September 19, 2012
I first learned about ramen – real deal Japanese ramen that is – two years ago. Like many niche interests I stumbled upon it via the internet. There was just something about the heartiness of a bowl of ramen… and the fact that people obsessed over it piqued my interest. It felt like I discovered a whole new world.
As luck would have it I was about to embark on a two-month trip to Asia, including two weeks in Japan. So I put ramen on the agenda. I tried it a few times in the U.S. to get my feet wet, then enjoyed it immensely in Japan. Of course back then I didn’t really understand what I was eating. I didn’t even know what tonkotsu (pork broth) was. I was aware that shio, shoyu and miso were common broth styles, but that’s like having an understanding of the difference between New York and Chicago pizzas, yet only having eaten pizza a few times.
Although I visited several Asian countries on that trip, Japan was hands down the best part. Upon my return I found myself studying Japanese culture more and more, and my Los Angeles ramen eating started branching out. I quickly found the illustrious and inimitable blog Ramenate, written by an American grad student living and studying in Tokyo. I was stuck in a cubicle at the time, longing wistfully for reminders of my time in Japan, and so I read every single one of his hundreds of posts. It took six months.
It was an education, and at one point I realized I had already eaten at a dozen or so shops in LA. I figured the best way to continue learning was to write about it. After all, teaching is the best way to master a topic.
And so I embarked on a blog quest to eat at every single ramen shop in LA. But it quickly became much more than that. It was really a quest to learn about and understand both the medium and the culture that created it. Soon after I took a class to learn the Japanese alphabets (yes, plural) and suddenly realized I had a block of vacation time coming up. I’ve taken many trips, and always travel somewhere new, but this time Japan was calling me back. I could now read some of the language and I was becoming knowledgeable about one of their most popular dishes. And so I went back to Japan for three weeks in May of this year. I ate 21 bowls of ramen.
This post is about bowl #2.
Whenever someone asks “What was the best part of your trip?”, I’m a little embarrassed to tell them the truth. The honest answer is simply, “Riding a bike through Tokyo.” That’s it.
Like most midwestern kids, I rode bikes constantly for the first fifteen years of my childhood. Then, with few exceptions, barely rode at all for the next fifteen. I was occasionally reminded of the joys of bike riding, most notably in Kyoto on my first trip to Japan. Riding along the Kamo river is still one of my favorite memories from that trip.
So I was determined to rent a bike in Tokyo, and once I did my hopes were quickly surpassed. Riding a bike in Tokyo might even be one of my favorite things to do, ever. Period. What can I say? I’m a man of simple pleasures. I mean, I have a ramen blog.
Once I discovered my new-found freedom I took off on an hour long ride from Asakusa to Ikebukuro, made longer by the fact that I didn’t really know the route and had to consult my map and sporadic “You are Here” public signs every 10 minutes.
Before taking off on my ride, I poured over my friend Brian’s Best of the Best list and decided to hit Sengoku Jiman, a shoyu-tonkotsu shop roughly halfway between Asakusa and Ikebukuro. I studied the map and committed the location to memory, the last time I’ll trust my brain for anything.
The shop was just south of Sengoku Station on a main road, so I figured as long as I found the station I’d be able to find the shop. Only my memory was dead wrong, the shop was actually just south of Sugamo Station, maybe a quarter mile north of the similarly-named Sengoku. I spent thirty minutes looking for Sengoku Jiman. Finally I was forced to cut my losses and walked into a shop called “Nakamura… something”. “Nakamura” was all I could read given my fledgling Japanese, but considering that a certain Mr. Nakamura is the brains behind several stellar shops in Tokyo as well as Hollywood’s Ikemen, I hoped I was entering one of his own.
The first thing I noticed were the three sheets of nori (seaweed). Memories of reading the fantastic blog Ramenate came flooding back, particularly how Nate, the author, often wrote about ie-kei ramen, meaning “house-style”. It refers to a certain “house”, a shop in Yokohama, that serves a very specific type of ramen that every ie-kei shop adheres to. One of the hallmarks of ie-kei is the three sheets of nori.
Read Nate’s post to find out more about ie-kei style ramen. He is a true ramen historian.
Aside from the nori, ie-kei ramen is sometimes characterized by spinach and a tonkotsu-chicken blended broth, and all three were in effect in this bowl. The latter in particular surprised me as I was quite taken by the creaminess of the broth. It tasted exactly like drinking liquid chashu (roasted pork). Not just liquefied pig, but liquefied soft pork belly. My inner fat kid wept with joy.
This is exactly what the broth tasted like.
I enjoyed this bowl immensely. That being said, I wasn’t a huge fan of the spinach or all that nori. Three whole sheets of the stuff imparted overwhelming wafts of seaside flavors on many bites. But overall this bowl was delicious. I’m probably just not the complete ie-kei guy.
I spoke with the owner a bit as I finished up — keen to use all seven Japanese words I knew at the time — and asked if the name of the shop was indeed “Nakamura”. He replied, “Nakamura-ya“. “Ya” at the end of a shop name almost always implies that it is indeed ie-kei style. My suspicions thus confirmed, it seemed my mind could still retain some information after all.
YOKOHAMA RAMEN NAKAMURA-YA
*Will dreams of Tokyo but currently downs his ramen in Los Angeles. When he’s not hunched over a bowl of tonkotsu or tending his garden you can find him playing shows around town with his band. This post was originally published in The Ramen Shaman.