Japan Eats

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Ryoma Ramen

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Nick Kowalski visits Ryoma in Nakano

Nicky’s back, grease-fans.

In my gustatory peregrinations, the cheap eats, tasty as they are, lead your humble interlocutor to washing them down with even cheaper Volstead Act violations, which then leads to renewed hunger and a certain old stand-by: the ramen shop.

So it is that on one recent chilly evening, I found myself at the friendly ramen atelier Ryoma, in front of Arai-Yakushimae station on the Seibu-Shinjuku line, in Nakano.

Ryoma is a classy joint in many senses of the word – when I showed up, the last two seats at the counter of this relatively spacious noodlery were filled by the proprietor and an apparently disoriented old dame who’d seen better days decades ago. He fed her, figured out where she was headed, and helped her on her way. Sense of community and all that. Good stuff.

More important to you, though dear reader, is the type of class that surrounds an inventive competitor in the increasingly tough world of good ramen.

With half a dozen counter seats and a pair of tables that comfortably seat four each facing a big, deep version of the normally long, cramped ramen kitchen, Ryoma feels a bit more open than some of its counterparts.

Ryoma has gained a certain amount fame for their Italian-esque tomato-cheese ramen, which is well worth a try.

The menu also offers new takes on old classics as well. Ryoma alternates days between shoyu (soy sauce) and shio (salt) soups, offering two versions of each: with or without katsuo. Their other step in an original direction is using thinly-sliced chicken breast as a topping.

The day I stopped by was a shio day, so I went for the signature tori-chashumen (?880) with futomen (fat noodles) in the regular shio soup.

A revelation.

Most shio soups are thin and mild – the light ramen, if you will. Not this one – it was thick and rich, full of flavor and satisfying in its own right, bringing shio to the big leagues, where good soup often carries the day. Into this lovely broth was plunged a mass of well-balanced noodles – good, chewy, and filling. Along with the nori and other usual toppings came the chicken: thinly-sliced and lightly cooked, it was still pink in the center and, thus tender and flavorful as it cooked in the soup.

Now I realize some of you may not be aware of modern food hygiene and the like and may balk at the idea of chicken being anything other than charred into a dry, tasteless husk. I also realize that, if this is you, I’m not going to change your mind about fearing a bit of pink.

Luckily, there is an easy solution – the one old Nick goes for. When you get the bowl, invert the contents.

No, not the whole thing, you jerk. Just the noodles and toppings – make them bottomings instead. The chicken goes down under the hot soup and not only cooks, but allows you save some of it for later in the bowl – a little treat.

Throughout the whole meal, I had no complaints. Beyond offering something original in the bowl and having it work, Ryoma also has possibly the most genuinely friendly service and atmosphere of any ramen shop I’ve been in, and that’s a lot.

In addition to the tomato-cheese ramen and chicken, they offer gyoza bigger than my ego and other sides as well.

Sadly, the Takadanobaba branch recently closed, but it did me to thinking of that vaunted precinct. The stretch of Waseda-dori between Takadanobaba and Waseda might be the world capital of ramen. It is to noodle fame what Hollywood is to movies or Vegas is to mediocre shameless singers.

I shall take you on a tour. Watch this space.

Ryoma is mere meters from the South exit of Arai-Yakushimae station on the Seibu-Shinjuku line. Go out the gate and turn left, before you hit the main street, you’ll see it on your right.

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Gyudon Taro

greasyarticleimage copy“But Nick, baby, how could you do it?”

Hot water welled up in the dame’s big brown eyes.

“You wouldn’t catch it if I rolled it on the floor over to you, dollface. Let it go; stop askin’ me questions.”

“But Nicky, darling, I’m worried about you. It’s just not like you.”

“Don’t you think I know that, sweetheart? I’ve got an independent streak to make George Washington blush, but sometimes things ain’t so black and white.” Read more

Boozehound: Tara no Oka (Nakano)

While Tokyo’s urbanization works its way West and the chain shops of the suburbs work their way into the center of town, variety and smallness go the way of Tora-san films and doing research in libraries – things people over a certain age remember and talk about, but things that just aren’t really around much anymore.boozehoundarticlelogo copy

Thankfully, there are some pockets of interest left around the city and one of those is the area North of Nakano Station east of Nakano-dori and south of Waseda-dori, centered on the narrow, pedestrians-only Fureai Road.

Go one block East of Fureai Road (make a right, then a left if you’re walking from Nakano Station), and two blocks South of Waseda-dori, on a corner on your left-hand side, facing you, you’ll see a green door and an unassuming green shingle reading: Tara no Oka. The Hill of Tara. Read more