Sunday, April 30, 2006

博多ラーメン Hakata Ramen

Kyushu style ramen, or more specifically, Hakata style ramen, is one of the three major regional varieties of Japanese ramen (the other two are from Hokkaido and Kitakata). Ramen from the Kyushu area is dominated by the tonkotsu soup based ramen which originated from the Hakata area of Fukuoka city.

Ramen from the Hakata area in Fukuoka city are famous for its rich, white tonkotsu soup which is created from cooking pork bone at high heat for many hours. The noodles used are often thin, straight ramen noodles. Common toppings include cha-shu pork, dried seaweed, beni-shoga (pickled ginger), and takana (pickled vegetables).

★★★★ 一風堂 (Ippuudou) - Tokyo

★★★ 一蘭 (Ichi-ran) - Tokyo

★★★ なんでんかんでん (Nanden-Kanden) - Tokyo

★★★ ラーメン 御天 (Goten) - Tokyo

★★★ 康竜 (Kouryu) - Tokyo

★★★ じゃんがららあめん (Jyangara Ramen) - Tokyo

★★ 博多天神 (Hakata-Tenjin) - Tokyo

★★ らーめん山頭火 (Santouka) - Tokyo

Santouka is originally from the city of Asahikawa, Hokkaido in the Northern part of Japan. Famous for its cold winters, ramen from this area are famous for having quite a bit of oil in it to prevent the heat from escaping the soup. Today Santouka has expanded to one of the largest ramen chains with stores around the world. During my last trip to Tokyo I gave this place a try and ordered their famous dish しおらーめん (shio or salt ramen).

The Soup - is a combination of seafood and tonkotsu (pork bone) stock, though I couldn't taste that much seafood flavor and it simply tasted like tonkotsu soup to me. The soup is very rich, with a thick layer of oil floating on top of the soup clearly visible.

The Noodles - are thin curly noodels (縮れ麺), cooked firm like most tonkotsu based ramen. From their website it says that their noodles are made with lower water content, which makes the soup wrap around the noodles more when you eat them.

The Toppigs - are pretty good, cha-shu pork, menma bamboo, green onions, a naruto fishcake (the pink swirly thing) and sliced kikurage mushrooms. While the cha-shu pork is tender, flavorful and the menma bamboo is firm and delicious, I must compliment them on the visual presentation of the toppings. The purple kikurage mushrooms, pink naruto fish cake and small red plum in the middle really makes this one of the most enjoyable rames to look at.

Overall - the ramen was delicious, but besides the visual appearance, I found the flavor of the ramen not that memorable. The ramen was somewhat lacking a personlaity that sets itself apart from the numerous tonkotsu ramen places in Tokyo. Santouka might be a good ramen place for you to start if you are new to the ramen scene, but if you are a seasoned veteran then there are ramen places with more interesting flavors for you to challenge. Santouka has store all over Japan and even a few in the US, with stores in L.A. Chicago, and New York (open the link and scroll down for the US locations).

Saturday, April 29, 2006

★★★ 麺屋蔵六 (Zou-roku) - Tokyo

Zou-roku - is a relatively new ramen store produced by the famous ramen personality Watanabe-san, who is also the owner/creator of 渡なべ in Shinjuku and (Miharu) in Shibuya. This day I ordered the 味玉醤油らぁめん (shoyu ramen with flavored boiled egg).

The Soup - first impressions are that this soup is seafood based, but after a sip of the soup the flavor is so rich and thick that I had to pause to figure out what was going on. There was the distinct rich texture of tonkotsu soup, mixed with the aroma of seafood (bonito and dry sardines). After some research later I found out that the soup is prepared separately in three parts, tonkotsu (pork bone) based, chicken based, and seafood based, giving it a really complex personality.

The Noodles - are thin, straight noodles, cooked rather firm. The springiness of the noodles are strong, but the flavor is quite subdued.

The Toppings - are very good. Large sliced of cha-shu pork, menma bamboo, and the boiled egg's yolk is half cooked and so full of flavor. The flavor of the cha-shu and bamboo is toned down a little bit.

Overall - The craetor of this ramen wanted the soup to be the center of your attention, keeping the noodles and toppings subdued and the visual presentation simple. While I enjoyed the ramen quite a bit, I feel that I need to eat here a few more times until I can figure out whether I like this place enough to return regularly. I have simply never had ramen soup that tastes like Zou-roku's. Zou-roku is located right outside Shinagawa station in Tokyo (take the Takanawa exit).

Thursday, April 27, 2006

★★★ Noodle Land Thai Restaurant- Redmond

Noodle Land is a Thai noodle house in the Seattle area, they have a few varieties of Thai ramen that has quite the different personality than ramen () of neighboring China and Vietnam. I want to introduce a very peculiar Thai ramen called "Yentafo Noodle", or as some Thai restaurants call it, the "pink noodle soup".

The Soup - is spicy and sour, similar to tom-yum-kung soup, but with the yentafo sauce it adds a steady sweetness with every sip. Almost opposite from Japanese ramen soups, the yentafo soup gets most of its flavoring and complexity from the large variety of spices that is added to the soup. The sweet, spicy and sourness takes center stage, but with a lot of mysterious spices dancing in the background of your pallete. The redness of the yentafo (映豆腐) is a natural coloring from wheat malt used to ferment tofu, it is also used in BBQ pork in Chinese Canton cuisine.

The Noodle - are rice noodles served flat and wide (almost 3/4 inch wide). They are also very thin, as you can see in the picture in the middle bottom part of the bowl they are almost transparent. These noodles aren't meant to be chewed on, instead they are slide right down your throat as you sip the soup.

The Toppings - are an interesting bunch. Shrimp, squid, fish balls, fried tofu, boiled spinach and a lot of coriander. Though I hear that the toppings for this can vary, some places will even serve intestines and pigs blood with yentafo.

Overall - the yentafo noodle is a new favorite for me, I will search the Thai restarants in the area for and try more varieties of this dish. After eating a lot of heavy, oily Japanese ramen it is nice to eat something so light and fresh tasting. Next time you go to a Thai restaurant see if they have a soup noodle section, the yentafo noodle might be only available but written in Thai only.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

★★★ ぶぶか (Bubuka) - Tokyo

Bubuka serves a very unique type of ramen call 油そば (abura soba) or oily noodles, it was first invented in Tokyo back in the 1950's and its recipe has spread modestly througout the city. Abura-soba is basically ramen noodles and toppings with no soup, instead you have a thick, oily, soy sauce based sauce that is like a condensed version of ramen soup. The sauce is served at the bottom of the ramen bowl, with the noodles and toppings on top. You mix the noodles well with the sauce before eating it. This day I ordered the ネギ油そば (green onion abura-soba).

The Soup - well, there is none. The sauce, however, is very thick, rich and oily. Probably a mixture of soy sauce, lard, a trace of tonkotsu soup, maybe a little bit of vinegar, and ground sesame. When they served the ramen they also gave me a large bottle of red chile oil, which went really well with the ramen.

The Noodles - were very, very thick and cooked very firm. One of the signs they had in the store read: "Please be patient. Our noodles are very thick and take a long time to cook." and they weren't lying. These were the chewiest ramen noodles I have ever had. The oily sauce clings to the noodles easily so every bite was filled rich flavor that you thoroughly experience from all the chewing required. This is definitely not the type of noodle where you can chew 2-3 times and swallow, quite the excersize for your jaw.

The Toppings - are dissapointing. The cha-shu pork was served cold and hard. The negi green onions and menma bamboo were average.

Overall - I loved it, but abura-soba is not for everyone. The thick flavorful sauce and thick noodles is like the ultimate comfort food with all the guilty pleasures that comes from a dish filled with fat and carbs. In some ramen communities people refer to abura-soba as a "second-class" food, which makes me adore it even more. (I heard hamburgers were once considered as "second-class" when it was first invented, and yes, I adore burgers too). There is a Bubuka store near JR Takadanobaba or at Kitsujoji on the JR chuo line.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

★★ Szechuan Noodle Bowl - Seattle

Szechuan Noodle Bowl (川味牛肉麺大王)is located in the International District of downtown Seattle, a hole-in-the-wall type of store that has been around for a long time. They have a simple menu that consists of a few varieties of the authentic Szechuan style beef noodle soup , 紅焼牛肉麺 (red braised beef noodle), 清燉牛肉麺 (clear stew), and 川味牛肉麺 (Szechuan style spicy). They also have a handful of appetizers the best of which are the pot stickers and green onion pancakes, I highly recommend getting the crispy, chewy pancakes with your noodles. But back to the ramen, on this day I ordered the 川味牛筋麺 (Szechuan style spicy beef tendon noodle).

The Soup - is a rich, dark brown soup, with a few floating drops of red chile oil. The soup is cooked everyday by stewing for over six hours a combination of beef, tendon, green onions, soy sauce, vegetables and a whole bunch of spices. The soup has a thick and salty flavor that is balanced out by the sourness of what I believe is rice vinegar and the spiciness of red chile.

The Noodle - is very thick, almost the thickness of udon noodles. The texture is surprisingly soft, too soft for my taste though I have found that Chinese prefer their noodles to be on the softer side.

The Toppings - consists of may pieces of beef tendon, bok-choy and green onions. The beef tendon were very tender and had all the rich flavors of the soup. The bright green bok-choy adds a beautiful contrast to the dark brown broth.

Overall - the soup and toppings were great, the noodle was not much to my liking, but if you want to try what authentic Chinese 面 or ramen tastes like then give Szechuan Noodle Bowl a try. I must say that I have never actually been to Szechuan yet, so I don't know how authentic this place is. The owner says that it is authentic, but I can't tell how different it is from Taiwanese style beef noodle sooup. Hopefully in the near future I will get a chance to go further inland on Mainland China and report on the ramen scene from there.

★★★ ラーメン 御天 (Goten) - Tokyo

Goten is not for the faint of heart. This tonkotsu ramen is so raw and un-refined that some people might find it difficult just to step into the store. Goten's owner is from Hakata city, Kyushu island, he wanted to recreate the authentic ramen flavor that he grew up eating in Hakata. What he created was a soup with such a strong tonkotsu smell that it punches you straight in the nose with your first step into Goten. On this day I ordered the ラーメン (ramen), the simple straightforward ramen and nothing else.

The Soup - is strong stuff. Oily, thick, with the very, very strong tonkotsu smell, yet I find it totally addictive. The soup was difficult to sip on its own, I had to add a lot of extra toppings (which is available on every table in Goten) raw garlic, 辛高菜 (takana spicy pickled vegetables), and 紅生姜 (beni-shoga pickled ginger) before I could really start eating the ramen. The combination of the soup with all these toppings was overwhelming with the all strong flavors and smells coming together in one small bowl.

The Noodles - are extreme as well. Very, very thin and very, very hard. I ordered the noodles to be 粉おとし (kona-otoshi) which is very hard. I heard that they basically cook the noodles in the boiling water for a few seconds and serves it to you. The firmness of the noodles matches the style of this ramen, which just seems to be a combination of extremes.

The Toppings - are out of the ordinary. The cha-shu pork and green onions, nori dry seaweed add a little bit of different flavor to the ramen, but without a doubt they play just a small supportive roll to this ramen. Pile on the garlic and pickled vegetables with this ramen, you'd be surprised how much you can put in without it taking over the taste of the soup and noodles.

Overall - I have a hard time comparing Goten to other ramen places. For me, the experience eating here is only comparable to eating at a food stand in Taiwan or SE Asia (Have you ever had stinky tofu or pigs blood soup?). Goten is not for the ramen novice, come here only if you have tried tonkotsu ramen and enjoyed it. I would actually recommend you try Nanden-Kanden first before you try Goten. But for me, Goten is a place that I will always return when I need my tonkotsu and garlic fix. I also recommend the にんにくラーメン (garlic ramen) which uses a different type of garlic than what's available on the table.

Monday, April 24, 2006

★★★ 光麺 (Koumen) - Tokyo

Koumen is a huge ramen chain store in Tokyo that has over 10 stores in the area. I've been to 3 different stores so far and the quality has been supurb. Koumen stores are very sophisticatedly decorated with stained dark wood counters and studio lights, making the ramen experience seem trendy enough for even couples on a date. The ramen I tried this specific day was the 熟成光麺 (jyukusei-koumen), where the ramen toppings are served separately form the soup and noodles.

The Soup - is a Tokyo style tonkotsu soup. Thick and creamy flavored with shoyu, this soup had very little of the tonkotsu smell. Rather than the typical white tonkotsu broth, this soup is of a golden color. This soup was so thick that it almost had the texture of a stew or chowder, I enjoyed the flavor a lot but by the end it felt a little heavy and I wasn't able to finish all the soup.

The Noodles - were slightly thinner 縮れ麺 (crooked noodles) cooked quite on the firmer side. The soup is thick and wraps around the noodles with ease, every bite is just a barrage of rich texture and flavor.

The Toppings - are good. It comes with the standard cha-shu pork and menma bamboo, but also comes with some deep fried garlic slices, boiled green vegetables and boiled egg. The garlic slices go great with the tonkotsu soup, and the boiled egg is amazing too. I believe they boil the egg in some kind of rich broth where it just explodes with flavor. And I thought that the soup was rich... the boiled egg topped that even more.

Overall - Koumen lets you indulge in one of the richest, most flavorful ramen out there. The flavor itself might not be very sophisticated, but sometimes you can be in the mood for something straightforward like this. I am usually not a big fan of the huge corporate ramen chains, but I must give Koumen an exception. You could always try to Shoyu Koumen or Shio Koumen if you want something lighter.

Ramen Basics - The Soup

In general, there are four main types of soup in Japanes ramen: shoyu (soy sauce), miso, shio (salt) and tonkotsu. Shoyu ramen are usually a clear brown broth, miso a cloudy, yellow to orange soup, shio is clear and very little color, and tonkotsu is a creamy, white broth... But if you want to truly understand the depth and the large variety of Japanese ramen soup, please read on...

The soup in Japanese ramen starts out as a soup stock, which is blended with a special flavoring sauce right before it is served.

The soup stock can come from a large variety of sources: the meat and bone of chicken, pork, or beef, fish stock from dried bonito, sardines, mackerel, or vegetables such as shitake mushrooms, onions, green onions, etc. Many ramen stores will even blend different soup stocks together, where they cook the soup stock from pork bones and seafod separately and blend them right before they serve the ramen.

The flavoring sauce, or たれ(tare), that is added to the soup stock can be categoraized into three main groups: shoyu (soy sauce), miso and shio (salt). The flavoring is not as simple as just adding soy sauce to your soup stock. The creation process for the sauce can be a long and complicated one as well. Some ramen stores will infuse the flavoring with other other spices, basic ingredients include fried garlic, chile peppers, shallots, green onions, fried sesame seeds, or different types of sake (rice wine). The recipe for these soup flavorings are closely guarded secrets, where in some ramen chain stores only the top owner knows how to make this secret sauce.

Ramen stores in Japan are constantly innovating, trying to come up with new flavors and combinations to attract new customers. Many of the newer shops don't stick with the simple formula of a soup stock + a flavoring sauce. Now a days, you will find ramen that is a blend of tonkotsu soup and fish stock, with flavoring that is shoyu based, some places blend miso soup with a thick sesame sauce (坦々麺), or even a shoyu based soup with a lot of curry.

The Soup - is always the first area I talk about when writing about the flavor of a ramen shop. Hopefully this will better help you categorize and understand the many soup flavors for Japanese ramen.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

★★ らーめん 香月 (Kazuki) - Tokyo

Kazuki is one of the veterans of Tokyo style ramen that has continued the same method of making ramen for over 30 years. The ramen style of Kazuki is simple and straightforward, a good chance for you to taste the ramen of the old days. This day I ordered the しょうゆラーメン (shoyu ramen) which is basically the soy sauce flavored ramen.

The Soup - is a nice transparent brown color, with little bits of white se-abura (pork fat) floating on the surface. The pork stock soup itself is really light and flavorful, the pork fat doesn't really make the soup taste too greasy, though I would prefer a simple a soup like this with no pork fat at all. The ramen comes in a large bowl and a lot of soup, Kazuki is one of the few places that I wasn't able to finish the whole meal.

The Noodles - are of the thick, straight variety. Not as firm, but deliciously chewey none the less. The flavoer of the soup wraps itself onto the noodles well (from the pork fat I assume).

The Toppings - are your standard cha-shu pork, menma bamboo and sliced green onions. Very standard, nothing special here.

Overall - it was a nice break trying out an old school ramen for a change. Kazuki is simple, inexpensive and quite good. I enjoy it because it reminds me of the ramen I had growing up as a kid in Asia, you might enjoy it because it is a good introduction to the history of ramen in Japan and how it has evolved to the large variety today. The original Kazuki is located near Ebisu station in Tokyo, please refer to the map below on how to get there.

Friday, April 21, 2006

★★ 黒兵衛 (Kurobei) - Tokyo

Kurobei is located in Roppongi, right near the exit from the subway Roppongi station. Kurobei is a Tokyo style shoyu ramen that is really quite average... until you try their cha-shu. I ordered the 黒兵衛らーめん スペシャル (Kurobei Ramen Special).

The Soup - is black! Well, very, very dark colored at least. Guess this is where they got the name Kurobei (Kuro=black). The soup is actually quite light despite its deep color. I tasted some fish based flavors in the soup, but I wasn't able to focus much on the soup unfortunately because I was busy with something else!

The Noodles - are medium-thick straight type noodles, very firm and chewy.

The Toppings - this is where all my attention was going to... I was making sure that my cha-shu weren't getting burnt! Before the ramen even arrived, they bring you a little hibachi with burning red coals and a plate of toppings filled with cha-shu pork, green onions, peppers and a little piece of mochi. You're suppose to roast them right away so by the time the ramen arrives the toppings are cooked just right. Get the cha-shu slightly burnt, with the fat dripping onto the coals, and enjoy it with bites of ramen in between. Needless to say the cha-shu was wonderful, but I couldn't really focus on eating the ramen.

Overall - Kurobei's ramen is kind of like a gimmick. I enjoyed the experience of cooking the toppings with a hibachi, but the ramen itself wasn't all that special. I might need to return just to try the regular ramen. But then what would be the point of coming here again if I didn't get the hibachi?

★★★ ひごもんず (Higomonzu) - Tokyo

Higomonzu is originally from Kumamoto city, located in the southern part of Japan on the island of Kyushu. Kumamoto style ramen is similar to the Hakata style where the soup is pure white and mainly from tonkotsu (pork bone), though Kumamoto style ramen usually has a stronger tonkotsu smell. I tried the 特製ラーメン which included extra toppings of cha-shu pork and kakuni stewed tender pork.

The Soup - is a combination of tonkotsu and chicken stock. It was very rich, but surprisingly void of any of the signature strong tonkotsu smell. I've never had tonkotsu soup that was so light and easy to eat, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The soup had a little garlic oil on it, garlic always goes well with tonkotsu soup. You can add some more freshly ground garlic that's available on every table though I would advise against adding too much, the soup had little of the tonkotsu smell to begin with and the garlic can overpower the relatively light soup.

The Noodle - was straight and thin like the other ramen from Kyushu island. The noodles were also very firm. Nothing extraordinary, just good noodles that complimented the lighter tonkotsu soup well.

The Toppings - were awesome. Very tender cha-shu, even more tender were the kakuni stewed pork. They literally melt in your mouth. Other toppings included menma bamboo, nori dried seaweed and lightly cooked cabbage. I had an issue with the cabbage since I felt the flavor and texture of the cabbage didn't match the soup.

Overall - The soup was the star of this ramen for me. I probably won't find another tonkotsu soup that is as light, creamy and delicious. The toppings were very memorable as well. Overall I highly recommend this to people who have never tried or resisted tonkotsu because of its strong smell. Give Hogomonzu a try first and then go challenge the other tonkotsu chains like Nanden-Kanden or Ippudou.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

★★★★ せたが屋 (Setaga-ya) - Tokyo

Setaga-ya is a long time ramen shop on Kan-nana road. It is famous for its Japanese style, fish based soup. This time I tried out its new shop near Shinagawa station where I ordered the せたが屋らーめん (Setaga-ya Ramen).

The Soup - has a distinctly Japanese flair to it, probably a combination of dried sardines, bonito and even dried scallops. There is very little oil in this soup which is a nice change from most of the other ramen now a days. The fragrance of the soup is very strong, letting its presence known even before the first sip. The soup has a slight bitterness to it with a hint of citrus probably from the yuzu.

The Noodle - is a flat type of ramen, slightly wider than fettucini. Its texture is firm providing a nice balance to counter the strong presence of the soup. The noodles are so good that it makes me want to try the tsuke-men (where the noodles are served on a separate plate from the soup)

The Toppings - included the standard cha-shu pork, bamboo men-ma, dried seaweed, green onions and mitsu-ba. The cha-shu was very tender, probably roasted slightly before being served. The mitsu-ba provide a strong accent that adds a new twist to the whole ramen, it adds an exclamation mark to my whole experience of this ramen though I suspect that some people might not enjoy it.

Overall - one of the best ramen I have had. The soup, ramen and toppings are all excellent, complementing eachother nicely. I will defintely be coming back.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

★★★ 一蘭 (Ichi-ran) - Tokyo

Ichi-ran is originally from southern Japan, in Hakata city, Kyushu island. Hakata style ramen is famous for the creamy white soup that is from cooking tonkotsu (pork bones) at very high heat. Tonkotsu soup is famous for having a very unique, strong smell, which some people are not fans of. Ichi-ran's soup does have the smell quite toned down.

The Soup - is tonkotsu (pork bone) based, thick and flavorful with only a hint of the unique smell of tonkotsu. There is quite a bit of oil in the soup, standard for a lot of tonkotsu ramen now a days.

The Noodle - is thin, straight and quite firm. You really need to chew a bit more than normal with this ramen. Actually "hard" would be the better word to describe noodles, giving the noodles a strong presence that counters well with the oily, heavy flavored soup.

The Toppings - were cha-shu pork, quite a bit of green onions, and a special red sauce. The cha-shu was very tender and lightly seasoned, the green onions help offset the little smell that the tonkotsu soup had. The special sauce was quite unique and help give Ichiran ramen more its own personality. The sauce is a blend of 30 different spices, it is spicy, slightly sweet and sour, providing a nice contrast to the thick and oily soup.

Overall - I have always been a fan at the more unrefined variations of tonkotsu ramen like Nanden-Kanden or Goten, but Ichiran ramen has its own strong personality through its many levels of contrasting flavors and textures.

★★★ 麺屋武蔵 (Musashi) - Tokyo

Musashi has been one of the top ranking ramen shops in Japan for quite some time. Located to the north of JR Shinjuku station, there are often long lines of people outside the shop. Expect at least waiting times of 20-30 minutes even during off peak hours.

The Soup - has very little oil in it and was a bit on the salty side. The stock is a blend of dried mackerel, bonito, and chicken stock, though with the saltiness I couldn't really taste all the ingredients. The flavor resembled the soup commonly used for soba noodles. The soup also had a hint of yuzu that gives it a distinct Japanese flair.

The Noodles - were very delicious. Thicker than your average ramen noodles, the texture was very firm and a joy to eat.

The Toppings - were the standard cha-shu pork, menma bamboo, green onions and dried seaweed. All were good but not outstanding that it takes any attention away from the noodles.

Overall - Musashi is a straight forward ramen that doesn't rely on any gimmicks. No special sauce, no exotic toppings, no excess fat to try to add flavor. Simply an above average soup and great noodles that matches up perfectly. Worth another visit... if there weren't the long lines.