Monday, July 17, 2006

★ 旭川 さいじょう (Saijo) - Tokyo

Saijo is another ramen shop among the collection of seven in Shinatasu, a small ramen theme park located right next to Shinagawa station. This is the fifth shop among the seven that I am reviewing and for the first time I am underwhelmed. Maybe I ordered the wrong ramen here? Saijo is famous for winning the the contest for best shio (salt) Asahikawa ramen, I didn't do all the research before visiting this place and on this day I ordered the 味噌ラーメン (miso ramen) instead.

The Soup - was underwhelming. I could taste a slight taste of seafood in the soup but it didn't have the impact of some Japanese style with their strong flavors of sardines or mackerel. The store claims that the soup uses fresh mineral water shipped in from 大雪山 (daisekizan) a mountain in Hokkaido, but to me the special water didn't make it taste special.

The Noodles - are thick curly noodles cooked slightly on the soft side. Like the soup, the noodles were uneventful as well.

The Toppings - were nothing special. Notice a pattern here?

Overall - I can't recommend this place even though I didn't try their most famous dish, I really can't imagine how great their shio ramen could be though. All the flavors of the soup, noodles and toppings were very light, almost insufficient.

If you do decide to visit this ramen theme park Shinatatsu, I reccomend you visit Setagaya, Nantsuttei, Higomonzu, or Zouroku, in that order.

Friday, July 14, 2006

★★ Club Jin Mao - Shanghai

About 4 hours ago I was eating here in the old streets of Shanghai, now I am in the fifth tallest building in the world 金茂大厦 (Jinmao Tower) at one of the fanciest Shanghai restaurants in the city. I ofcourse ordered the same dish 红烧牛肉面 (Beef noodle soup), just to compare it with the experience I had earlier in the day.

The Soup - was a very surprising thick broth that is filled with the flavor of beef and the fragrance of various Chinese herbs. The regular spices such as anise stars and gui pi are toned down, instead Chinese herbal medicine such as dang gui are used giving it a flavor that I have never had before in beef noodle soup.

The Noodles - are medium thin straight noodles cooked medium firm. The noodles were chewy and absorbed the flavor of the soup very well.

the view from the restaurantThe Toppings - were big chunks of beef and bok choy cabbage. The beef weren't that tender and a little dissapointing, though I believe that is how they are suppose to be... and unlike my experience earlier in the day, I had no doubt that what I was eating here was beef.

Overall - the soup really made this beef noodle soup quite interesting. The smell of the Chinese herb dang gui was so strong that it didn't feel like beef noodle soup, instead it felt like something my grandmother would cook for me if I was sick. By the way, the price of this ramen was $10, compare that to the $.40 I spent earlier in the day... I guess the view was worth the higher price.

★ Beef ?? Noodle Soup - Shanghai

view from the noodle shopI was in Shanghai and I decided to try out a regular Chinese noodle place, a place where common folks visited. I was in an older part of Shanghai where the decade old two story buildings haven't been replaced by shiny new buildings... yet. As I was eating they were tearing down buildings just a few blocks away, no doubt clearing way for another skyscraper. I picked a very busy noodle place on the side of the street and tried the first item on their menu: 红烧牛肉面 (Beef noodle soup).

The Soup - was a very thin beef broth flavored with soy sauce and curry powder. There was also a trace of other Chinese herbs such as anise stars and gui-pi. The soup tasted a bit watered down and all the different flavors kinda just co-existed without any harmony.

view from the noodle shopThe Noodles - were thin straight noodles cooked medium firm. The noodles tasted pretty good and I was surprised that they were nice and firm.

The Toppings - were a big round slab of hard tofu, smaller chunks of tofu, and beef ?? The small pieces of beef were heavily flavored with soy sauce, its texture was a little on the hard chewy side. As I was eating this I asked myself... is this beef? I have heard rumors from my Chinese friends of some shadier places serving mystery meat, I hesitate to imagine what the mystery might be. Anyways, the tofu was bland but at least they tasted like tofu.

Overall - not one of the best ramen that I've had but the experience was a memorable one. The whole ramen cost only $.40 so I won't complain too much. 4 hours later I went to one of the new skyscrapers in Shanghai 金茂大厦 (Jinmao Tower) and ate at a Chinese restaurant there. I ordered the same dish beef noodle soup and compared it to the ramen here.

★★★★ 一風堂 (Ippuudou) - Tokyo

Ippuudou is a Hakata style ramen chain that has stores all over Japan. I've been to three of their stores so far and all were spacious, nicely decorated, and had great service, something you don't find with most Hakata style ramen places in Tokyo. I recently visited a store in Roppongi where I ordered the 赤丸新味 (akamaru shin-aji) or the "New flavor Akamaru".

The Soup - a rich, smooth tonkotsu soup that is delicious and very easy to eat. Their soup is a blend of tonkotsu (pork bone) broth and regular pork based soup, both are cooked separately with different methods and at different heat levels, then blended right before being served. There is a thin layer of brown oil on the soup that is made from blending different types of oil and infusing it with the flavor of different vegetables and spices.

The Noodles - are the very thin and straight ramen noodles that is a great match to the soup. When ordering the ramen you need to specify how firm you want the noodles cooked. There are 5 levels of firmness: はりがね (harigane) is what I always order, it's the hardest and means "steel beam", ばりかた (barikata) is very hard, かため (katame) is firm, ふつう (futsuu) is regular, and やわらかめ (yawarakame) is soft. Try the "katame" firm noodles if you are new to Hakata style ramen.

The Toppings - are simple, a few slice of cha-shu pork, some kikurage mushrooms and a lot of spring onions. The cha-shu is tender and flavorful. There is also a drop of spicy red sauce that you can blend with the soup or cha-shu as you eat, adding an occasional twist to the flavor.

Overall - one of the best tonkotsu ramen I've had. Highly recommend it especially to those new to ramen in general. The flavor of this ramen is actually quite different than regular Hakata style tonkotsu, it turns out that Ippuudou actually has another ramen on their menu called 白丸元味 (shiromaru moto-aji) that is closer to the original flavor of Hakata style though I have yet to try it. Ippuudou can be found near key train stations in the Tokyo area: Ebisu, Takadanobaba, Roppongi, etc.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

★★★ 康竜 (Kouryu) - Tokyo

Kouryu is a Hakata style tonkotsu ramen place that sets itself apart from others by offereing a high degree of customizability for your ramen. When you purchase your order from the ramen ticket machine you are given a piece of paper with a preference chart that asks for you how firm you want the noodles, how rich and oily the soup, and how much hot spice or spring onions. You also have eight different toppings of which you can chose four for your ramen. On my last trip here I ordered this 自分仕立てラーメン (customizable ramen).

The Soup - is a rich tonkotsu soup that has just a little bit of the tonkotsu smell. The amount of oil that is on the soup is customizable, I selected to have a bit more oil on mine.

The Noodles - are very thin straight noodles. The firmness is customizable and I chose to have mine cooked really firm. Hakata style noodles are famous for being very firm though I would recommend slightly firm for people that are new to Hakata style ramen.

The Toppings - are all customizable, I selected and recommend you go for the 1. pickled cabbage 4. special menma bamboo 5. half cooked boiled egg, and 6. dried seaweed. These are the standard toppings for Hakata style ramen and are a great match with the soup. The 3. kikurage is more for Kumamoto style ramen, 7. kakuni simmered pork is good but you already get the cha-shu pork anyways. The 8. fried garlic isn't that good and there are fresh ground garlic already at the counter for free.

Overall - an above average Hakata style ramen experience. The ramen itself is quite delicious though the customizability part seems like a lot of extra work. I am a little suspicious of places that offer too much cusomizability, as if they can't decide on what is the best flavor that they are after and want the cusomers to help them decide. The customizability was at first a novelty and I liked it quite a bit, but as I've been exposed to more Hakata ramen places I now go to Ippuudou, Nanden-Kanden, and Goten exactly because they each offer unique flavors and experiences. The Kouryu in Shinjuku was also very crampled and uncomfortable.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

★★★★ なんつッ亭 (Nantsuttei) - Tokyo

Nantsuttei is one of the hottest ramen places in Tokyo at this moment. Nantsuttei's ramen has not only been hugely popular with long lines where you have to wait at least 30 minutes or more, the man behind this store has become quite a personality in the ramen scene, often appearing on TV and even selling character merchandises of himself. Nantsuttei recently won a ramen competition on Japanese TV, I unfortunately had to visit them the day after that TV show and had to wait near an hour until I got my order of らーめん+温泉玉子 (ramen + hot spring egg).

The ownerThe Soup - is a lightly flavored tonkotsu (pork bone) soup that is topped with a special burnt flavored black oil that the store calls マー油 (ma-yu). When you first get the ramen you see this black soup, which forms a nice contrast once you run your spoon through the ma-yu and expose the white tonkotsu soup underneath. The tonkotsu soup itself is cooked with a variety of vegetables giving it a milder flavor, while the ma-yu is created through a seven step process of frying garlic in different methods to get the burnt flavor just right.

Umai-ze, baby!!! (This is delicious! Baby!!!)The Noodles - are not your straightforward Tonkotsu style noodles. Nantsuttei's ramen noodles are slightly thicker, uses a slightly higher water content making it springier than most Hakata style ramen. Needless to say, Nantsuttei spent a lot of time getting this ramen just right and it matches the soup nicely.

The Toppings - are all top notch. The cha-shu pork is slightly tender but the flavor is wonderful and matches the ramen well. The bean sprouts provides a nice contrast to the oily soup, while the green onions flavor compliments the garlic flavor of the soup. The hot spring egg is a little runny, both the egg yolk and the egg white and took some getting used to.

Overall - I highly recommend Nantsuttei to everyone. Nantsuttei has a strong personality that sets itself apart from all the other ramen out there. The flavor of this ramen is simply delicious and should appeal to beginners and veterans of the Japanese ramen.

Nantsuttei is not easy to get to though. The closest store in the Tokyo area is Shinagawa which is about 20 minutes from Shinjuku, if you include the waiting time that is more than likely you might be looking at spending an hour or two including the round trip travel time.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

★★★★ 青葉 (Aoba) - Tokyo

Aoba opened recently in 1996 near Nakano station. A relatively new player in the Tokyo ramen scene, it quickly rose in popularity and gained a lot of attention from the competition. Aoba's goal was simple, to create a delicious new ramen that appealed to the masses. Today their approach to making ramen has inspired many other rival stores and is considered as the main force behind the rich seafood style ramen. On this day I ordered the 特製中華そば (special Chinese soba).

The Soup - is a perfect blend of fish stock (dried sardines, mackerel, & bonito) and a rich white broth (tonkotsu, chicken and vegetables). There are a lot of ramen stores that try the double blend soup, I feel that Aoba achieves a balance between the two that is just right.

The Noodles - are medium thickness, curly noodles that are usually cooked to medium firmness and very springy. I have been here more than a few times and sometimes the noodles came out on the softer side.

The Toppings - are the standard cha-shu pork, menma bamboo shoots, nori dried seaweed, flavored boiled egg and a slice of naruto fish cake. Nothing fancy here, all of the toppings are simply delicious and match the ramen nicely. The boiled egg was especially delicious.

Overall - one of the best ramen in Tokyo, I highly recommend you give Aoba a try. Aoba has since opened many stores around Tokyo including Ikebukuro and Shinjuku, though neither is particulary close to the train station.

★★ 渡なべ (Watanabe) - Tokyo

Watanabe is the first of many great ramen stores produced by Watanabe Juan, who is responsible for other famous ramen such as Miharu in Ebisu, Puka-puka in Nakamejiro, and Zouroku in Shinagawa, just to name a few. This being the only store that bares his name I naturally had high hopes for it. Watanabe is located near Takadanobaba station. On this day I ordered the standard らーめん (ramen).

The Soup - is a strong dried fish based soup that is blended with a rich tonkotsu broth. The fish based part of the soup itself is a complex blend of dried bonito, mackerel and butterfish, making the seafood aroma of the soup overwhelming. Mixed with the thick tonkotsu broth this soup felt more like soup concentrate that needs to be watered down a bit.

The Noodles - are medium thick noodles that are cooked quite firm. These noodles can hold their own against the soup's strong presence.

The Toppings - are cha-shu pork, menma bamboo shoots and sliced spring onions. The cha-shu pork is lightly flavored, but tastes just right in the thick flavored soup. The bamboo shoots were thick and a bit on the softer side. The spring onions were a prefect match with the soup.

Overall - I was a little dissapointed, probably because I was expecting so much from Watanabe. Everything was wonderful except the soup that came across a little too thick and strong for my preference. Watanabe was also located quite far from the station, requiring a 10-15 minute walk from Takadanobaba. Out of all of his ramen stores I liked Miharu the most so far, which I feel has the right balance of seafood vs the rich tonkotsu.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

熊本ラーメン Kumamoto Ramen

The city of Kumamoto is located in the center of the southern island of Kyushu Japan. Ramen from this region is dominated by the famous Hakata style ramen that is from the northern city of Fukuoka, but the ramen from Kumamoto has a few distinct features that sets itself apart.

Kumamoto style ramen soup is a tonkotsu based, white colored broth, but where it differs from Hakata style ramen is its milder flavor. Kumamoto style ramen is also often flavored with fried garlic oil that is noticeable with the brown oil. The noodles are often thicker than the Hakata style, and includes unique toppings such as kikurage mushrooms, and lightly cooked or raw cabbage.

Hakata and Kumamoto style ramen are definitely very similar. Hakata style ramen has really taken over the ramen scene in Tokyo since the early 90's and remains very popular today. I like to think of Kumamoto style ramen as the reserved younger sibling that has slowly built a strong reputation for itself.

★★★★ なんつッ亭 (Nantsuttei) - Tokyo

★★★ ひごもんず (Higomonzu) - Tokyo

★★★ こむらさき (Ko-Murasaki) - Shin Yokohama

Higonoren★★★ 肥後のれん (Higonoren) - Tokyo

★★★ 桂花 (Keika) - Tokyo

★ 味千ラーメン (Ajisen) - Tokyo

Monday, July 03, 2006

★★ ラーメン 二郎 (Ramen Jiro) - Tokyo

Ramen Jiro is a long time favorite ramen place in Tokyo, you can tell by the constant long lines of people outside the store even during off peak hours. Why this place is so popular has always fascinated me. The store is cramped even for Japanese standards, the interior is dirty and actually quite unsanitary, the stores are not air conditioned which on a hot summer day made this trip to Jiro closer to being torture than a ramen experience. I tried the standard ラーメン (ramen).

The Soup - is a rich tonkotsu (pork bone) based soup flavored with soysauce, it looks really greasy but is flavorful and goes down quite easily. The broth is made from pork bone and a large variety of vegatables.There is a bit of the pork bone smell, but the store is so filled with the smell that you'd be numb by it by the time the ramen arrives.

The Noodles - are special and really good. This extremely thick curly ramen noodles that is a few mm away from being called udon. These are the chewiest, most flavorful ramen that I have had, and they go great with the soup.

The Toppings - are almost unpresentable. I really can't imagine any restaurant serving something like this. Piles of chopped up cha-shu pork and boiled bean sprouts, they don't really look appetizing and actually get in the way of eating the noodles. Some garlic is also standard for Jiro ramen. They also put a bit of pork fat on it so I am putting this ramen in the pork fat cha-cha category.

Overall - hope you find a Jiro chain store with AC because I almost passed out from the heat of the ramen and the store. I ended up only finishing 2/3 of the ramen and quickly jetted out of there since I hear that the owner gets mad if you don't finish it. The ramen is actually quite good, but the overall experience of waiting 30 minutes, the dirty store and crowded seats makes me not recommend this place. However, if you want to experience a little part of Japanese culture and a major player in the ramen scene in Tokyo then give Jiro a try. Just don't bring a date.

Here is an NPR radio piece on Jiro Ramen done in 2004:

Sunday, July 02, 2006

★★ たけちゃん (Take-chan) - Tokyo

Take-chan niboshi ramen (たけちゃんにぼしラーメン) is a long time ramen shop near Yoyogi station in Tokyo. Take-chan started out as a regular food stand near the train station, but has long since established a store front in the same area. On my first trip here I ordered their popular dish: スペシャル らーめん (Special ramen).

The soup - is a very strong dry dried seafood based Japanese style soup that is carefully blended with chicken or pork broth to give it a richer flavor. The soup is then topped off with a few drops of fried shrimp oil that really increases the seafood aroma of this soup.

The Noodles - are medium thickness straight noodles and cooked quite firm. The noodles have just the right amount of water content that when served it abosrbs just the right amount of soup and is a great match with the Japanese style soup.

The Toppings - are cha-shu pork, a small slice of nori dried seaweed, naruto fish cake, menma bamboo shoots and a flavored boiled egg. The cha-shu is very soft but a little on the salty side, the seaweed is almost unnecessary since the whole dish is strong with seafood aroma already. The menma was crunchy but didn't have much flavor. The aji-tama (boiled egg) was half cooked inside and very flavorful.

Overall - Take-chan has a lot of wonderful aromas and flavors but doesn't achieve an essential balance. The soup is a very rich seafood soup that goes great with the noodles, but the toppings are either too salty or has no flavors. Also I wish that there were more soup in comparison to the amount of noodles you get. Still a delicious ramen place and worth checking out if you want to try a veteran Japanese style soup ramen place.

★★ Hong Kong Noodle House - Seattle

Hong Kong Noodle House is another Cantonese style wonton noodles restaurant that recently opened in Seattle's international district. They have a huge menu and a lot of non- noodles dishes. Their Congee is very good as well though I came here for the noodles. On this day I tried their beef tendon wonton noodles.

The Soup - is a delicious lightly seasoned broth that has a lot of flavor, I am guessing it is a combination of pork and chicken but I am not sure.

The Noodles - are the standard contonese noodles, thin and very tough, not the type of noodles where you can slurp and swallow like Japanese ramen noodles.

The Toppings - are very good. The beef tendon are very tender and delicious. The wontons are filled with pork and shrimp, firm and flavorful. I wish I can learn how they make their wontons achieve such firmness, they are almost springy (some Chinese describe the texture as almost being "crunchy").

Overall - the wontons never dissapoint. I am not a fan of the noodles but the soup and toppings make everything worth it. I am almost tempted to just make a special order of beef tendon wonton soup, without any noodles. Hong Kong Noodle House opens until late at night making it a great place for a late night snack.

Hong Kong Noodle House - 414 8th Ave S Seattle WA 98104

Saturday, July 01, 2006

★ Green Village - Seattle

Green Village is a Chinese restaraunt that serves a variety of authentic Chinese food with fast food like prices. There is nothing fancy about this place, simple fold up tables, plastic bowls & plates, a menu filled with items you'll see being sold on food stands rather than at up scale restaraunts, but the place is bright and clean and the store greets you warmly with each visit. On this day I tried a standard noodle soup dish: 紅焼牛肉麺 (beef noodle soup).

The Soup - is a slightly spicy beef based, soy sauce flavored broth that has a good hint of Chinese herbs and spices. This soup would've been better if it didn't have so much of the flavor of the noodle blended in it.

The Noodles - aren't very good. The noodles they use are these wide, flat noodles that are very soft and absorb the soup really fast. As the noodles turn soggy the salty flavor of the noodles blend in with the flavor of the soup, ruining the pure flavor of the beef broth.

The Toppings - the beef could have been a little softer, the veggies are simply boiled spinach.

Overall - still a bargain for its price and quality. Come here for their fried rice and other Chinese dishes. If you are looking for a good beef noodles soup then I would recommend Sandie's Gourmet or Szechuan Noodle Bowl, both located in Seattle.

Green Village - 516 6th Ave S Seattle, WA 98104

★ Fu-Lin - Seattle

Fu-Lin is a Japanese/Chinese restaurant that specializes in Japanese style ramen. The restaurant has the atmosphere of a good old fashion chu-ka ryori (Chinese restaurant in Japan), the type that cators to the average worker looking for a cheap place to eat. There are a huge variety of noodle and rice dishes, and lot Japanese comics avaiable, just like many similar places in Japan. On this day I tried their tonkotsu ramen (pork bone ramen).

The Soup - is a thin creamy soup that barely has any resemblance to authentic tonkotsu soup. The soup is so thin that I suspect that the soup might be made from concentrate... or dare I say... instant noodle soup base.

The noodles - aren't much better than the soup. Not much flavor to them, springy but not firm and quickly becomes soggy as it sat in the soup. Not quite instant ramen quality, but just a few steps above it.

The Toppings - everything you expect from Japanese style ramen toppings are here, the cha-shu, menma bamboo shoots, green onions, etc. The one problem is that every one of them are of rather poor quality. The pork is okay but tastes like a regular HK style BBQ pork and doesn't match the ramen, the wakame seaweed are bland, and the green onions are way too strong for the thin flavored soup.

Overall - I guess if you are in Seattle and starving for a Japanese ramen experience then you could come here for this. I haven't tried the shoyu or miso ramen yet but definitely don't get the tonkotsu ramen.

Fu-Lin 512 S. King St.Seattle, WA 98104

★★ Chan's Kitchen - Redmond

Chan's Kitchen is a new Cantonese restaurant that opened recently in Redmond. Besides a good amount of Hong Kong style noodle soup they also have a wide variety of stir fried noodles, fried rice and authentic Cantonese cuisine. On my first trip I tried the noodle their owner recommended, 柱侯牛腩麵 (Zhu-hou beef noodle soup).

The Soup - tasted like regular Hong Kong style wanton noodle soup, with a slight taste of Chinese herbs that is probably from the stewed beef.

The Noodles - were the typical Cantonese style egg noodles that were then and very firm. Different from Japanese style noodles, these Cantonese noodles are not very springy and can be quite tough, they don't just slide down the throat smoothly like Udon-noodles.

The Toppings - were bok-choy and the stewed beef. The beef is not very soft but tastes very good. It uses a special sauce called Zhu-hou sauce that is a blend of traditional Chinese herbs: anise star, orange peel, blended with fried garlic, red onions then stewed with rock sugar and water.

Overall - I am a huge fan of Taiwanese style beef noodle soup, which is usually less sweet and much more spicy with a lot more exotic Chinese herbs and spices. The Hong Kong variety is still relatively new to me, and it might be by built in bias but I feel that the soup and noodles here are better matched with regular wontons.

Chan's Kitchen - 2560 152nd Ave Ne Redmond, WA 98052