February 28, 2014
Nagi, Nagi, Nagi. This one’s been near the top of my ever-expanding ramen bucket list for a long time.
I’ve been to a Nagi branch before — it was the first Tokyo bowl I had with fellow ramen blogger Brian from Ramen Adventures, and my first niboshi ramen (aka broth made from dried baby anchovies). It was delicious in its own sweet, tangy, dark way, but curious because it’s not every day you try something for the first time.
I’ve had my sights set on the small chain’s Golden Gai branch ever since, because Golden Gai is probably one of the coolest places on the planet. If you’ve ever read 19th century Victorian novels or 17th century Venetian memoirs (doesn’t everyone do this in their spare time??) and wondered what a dense warren of pre-modern fire code bars would be like… well, you’re in luck. It exists — incongruously — within walking distance from the busiest train station in the world, and a stone’s throw from this:
Considering its A+++ location, Golden Gai should have been long since torn down and redeveloped into a hotel, mega mall, or a street full of Starbucks. Yet it remains a smorgasbord of tattered buildings, narrow passageways and neon — mostly unchanged since WWII, when the bars were still brothels.
This is Golden Gai:
A single block, split into five alleyways, with two stories of bars everywhere you look. There are almost 200 in all. 200 in a single block!
This is where you’ll find Nagi Golden Gai, on the second floor of one of the alleys (finding it is half the fun).
Up the ladder-like narrow staircase is a ticket machine and a row of stools pressed against a long wooden bar. Good luck squeezing your way through if you’re a ‘super sized’ American.
And here you’ll find a bowl of rich, niboshi ramen as smoky and dark as the shop’s interior. It’s like stepping back in time, only if ancient ramen was on the cutting edge.
That’s a deceptively thick broth blend of massive amounts of dried baby sardines and pork bones. Look, if you’re like I was four years ago, having never heard of ramen and not very familiar with Japanese food, then just trust me: this tastes nothing like what you think a ‘fish’ broth tastes like. There’s no fishiness here. These are fresh, quality ingredients, time-tested and a large part of a nation’s diet for a reason. Seafood in Japanese cuisine is to fish sticks as barbequed pork is to a McRib.
Nagi couples this broth with five sheets of nori seaweed, thick, chewy noodles, and my personal favorite, giant hunks of fresh green onion. Their chashu is unique, huge chunks of very rare and lightly marinated pork, offering counterpoint to the deep broth instead of trying to overpower it. And I was surprised to find secret wontons (not pictured) hiding out in the bottom of the bowl. At least I think that’s what they were… you never know in the Golden Gai.
Here’s an egg:
Honestly, Nagi Golden Gai is worth a trip for the atmosphere alone. But instead of resting on those laurels they deliver a bowl worthy of a trip in and of itself. Let’s face it, if you visit Tokyo you will be in Shinjuku at some point. Might as well make the most of it and hit up a one of a kind ramen shop in a one of a kind neighborhood.
1-1-10 2F, Tokyo
Directions: Exit Shinjuku Station at the North or East sides and walk down Yasukuni Dori (can’t miss it, it’s like Times Square). Turn left down an alley once you reach the Isetan department store on your right. There are two alleys you can take — if you don’t see a temple on your left then you’re already there and should see the white signs for Golden Gai above each tiny alley to your left. If you do see a temple on your left go towards it, climb the steps, then descend the stairs on the other side and you’ll see the white signs.