Japan Eats

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Budoka Ramen

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In the fourth of a series on the Baba-Waseda ramen belt, Nick takes his sticks to the legendary Budoka.

“Suuuuuuiiiii!”

Your guide knew he’d found his kind of place from the moment he walked through the chained-open door to stand before the simple ticket machine and was greeted by a guttural call from the dimness within.

It was a Sunday evening just as the college guys were leaving for winter vacation, but the couple of open seats available at the counter were an anomaly even then. The ten seats in the narrow space between the counter and the wall are far more often being waited for by a line out the door than empty.

I went with the chashumen and, before I even turned to sit down, the strapping youth running the shop gave a friendly shout for the specifics of my order (these being how you want the noodles and the soup). I settled in to see three young guys negotiating the tight kitchen, adding entire porcine rub cages to the giant stock pot. They all had their sleeves rolled up onto their shoulders, tightly-rolled white towels around their heads, and rectangles of wood with their names written in black marker on them hanging from their necks on strings.

At my back was a wall covered almost floor to ceiling with the business cards and expired train passes of appreciative customers (go have a look for Nick “The Sticks” Kowalski).

Budoka has a big reputation and lives up to it. The noodles were thick and slightly chewy, the toppings were copious and neatly arranged to make everything look nice, but the kicker was the soup. It was thick and meaty without being salty, which is a rare, but lovely flavor. The textures of this soup make it something you’ll want to roll it around your tongue.

This is what a bowl of ramen should be like, especially in the winter. Heavy, flavorful, and interesting. Yours truly isn’t getting any younger and fills up quicker than he used to. The young guys on the other hand gorge on the bottomless bowls of rice you can get for a pittance.

Budoka is near exit 3B of Tokyo Metro Tozai line Waseda Station, on Waseda-dori, past Genten. Turn right once you reach the top of the stairs and look on your right, it’s set back a bit from the sidewalk, less than a minute from the station.

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Genten Ramen

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In the third of a series on the Baba-Waseda ramen belt, Nick swings by Genten.

Having found a certain atmosphere, but not the satisfying bowl he was hoping for at Merci, your humble guide turned in the opposite direction and went to Waseda-dori, where, next to exit 3B of Waseda station, he saw Genten.

Genten is a newer shop – ticket machine at the front, all bright lights, clean interior, long counter down one wall and tables at the back. Not exactly the traditional ramen shop configuration, but one that’s popular with chains.

Now, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect something special at a place whose name literally means “origin” (as in a mathematical reference point from which other things are measured). I know me some braggarts, but publicly advertising your business as that from which things should be measured is quite a boast. I took it as a challenge.

Genten is a chain, with branches all over the country and it does have its own following, but it is not top shelf.

There’s a moral: Don’t boast.

I ordered “Genten Ramen” (800 yen), which was a fair, but uninspired tonkotsu with a smattering of the usual toppings. This was the soup of a discount fast-food chain, not of ramen specialists. The noodles were thin and overcooked.

Genten gives free upgrades to large size, which is a hit with the students who go for volume above all, and has a menu made up mostly of tsukemen, which is maybe the way to go. The photos on the walls of noodles being lovingly crafted and the shaft of wheat in the logo on the door are misleading.

Next up is a legend almost next door, let’s hope that lives up to its reputation.

Genten is next to exit 3B of Tokyo Metro Tozai line Waseda Station, on Waseda-dori. Turn right once you reach the top of the stairs and look on your right.

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Merci Ramen

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In the second of a series on the Baba-Waseda ramen belt, Nick settles in for a bit at Merci.

From Shichifukya, where to go, where to go? Down the road on an express route to the finish line? That ain’t never been Nick’s way.

To school, then. Leaving Shichifukuya and turning right, you can travel but a few stretches of the pins to old Merci, also on your right, not far from Waseda station.

“Old” is the key word here. For a guy like yours truly, Merci has two appealing points and one important thing to be wary of, just like a good dame.

Fancy name aside, everything about this place is straightforward, which, oddly enough, gives it a kind of subtle charm. From the white plastic katakana sign hanging over the sidewalk to the old style display case showing off dusty plastic ramen and omu-rice next to the door to the big plate glass window fronting the place – you know what you’re getting into before you even walk through the door.

So what is it that you’re getting into?

A fairly spacious, veneer-paneled, tiled room, sans the usual counter. Instead, Merci has neatly-spaced wood-grain formica tables surrounded by two to six plastic chairs each. The kitchen is in the back and has a big pass-through, like most non-ramen restaurants. The feeling that Merci was not originally a ramen shop is strong.

The menu is simple, relatively brief, and printed in black and white on the wall. Your guide went for the chashumen, which, at 630 yen, was just about the most expensive thing on the menu, including the beer, which was 530 yen for a big bottle of Super Dry.

The wait for the ramen was not long – Merci has prompt, courteous service, if not the garrulous buddy-buddy-ness of many newer, trendier noodleries, which seems to suit it’s all but 100% male, student and salaryman clientele just fine.

The crowd seemed split about two to one between small groups of students lingering over cigarettes and sports papers or manga and salarymen who bolted (their food) and bolted (for somewhere else to linger).

There was a distinct, sour old ramen shop smell, not really a pleasant odor, even if it is kind of familiar, but I soon got used to it and, unlike another place I shall later review in this space, it wasn’t enough to cause discomfort.

Before the big kerosene heater by the table had time to warm my toes, a perfectly ordinary bowl of shoyu ramen was set down next to my beer. A bit of seaweed, a bit of corn, and some pleasantly thick chasu slices topped a bowl of very ordinary noodles – neither thick nor thin, neither hard nor soft, in a bowl of very ordinary soup – salty, a little oily – no secret ingredient, no texture, no intrigue. This was not Goldilocks’s “just right” so much as eminently forgettable.

That’s not the point, though. Merci has a different crowd (and it does have a crowd, especially at lunch time). I love a place that is so very Showa. That reminds of a time before I was born, but without being retro. This is not the time of movies recounting an elderly director’s childhood, but the time of his late 30s and 40s. The time of architecture and furnishings that would be forgettable were they not so pervasive, if overshadowed these days. This is the real “delightfully tacky”, which has nothing to do with dolls pretending Mötley Crüe is going to come back for real. This is a little taste of a time not so long ago, the boom time, when there was no time decorate with taste or build to last.

Merci‘s crowd, though, seems to love different things: it’s cheap, it’s fast, there’s a basket of manga, and the staff don’t mind if you hang around for a while after you eat in the afternoon.

Merci is near Waseda station on the Tokyo Metro Tozai line. Take the elevator up, turn right out of it, go past Shichifukuya, pas the SMBC ATM, and you’ll see it on your right. Big plate glass window. Ramen from 400 yen.