Four years ago I was running around Tokyo eagerly searching out the best looking plastic ramen. Almost every single restaurant in Japan, no matter how high-end and fancy, displays that which the kitchen serves in glass cases filled with undeniably realistic looking plastic food. Some of the food in the cases looks tastier than what is actually served within the establishment!
At the time I was 23 and working illegally in a club in Roppongi, the Westerner infiltrated zone of Tokyo. I didn’t have to be at work until about 11pm, so my days were full of food exploration and food experimentation. I lived in Tokyo for only about six weeks, but in that time, I became extremely familiar with good ramen and soba. Not to mention, I wasn’t earning a fortune, so soup was the economical meal of choice. Unfortunately I only dabbled in sushi, a mistake I regret to this day…though I did eat the most scrumptious sushi in the world at the Tsukiji fish market (so all was not a total failure!).
I have always been partial to soup, whether it’s Chinese hand pulled noodles with pork bones, incendiary and fragrant tom yum kung, or a simple bowl of chicken noodle. Soup, no matter the season, is always comforting. In the midst of summer, I’ll trek down to my favorite noodle joint in Chinatown and stick my face in a bowl of steaming broth. Soup, for me, is a recipe for happiness.
In Japan, I learned to differentiate between the bite of each noodle. I could easily get lost in a bowl of cold buckwheat noodles. A bowl of near perfect noodles, with a bit of toothiness, from an ancient ramen spot around the corner from my apartment, resulted in utter mouth joy that most other restaurants couldn’t replicate. The laughable matter is that in Japan, most of the fast food joints that serve soup are better than the serious ramen joints of New York. Wait, I don’t mean laughable in a good way. I was pretty disappointed with the noodles that everyone was raving about when I first got here.
It has come to pass though, that New York now has really good ramen. Tonight, a long lost cook friend suggested we meet up and chat it up over some soup. He chose Ippudo. I grimaced. I had first gone to Ippudo when it opened and had eaten a severely mediocre bowl of soup there. I didn’t even consider at the time that it was a fluke happenstance. Everyone raved over Ippudo, but then again, everyone raved over Rai Rai Ken…
I personally raved over Ramen Setagaya. It seemed like the closest approximation to Tokyo ramen that I’d had in the city. But tonight, I was willing to give Ippudo another go. The prices are definitely not comparable to those of Tokyo at $13 a pop. Then again, I was in Tokyo 4 years ago…so maybe ramen is no longer $6 a bowl.
The night started a bit rough. We waited an hour and a half for a table, though we were quoted an hour. On a Wednesday. While my friend Sam and his two friends gulped Samurais, I munched soggy and cold edamame that had been left on the bar far too long. Sam’s friends ended up ordering pork buns, and my mind automatically envisioned Momofuku’s delectable steamed buns that encase two luscious pieces of perfectly braised pork belly, hoisin sauce, crisp pickled cucumbers and scallions. What a let down! The buns came with measly strips of not so tender pork belly, iceberg lettuce (blah!!) and a dribbling of mayo. I actually shied away from putting it in my mouth, but Sam insisted for ‘experience’s sake’ that I should try it. I regretted it–and still regret it.
We finally sat down to an enormous table for twelve–they obviously don’t do their seating charts very well, and thus the reason for the 1 1/2 hour wait– and immediately ordered our soups. I chose the shiromaru hakata classic: simmered Berkshire pork, pickled ginger, dried bamboo shoots (memna), scallions, hard boiled egg, and wood ear mushrooms (kikurage). The broth and noodles are really extraordinary. The noodles have a nice, firm bite, yet the thinness of them make the hearty mouthful still seem delicate. It’s a nice juxtaposition. The broth is seasoned to the brink; there is no need to add soy sauce. The saltiness is perfect, and the porkiness of the broth is extreme. Sometimes an acutely porky essence can be a bit foul, but this broth is oozing umami and is completely round in taste. My complaints would be that the accompanying vegetables were scarce. I even had to search for my pork, which turned out to be two pathetic films of pork loin moping around the depths of my bowl. Dry and unremarkable pork films. I wish there were more bamboo to offer crunch and more ginger for zing. But Ippudo proved better the second time around…and maybe the third time it’ll be near perfect.
So all this ramen scrutiny brought me back to my own moments under scrutiny in Japan… I ended up getting caught working illegally in Tokyo and was thoroughly interrogated by a policeman for 5 hours. The investigator shouted at me in Japanese, slamming his fists on the table, intoning he knew I was working without a visa, while the translator gently relayed the message in English. I played dumb; I was not ready to admit working feloniously for fear I would get deported and never see a beloved bowl of ramen again (or for at least five years)! I desperately lied, hoping they wouldn’t discover the truth and ban me from the glories of Japanese cuisine, for what seemed like an eternity of years.
Success! It worked. I stayed in Japan for an extra few weeks, though at this point it was in hiding. My work paid me to leave Tokyo because I had caused too much trouble (me? trouble??). I gladly hopped the Shinkansen and ate my way around Kyoto instead. So now, ramen and Japan will forever hold a special place in my heart–(the day I got taken in to the police station and the dream of ramen kept my lies alive and believable) and I will harshly judge those restaurants that can not duplicate the simple yet special role of the working man’s noodle soup.