Iron Chef Japan.

I expected a packed stadium, with all 20 seats filled up. Instead, it was only me and one other random foreigner in the crowd. Mengekijo (麺劇場) literally means noodle theater, and this off-broadway show was struggling.

Noodles are made with a high alkaline content for a slippery slurp. The shoyu is also made in house. Chef Irie-san ate at over 700 ramen shops in one year to prepare his own ramen, taking inspiration from around the country.

Choose between tonkotsu, shoyu, shrimp shoyu, and two kinds of tantanmen.

The broth in the shiokaoru (literally ocean aroma) is made from katsuo, flying fish, shiitake mushroom, and rishiri or raosu kombu kelp. It's a nice break from the legendary tonkotsu restaurants that cover Fukuoka.

I should note that this spot led to GENEI WAGAN, the spot in Tokyo that does an expensive ramen tasting course. This shop is quite popular with foreigners, especially after being featured on some prominent YouTube videos, especially the Worth It video. I could rant about that and I could rant about expensive ramen, but I won't.

Actually, I will, as I finally visited GENEI WAGAN a few weeks after this one.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

長浜ナンバーワン (Nagahama Number One in Fukuoka)

長浜ナンバーワン 祇園店

Nagahama Number One lives up to their name and is consistently ranked as a number one spot in Hakata.

Nagahama Number One is as tonkotsu as it gets. The shop was originally a yatai food cart called Shoryuken back in 1971 before changing their name and opening their brick-and-mortar shop. The idea for their name was created with the same reason foodie YouTubers include "BEST" in their titles, simply a way to be noticed. Hakata's BEST Tonkotsu Ramen?

Noticed they were, and Nagahama Number One has become a sort of standard in the world of tonkotsu ramen. At just 620 yen for a normal bowl, you can roll in an crush a bowl in about three minutes.

They pride themselves on keeping the original yatai style.

They have branches around Japan, though the one in Tokyo was something I immediately forgot. Stick to the original.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Furari in Beppu, Oita Prefecture


Furari is consistenly ranked at the top of Oita ramen shops. They use Miyazaki pork cooked daily to make a frothy style tonkotsu ramen as well as their tantanmen. Noodles are made inhouse and resemble pasta. Tare is made from Hyogo soy sauce.

One of my last bowls in Kyushu in 2019 was at Furari. Of the seven prefectures in Kyushu, Oita is the least known for noodle culture. Their tourism campaigns always focus on onsen hot springs.

Furari is located on the north side of Beppu, on a hill overlooking steam vents and small onsen resorts. Keep in mind that all the onsen are in the Beppu area. If you stay down near Oita Station, you'll need to make your way up here via slow train.

Furari = Ferrari?

Fantastic stuff. Like many tantanmen bowls in Japan, it isn't too spicy, and the spice that is there is mellowed out by the creamy tonkotsu soup.

Official site here.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

丸星ラーメン (Maruboshi in Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture)

丸星中華そばセンター 本店

A ramen truck-stop open 24 hours a day since 1958. This is the stuff of legends. This is Maruboshi.

Maruboshi lies along National Route 3 in the central city of Kurume. An hour south of Hakata and two hours north of Kumamoto make this a common stop along the transport corridor of Kyushu. Maruboshi's parking lot is about 20 times larger than the shop itself, which is already quite massive with a whopping 95 seats. There were six or seven big-rigs parked in the big-rig-only section.

Photos from the decades adorn the walls. So many smiling faces.

The ramen here isn't for everyone, but it is perfect for me. You won't find tare made from specialty soy sauce sourced from the mountains of Wakayama[citation needed]. There is probably a mountain of Ajinomoto MSG in the final product[citation needed]. There are no fancy toppings and the shop has definitely never seen a truffle[citation needed]. It's a different kind of kodawari.

Bowls are only 450 yen, up from 400 in the past. Historically, Kyushu has been the home of budget ramen, with yatai food stalls and brick-and-mortar shops alike rarely breaking 500 yen.

Maido arigatogozaimasu. Thank you every time. Maruboshi is possibly a though one to make it to, and there are other shops in Kurume to hit up, but I really think you should try. This is ramen roots, the kind of place that shaped the ramen landscape into what it is today.

Monday, August 10, 2020

幸陽閣 (Koyokaku in Saga Prefecture)

豚骨ラーメン 幸陽閣

That bright orange egg yolk is a signature at Kyokaku, another famous shop in Saga Prefecture, Kyushu. To some, it's just another, darker shade of tonkotsu. To others, it is a local legend that came, went, and came back again.

Beautiful orange egg to match my beautiful orange bike, helmet, and camera case.

The menu is very simple. Ramen, ramen with egg, ramen with extra pork, and ramen with extra pork and an egg. At only 650 yen for the recommended 卵入り, locals have nothing to complain about. On a side note, ramen in Kyushu tends to be the least expensive in Japan. Many locals I've spoken with say that if it is more than 500 yen, it isn't ramen!

Green onions are sourced from local farmers. Yet another bowl that really did it for me. A bit meatier, though that might have been a placebo effect from soup's color. Either way, a fantastic, inconvenient (what legend shops in Kyushu aren't?) bowl.

The shop's master trained at popular Ikkyuken (一休軒本店) since 1975 before it shut down in 2008. Business just wasn't good enough to stay open. The chef moved on to make yakiniku barbecue. Five months later and his former customers had had enough. They wanted their ramen back, and they got their way.

The current master is Yoshida-san, the son-in-law of the original Kawakami-san. In a textbook story of master and apprentice, people said that when Yoshida-san first took over, the flavor fell, but eventually rose to a level that makes this one of Saga's top shops.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

来久軒 (Raikyuken in Saga Prefecture)


Raikyuken cooks their soup for around ten days. Surely that's a typo. Ten hours, right?

Nope, it's ten days. A few pots are used, and soup is shuffled around like magic potions until the brew is ready to serve.

The shop is a short walk from Mifuneyama Park. My timing was impeccable. Not only could I see the fall colors lit up at night, but the crew behind Team Labs Borderless had set up a mini-exhibition.

The icing on the cake was that I snagged a last-minute room at the hotel. Rooms here normally go for a few hundred a night, and I was out here camping for free, but a quick check online and I was staying here, among the art, for well within my budget.

The exhibition was set to close around November 2019. Too bad. Checking their site, however, and I see that they will have a renewed, different light show, by the same people, in 2020. The new one looks even crazier!

It's always nice to have a little sightseeing to go with your ramen.

Yes, the soup here takes 10 days to make. They use three massive iron pots in the back. Soup travels from one to the other in a kind of conveyor belt of flavors. Though I wasn't able to check in detail, they say that the color changes in each one, with the final product being this milky white pork soup.

The shio tare is a secret blend of 10 ingredients. In the end, the final product looks quite simple. Creamy soup with a couple pieces of chashu and a few slices of negi onion.

Even in the brisk November temperatures, the back kitchen was hot and steamy. I say back kitchen, but this was more of a converted garage unit.

Raikyuken opened in 1975 and has been highly ranked ever since ranking ramen was a thing in Saga Prefecture.

More art photos?

The art installation was set inside an abandoned hot springs complex. Lights and technology.

Half the complex houses the art, and the other half houses the hotel. If you stay at the hotel, one bonus is that you have free access to the park.

And of course the beautiful natural hot springs.

Official site here.