Sunday, March 17, 2013

『麺類を喰いつくす!』

"And now for something completely different"
"Monty Python's Flying Circus"

Don't worry: you're probably still on the right blog. But no detective stuff today.

Before this was a blog solely focusing on detective fiction, it was just a blog about life in Japan. Which naturally also touched upon food at times. And people might have noticed that I developed a love for ramen while I was in Fukuoka. Even now, nothing beats a bowl of Fukuoka's characteristic Hakata tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen in my opinion, so I had a bit of trouble adjusting when I first arrived here in Kyoto. The standard soups here are mixes of pork bone soup, chicken stock and fish stock, resulting in less stronger taste. On the other hand, they tend to add pork back fat to every bowl and the soup is usually on the thickish (what they call kotteri) side of the spectrum, resulting in somewhat greasy and quite filling ramen.

But on the other hand, I was lucky enough to end up in the Shugakuin neighbourhood of Kyoto, which is right next to Ichijouji, an area also known as ramen street because it probably features the highest density of ramen restaurants in this area of Japan, resulting in a relatively high standard of ramen. The main street of Higashi Ooji, which crosses through Ichijouji ending at Shugakuin is full of restaurants and the branch streets are just as interesting. Note that Ichijoji is known as both ramen street, as well as a ramen gekisenku, an area of fierce ramen competition where weak restaurants will die fast.

And so, in the spirit of and now for something completely different (and because I want to use the food tag again!), an introduction to the ramen restaurants in Ichijouji, Kyoto. Lovers of ramen who are going to visit Kyoto, skip the ramen restaurant floor at Kyoto Station and take the bus to Ichijoji! 

Yokotsuna


The biggest restaurant here, especially as it moved three buildings next door last month, doubling its size. It's a chain restaurant and they serve what I can only describe as a very, very bland pork bone /chicken stock soup. It's not bad, but there are so many better restaurants nearby, with much more interesting tastes than what they serve at Yokotsuna. You should only come here when you can't handle the strong taste of real pork bone tonkotsu soup, or the distinctly thick, kotteri soup of Kyoto. Yokotsuna does serve absolutely delicious black pork gyouza though.

Taizou


Located close to Yokotsuna and quite small with just counter seats. They do feature a very wide variety of ramen though, variating from standard pork bone stock ramen to fish stock ramen. While most of the restaurants in this neighbourhood have soups that consist of a mix of pork bone, chicken and fish stock, I'm pretty sure that Taizou was the only one that served a ramen where fish stock is the main flavor (until Tsurukame's arrival). It's a nice, slightly soury ramen, and quite a difference from what you'd normally get in ramen street, but Taizou's best has to be their Garlic ramen. And Garlic should be written with a capital G, because it's really Garlicky. They add garlic to the soup, and roasted garlic cloves and a mountain of chopped scallions and it's delicious. And incredibly smelly. But oh-so-delicious.

Tsurukame


One of the two new restaurants that opened during the year I was here. I think it opened just after the summer and when I finally decided to go there, I found out it was closed. For a long time. I knew that competition here was fierce, but to close in just two months? It turned they had closed to get the shop redesigned etc., and it finally reopened in February. It's still an immensely small shop with just about ten counter seats, while the kitchen part of the store seems to be almost double the size. They serve a variety of  ramen and I tried their fish stock based ramen, which was a bit expensive for just one bowl, but it did feature a lot of fillings and it tasted great, so I was content. Definitely one to stay in this neighbourhood.

Harada


The other new shop. This one serves Hakata tonkotsu ramen like Ryuu no Suzu, but with relatively high prices for the ramen they serve (the amount of men is rather small, meaning you do want to get another serving), their geographical position with much more direct competition and the not particularly special soup, I can't see this shop going on for long to be honest. The most surprising was when I saw the cook checking the menus himself when someone ordered a set menu: apparently he hadn't memorized his own menus!

Chinyuu

One of the bigger restaurants here and I quite like it! I think they use a chicken stock based soup, with some added fat and soy, but it's a surprisingly taste soup and their men is quite good though. It's a bit of a standard ramen though, but it's done right and Chinyuu is a nice place to visit occasionally because the price of a small ramen is really reasonable and the taste is good.

Enaku

Specializing in tsukemen, this is one restaurant you don't want to miss. It's a bit more near the residential part of the neigbourhood, next to an videogame center, but it's just as important a part of the ramen street as the other restaurants on Higashi Ooji. Their thick, yellow soup is fish/porkbone stock based (with a bit of curry powder it seems) and goes perfectly with their men, which are also thick and yellow, and full of elasticity too. You have the option of both warm and cold men, and an experiment with my partner in dine (who has the habit of ordering the non-optimal choice), resulted in the conclusion that you should always go with the warm men to accompany the soup. After eating all the men, you can ask for a soup-wari, where they add some stock to make the soup less thick. Which is another experience on its own, because the soup changes taste because of the fish-based stock, adding another layer to the dish.

Takayasu


One of the two immensely popular restaurants here. On any given day, it's quite likely to see about 50 persons standing in the line in front of the shop. In the weekends, it can become worse. The main attraction is probably the restaurant's interior, which is nothing like what you'd expect from a ramen restaurant. Sure, chains like Ippuudou also go for a stylish interior, but Takayasu is bright, features chairs with fancy designs and TVs that show old Tom & Jerry cartoons for some sinister reason. I've seen groups consisting of only females eating here, which is a sight you very seldom see in ramen restaurants. Hip and stylish, but how is the ramen? Well, not very interesting. It's a bit like the one at Yokotsuna to be honest, bland and not interesting (challenging?) at all. Takayasu looks quite revolutionary for a ramen restaurant, but its taste is boring. Which is why instead of a photo of their ramen, I added one of their karaage. Which are something to write about, because they are gigantic (compare to the toothpick). They feature delicious juicy chicken meat and there is a bit of curry powder sprinkled on top of them for just that little kick. But they are really big, so order with caution. I went twice to the shop, both times accompanied with a partner in dine, and sharing one plate of three karaage between the two of us was still providing a challenge.

TentenyuuHirumaya


During the day, the shop is called Hirumaya, at night Tentenyuu. The selection of dishes is different, but I am pretty sure that the cooks are the same. At Hirumaya, their special ramen was fantastic. A bit expensive, but with a great variety of fillings like an egg and even hosotake, something I had never even seen in ramen (I have no idea what it's called in English and I can't seem to be able to find the proper translation...). A slightly thickish pork bone based soup, but you can choose your own type of noodles to go with the dish (thin noodles or wavy noodles), and thick soups always go great with wavy noodles.


Tentenyuu has the strange habit of opening at 19:00, instead of 18:00, which meant I always had troubles visiting it (because I would just go to a restaurant which would open earlier), but I finally managed the restaurant several months later than I had originally planned. And I was a bit disappointed. Their chashu men featured a lot of delicious chashu, but I wasn't a big fan of the soup, which wasn't nearly as tasty as when I ate at Hirumaya. It seemed liked a slightly watered down version, which made it less tasteful. Tentenyuu is way more popular than Hirumaya as far as I know, but I would definitely recommend Hirumaya over Tentenyuu.

Yume wo Katare


One of the two Jirou-kei ramen restaurants. Jirou-kei ramen is almost a genre on its own: as a shop, they operate on a system where customers have to get their chopsticks, towel and spoons themselves, and you're supposed to clean up your counter yourself after you're finished. The ramen themselves are almost monstrous if you have never seen them before: thick noodles, very greasy soups, copious amounts of vegetables and chopped garlic and gigantic slices of chashu. And I really mean gigantic. You don't go to a Jirou-kei restaurant unprepared. An empty stomach is really needed to be able to get all of that through your throat and you might die because of clogged veins during the fight. But it tastes oh-so-good. Yume wo Katare is the more famous of the two Jirou-kei restaurants here and has a lot of shops spread over Japan (and even in the States), though they all feature different names. Their link is in their strangely ambitious names: Yume wo Katare for example means talk about your dreams. This was the first Jirou-kei ramen I ever ate and I liked it quite a lot. But once again, not for the faint of stomach.

Ikedaya


The other Jirou-kei restaurant. They're actually quite similar, so I am not sure why there are so close to each other. I liked the taste of Ikeda a bit more than that of Yume wo Katare though and it always seems full of students whenever I pass by. Except for that one time I visited the shop, when I was the only customer there and the cook suddenly started a conversation with me. I am not sure whether I really wanted to know that he was a hired cook and not the owner of the shop, that he's married (his wife was in his home prefecture) and that he tries his hand at the international exchange markets at times, nor am I sure whether he really wanted to know about the cycling culture in the Netherlands, but he did serve a very fine bowl of Jirou ramen which was enough food and fat for me for more than a day.

Ichijouji Boogie


Another shop specializing in tsukemen, but while Enaku seems to go for a more sophisticated taste, Boogie goes for a healthy mix of pork bone soup with added fat. Which isn't a bad thing! Sure it's a greasy and salty dish, but it tastes wonderful! Not a shop to visit every week, but a shop you should definitely visit if you love pork bone based soups and tsukemen. Also, you get an enormous amount of men for the money. And the music selection, is like the restaurant's name suggest, quite good.

Tenka Gomen / Mugen no Chikara


One of the two shops here that utilizes two formulas: during the afternoon, this shop is called Tenka Gomen, while at night it operates under the name of Mugen no Chikara, even though the cook remains the same. The restaurant is located quite far from the competition, which might explain why there are so few customers every time I passed by. It's definitely not a small shop, as they have a long counter and two tables, so I always wondered about that. Anyway, I first visited on an afternoon, where I was lured by the name of snowwhite ramen, which was exactly what I ordered. And it was white! The soup was a thick, chicken-stock based one, which explained the name. What was even more surprising was that the men were placed on top of the soup fillings (it's usually the other way around), meaning you can't see what's in it. Which was a fun game on its own, as it made you curious to what you would find next time. Visually, but also... tastily... tastewise a fine ramen.


And at night, it turns into something completely different. I passed by it one night and I wasn't that hungry, so I thought I would just go for the standard chuuka soba, which is just another name for ramen. You would expect them to serve their basic, default ramen. What I got was a ramen which looked nothing like ramen. I thought I was being served gyuudon. But beneath the beef, onions and the egg, there really were men. I can really only describe it as a mix between gyuudon and ramen, which isn't a bad thing, but definitely not what you'd expect when you order a chuuka soba. It's very cheap for the volume though and definitely worth a try if you're nearby and need something filling.

Shinshintei


A small shop that's never open when I want it to be open, but it has a very nice atmosphere being run by an old couple. Most of the clients seemed to be regulars and everybody chitchats. Their default ramen is a miso-based ramen and it's definitely worth looking up the actual opening times of Shinshintei to try their ramen. A very rich soup and the bowl is full of fillings like vegetables, meat balls and chashu slices. There also chili flakes in the soup, adding that extra little punch. In my mind, a perfect ramen for in the winter.

Ramen Gundan


Located right next to Shinshintei, but specializing in tsukemen. Another thick chicken/fish stock based soup, but very tasty. What I particularly remember of my visit to Ramen Gundan, beside the somewhat cold reception of the cook, was that the difference between the temperature of the soup and the men was perfect. It's hard to explain, but with tsukemen, you eat the noodles by dipping it in the (thick and hot) soup and them slurp them up (together with some air to cool down the soup). Cold noodles and hot soup is the default form, like at Ichijouji Boogie, but my visit to Enaku had made me realize that it's much better to have warm noodles with thicker soups, as a big difference in temperature cools down the soup too fast. And at Ramen Gundan, this difference was precisely right. The soup cooled down to be eatable, but was warm enough to convey its great taste. Might have been a coincidence (as one should also consider the temperature in the store and the body temperature of the customer), but it was just right that one visit.

Ichizou


Not sure whether this is a new restaurant or not, as it is located a bit seperated from the other restaurants (though in the same street as Ramen Gundan and Shinshintei). The interior is stylish, which was why I was quite surprised to see they served a very thick, and very peppery soup with loads of scallions and grilled meat: I had expected to be a bit like Takayasu, to have a more bland and universal soup. I am personally not a very big fan of the super thick soups so typical of Kyoto (like they serve at the famous Tenka Ippin chain), and the cook threw way too much pepper seeds in the soup, masking all other tastes, but not a bad dish at all.

Butanchu


Specializing in tonkotsu pork bone soup, though not of the Hakata variety. The difference lies in the cooking time and the strength of the fire: with 'regular' tonkotsu pork bone soup, the soup is boiled to extract the basic pork bone taste, leaving you with a brownish soup. With Hakata tonkotsu soup, the soup is boiled with a strong fire for a long, long time, resulting in the fat and collagen from the bones to also melt into the soup. Hakata tonkotsu soup is thus white. Anyway, Butanchu does offer a tonkotsu ramen that is boiled over a long time, but not at a strong fire, resulting in a very different kind of tonkotsu soup. Tastewise, it has that distinct strong pork bone taste I love and I actually love that I can also eat this with wavy noodles, but the salt amount in the soup is incredible. Hours after eating at Butanchu I was still in need of water. Tastewise OK, but you need to buy a two-liter pack of water for the aftermath.

Bishiya


A restaurant serving a porkbone tonkotsu soy soup. The soup is slightly on the thickish side and really tasty, great men and a wide variety of fillings. I was surprised to have been served slightly al dente men, which is usually something you have to ask for. Not sure whether that was the standard at Bishiya or just some mistake on their part (not that it would have mattered, I actually do order al dente as a default if I have the option). The atmosphere in the restaurant is great too, very clean, with a slick design and they have a great sense in music.

Tsuruhashi


A shop with one table and a long counter run by an elderly man and he serves what I can only describe as a decent ramen. I found the soup better than Takayasu and Yokotsuna's soup,  though it does change every day (the man writes down what the soup consists of every day on a board in front of the shop). It's mostly chicken stock based, but it is a troublefree soup that somehow manages to escape the sheer blandness of the two restaurants mentioned before. It's a bit like the ramen you'd expect from restaurants that don't exactly specialize in ramen, but do offer it (like a lot of the Chinese restaurants here). Well, it's a bit more tastier than that, but I wouldn't say that this was a fundamental corner of ramen street.
 
Gokkei


The other super popular ramen restaurant here, together with Takayasu, also easily featuring lines of 50, 60 people in front of the door every day. Which is also because it is super small. They serve a super thick chicken based soup here. And with thick, I mean that your spoon won't sink if you place it on top of the soup. With pieces of chicken in the soup, the dish is really filling and it tastes great, but you have to be a fan of the typical Kyoto thick soups to really appreciate the ramen, I think (which I am not).  And true story: after having this for dinner, I wasn't in need of any food until around dinner time the following day.

Ryuu no Suzu


The most northern restaurant of what should be considered ramen street and probably the smallest one too. There are only about six counter seats and they only serve two dishes: tonkotsu ramen and champon. And with tonkotsu, I mean actual Hakata tonkotsu ramen and none of that tonkotsu with fish /chicken stock added to soften the taste business. They're fast and relatively cheap, but I wouldn't say that you really should visit this shop. Their ramen is OK (I like the chili flakes they add to the soup!) and I was glad I was able to get Hakata ramen nearby during my stay here, but there is no need to go out of you way to come here.

Isao


Is this still part of ramen street? From the most southern point of ramen street part of Higashi Ooji, you'd still need to ride your bike for about five minutes to reach Isao. The reason I visited the small restaurant, located in a residential area, was because it served a tai-based soup. The soup itself tastes very refined, and the hand-cut noodles add a bit of that rustic feeling to the dish, but the filling consist only of a little bit of vegetables and it's a bit little for the price. It's a very light ramen with a distinct taste that is definitely unique, but the cost/performance ratio isn't really optimal.

And I admit, part of the reason I wrote this post is because I don't think I will be able to post something detective-related this week, as I will be moving back to the Netherlands this weekend. And I aim at four posts a month, so this was sort of a cheat post. But hey, sometimes, you just need to write about food.

Original Japanese names: 横綱 / 大蔵 / 鶴かめ / はらだ / 珍遊 / 恵那く / 高安 / 天天有・ひるまや / 夢を語れ / 池田屋 / 一乗寺ブーギー / 天下ご麺・ムゲンノチカラ / 新進亭 / ラーメン軍団 / 壱蔵 / 豚人 / びし屋 / 鶴はし / 極鶏 / 龍の鈴 / 伊佐夫

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