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Cheap Eats of Japan Not Lost In Translation

I’ve been back from Japan for a week now, and while I’ve fully recovered from jet-lag, I am still thinking about the stunning beauty and myriad mysteries revealed to me on the trip. The tastes and textures of the food I ate there—some familiar and some completely novel—played major roles in my experience of the country. Japan has a reputation for being pricey. Daddy Salmon, Mango Mama and I did have some expensive meals. But many of the best-known restaurants are relatively inexpensive places that have gained their reputations by focusing on one dish and learning to make it to perfection. The first such place we visited was a ramen spot in Tokyo called Sapporo Junren, specializing in Sapporo-style miso ramen. Although Sapporo Junren is pretty famous and is widely regarded as the best place in Tokyo to get miso ramen, we would likely never have known to look for it (let alone know how to find it) if it hadn’t been for our intrepid guide, Yakitori. An American photography writer living in Tokyo, Yakitori is the son of a college friend of Auntie Pasti and Corny Uncle. He occasionally does tours of Tokyo on the side, and he knew exactly where to bring us when I told him that food was a top priority.

Takadanobaba, the neighborhood where the restaurant is located, is has become the ramen capital of the city because of its proximity to a couple universities. The line was out the door when we showed up at the restaurant (a good sign), but it moved pretty quickly as people got up from their stools at the counter that formed a three-sided rectangle around a serving area connected to the kitchen. As with seemingly everything in Japan, we ordered our ramen from a vending machine in the restaurant’s vestibule. To be precise, we picked out the kind of ramen and toppings we wanted and paid for them at the vending machine, which then printed out a ticket, which we then passed along to the server who submitted it to the kitchen staff. All-in-all, it was a highly efficient operation. We all ordered the spicy miso ramen (sans pork for Daddy Salmon). The broth, thick with miso paste and redolent of pork and chilies was one of the best I’ve had. The pork melted in the mouth, noodles were al dente with excellent chew and bamboo shoots, scallions and ginger added essential textural contrasts. Within one bite, this soup had put all New York City ramens to shame.

Our next chance to try a Tokyo favorite came the following day when we were out wandering in the high-end Harajuku shopping district. I had read about Maisen, a restaurant known for tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets). Numerous people had also recommended it to me before I left New York. It happened to be in the neighborhood, and we needed lunch. Unfortunately, we did not have Yakitori to guide us, and we had not mapped out the restaurant’s location before leaving our guesthouse. Streets aren’t really named in Tokyo, and addresses are mostly absent from buildings. The guidebook’s map was sketchy at best. We were mere blocks away, but none of the people we asked had any idea what we were talking about. After walking in a series of frustrating circles, our hunger overcame us and we sat down to eat at another cafe. It was only after eating that we walked a bit further down Omotesando (the Madison Ave. of Tokyo) and saw a sign pointing to Maisen. I wasn’t exactly starving then, but hey, there’s nothing wrong having a fried pork cutlet for dessert, right? Unfortunately, we didn’t have the appetite or inclination to sit down to another meal, so we didn’t get to see the interior of the restaurant, which is apparently a former pre-World War II bathhouse. Instead, I stepped up to the restaurant’s outdoor takeout window and ordered a classic tonkatsu sandwich, made with a folded piece of thick flatbread, shredded cabbage and a piece of tonkatsu doused with a sauce made from ketchup, Worchestershire, sake, mirin, ginger, garlic and sugar. The bread may have hindered my appreciation of the cutlet’s perfectly crisped exterior, but there is no denying that this was a tasty sandwich.

Our travels soon took us out of Tokyo. The next chance we had to try a classic spot, with a specialty dish came in Kyoto. While Daddy Salmon was off fishing with his new Japanese buddy, the latter’s wife Matcha took Mango Mama and me on a tour of some Kyoto sites. In between temples and gardens, we stopped at Omen, a Kyoto landmark, serving thick chewy udon noodles. The two-storey restaurant was packed with people, and the line extended out the door. After about 10 minutes we were seated upstairs. Matcha’s English skills were quite limited. Our Japanese skills were all but non-existent, but at Omen it’s easy: all you do is order “Omen.” What arrives first is a platter of vegetable trimmings, including bean sprouts, green beans, daikon, spinach and scallions, along with a bowl of toasted sesame seeds.

Next comes a bowl of hot (or cold, depending on how you order) seasoned broth and another bowl of udon noodles, cooked and sitting in warm, unseasoned water. Matcha showed us how to add our desired combinations of vegetables and a couple spoonfuls of sesame seeds to the broth. We then lifted the udon from its bowl and dunked it in the seasoned broth before popping it in our mouths and slurping it down. While not as complex as the ramen broth, this had a cleaner flavor that was obviously intentional. The slightly salty richness seasoned the vegetable additions and added the perfect slick of flavor to the excellent noodles. I’m pretty sure I could eat this soup once a week, whether in hot or cold form. As it turns out I might be able to. While we were eating, Matcha told me that, in addition to its other Kyoto locations, Omen has a New York location on Thompson Street in SoHo. I’m planning to check it out as soon as I can get down there. The menu looks pretty different from the one in Kyoto, but it does offer “homemade udon made in our traditional style.” It’s funny how sometimes you have to travel around the world to realize the greatness of what you have back at home.

Sapporo Junren
3-12-8 Takadanobaba
Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan

4-8-5 Jingu-mae
Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan

74 Ishibashi-cho, Jodo-ji
Sakyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan

Noodles So Tasty Hurricanes Can’t Keep Me Away

If you are a human being on this planet with access to broadcast media, you undoubtedly know that a hurricane swept up the East Coast last weekend. To be precise, Hurricane Irene had become Tropical Storm Irene by the time she reached New York City. While the storm took its toll on other parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont, the city was showered with more media hype than actual damage. In hindsight (and perhaps foreseeably) New York City politicians overreacted, evacuating thousands of residents and shutting down the subway from noon on Saturday until early morning Monday. After all, a politician has never been voted out for being overly cautious ahead of a natural disaster, but the alternative is tantamount to political suicide. Being the skeptical journalists that we are, my good friend Oyster and I had made a bet that the hype would be for naught. We scheduled a dinner meet-up at Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles in Manhattan’s Chinatown for Sunday evening—a time when, if you believed the talking heads, we might have been floating toward the sea along with all our worldly possessions. I jokingly wrote to Oyster: “I would brave a tropical storm for hand-pulled noodles, but a hurricane might be a bit much.”

As it turned out, the storm had almost entirely passed by Sunday afternoon. There was one problem, though: We were in Brooklyn; the restaurant was in Chinatown and the subway wasn’t running. That problem would have been insurmountable for the weak and unresourceful, but not for us. We hopped on our bikes and pedaled over the Manhattan Bridge—enduring a few minor gusts of wind—to this hole-in-the-wall spot on Doyers Street. The restaurant was packed when we got there, and based on the number of helmets hanging off chair backs, it seemed we weren’t the only ones with that idea. The restaurant has a ground floor dining room, which offers views of the noodle-making master as he kneads, stretches and, with one pull, miraculously separates the noodles into strands. But there were no empty tables upstairs. Our server led us down the stairs, past a table where a woman sat stuffing dumplings with seasoned raw meat (awesome but definitely not up to code), to the last table in the back of the basement level. We sat next to some industrial-sized boxes of napkins and paper towels that were stashed in the corner. Clearly, this was the perfect ambience for some seriously good noodles.

In the wake of the storm, the air had cooled off a bit, which made the idea of ordering soup feel more bearable. From a list that included options such as oxtail, short rib and mixed fish ball, we selected our proteins. Oyster ordered roast duck, and I went for beef and beef tendon. We then had to select our noodle thickness and composition. Every soup and pan-fried noodle dish can be made with regular hand-pulled noodles, fat-wide hand-pulled noodles, knife-peeled noodles or big or small rice noodles. I went with regular hand-pulled, while Oyster opted for fat-wide. We also ordered a plate of steamed pork and chive dumplings, a cucumber salad and two Tsingtaos. Our server was largely absent throughout the entire meal. It took us walking up the stairs to the front desk to successfully put in our order, and the food took more time to come than one would expect with a soup for which most of the ingredients are premade. Oyster said the pace wasn’t typical, and we later overheard our server telling other diners that it was his first day on the job.

It was certainly worth the wait. The noodles had the wonderful chew that allowed me to bite into them without having them disintegrate in my mouth. The broth was flavorful, filled with herbs and scallions, and the meat added depth. The beef was rich and comforting and the tendon melted on my tongue. Oyster’s duck, which had the bones still in, fell apart in tender sections. The dumplings had the same snap to their shells as the noodles from the soup, and the pork filling was nicely seasoned. Cucumber salad was refreshingly crunchy and tangy in its vinegar-based dressing. All-in-all it was a near-perfect meal.

We paid our meager bill and started walking our bikes back across the bridge, chatting and enjoying the relative quiet of the city and the calm of the water below. At about the mid-point, we climbed back on our seats and rode back toward home. After all, a brisk bike ride is the perfect cure for hand-pulled noodle overload.

Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles
1 Doyers St. #1
New York, NY 10038

Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles on Urbanspoon

Xi’an Famous Foods Deserves More Than Its 15 Minutes

After taking my first bite of the spicy cumin lamb burger from the outpost of Xi’an Famous Foods inside the Golden Shopping Mall Food Court, I knew I would have to come back and sample more of the items off Xi’an’s menu. Memories of that burger wafted up again when Empanada Boy and I were looking for a place to meet for dinner the other night. I knew Xi’an had a couple Manhattan locations, but it turned out that only one of these—the one in the East Village—has tables. When I say tables, I meant about five tiny tables with plastic chairs and a thin counter along the wall, allowing space for a line to form at the register where every patron must order before sitting down. These are the kinds of sacrifices one is gladly willing to make in order to eat delicious, distinctive Chinese food.

As we stood in the not-too-long line, we scanned the photos of the dishes on the wall that serve as the menu and contemplated which to order. After some flip-flopping, I decided I couldn’t go wrong with that same cumin-coated lamb that had haunted me since the burger, so I ordered the spicy cumin lamb on hand-ripped noodles. EB ordered the pork “Zha Jiang” on hand-ripped noodles. And because we couldn’t resist the temptation, we got an order of Chang-an spicy tofu. As luck would have it, a tiny scrunched table for two opened up just as we were done ordering. We sat down to wait there and were soon able to move to a better, slightly less scrunched table in the window looking out to St. Marks Place.

Before I describe the food, I should explain how different the cuisine served at Xi’an Famous Foods is from what most Americans think of as Chinese food. The city of Xi’an in central-northwestern China was once the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, so the spicing is heavy and sometimes reminiscent of the Middle East. Such was the case with my lamb, which arrived redolent with cumin, almost popping off the plate with flavor. Beneath the chunks of meat were thick, wide, irregularly shaped noodles that literally seemed as though they had been torn from a sheet of dough. There is almost nothing it in the world so satisfying to eat! EB’s pork was ground, and the sauce on his dish was considerably sweeter and less spicy than mine. We had requested the dish as spicy, but it said “normal spicy” on our receipt, which made me think we should have requested “extra spicy” instead. Still, the sauce was nuanced and delicious and what could be disappointing about thick, rough, chewy noodles coated in glistening pork? The tofu was silken and spicy, sitting in its fiery broth. Each bite contained a bright green sprig of cilantro or a piece of crisp scallion, which added an herbal freshness to the dish.

Feeling full, but thirsty, we decided to walk over to Saint’s Alp Teahouse, a Hong Kong-based chain with locations in New York and Chicago. I ordered a gingerbread milk tea, and EB ordered a strawberry milkshake. Both flavors were distinctive, although mine might have played better in the winter. In the context of bubble tea, a milkshake is actually a thin, milk-based drink, not like the thick milkshakes we’re used to. EB ended up wishing he had gotten a smoothie, which is actually a thicker drink. Still the tapioca had a pleasant texture, and the drinks helped soothe our spice-laden stomachs.

Not that I mind that now-familiar burning sensation in my stomach. It’s that internal fire that keeps beckoning me back to regional Chinese restaurants like Xi’an Famous Foods.

Xi’an Famous Foods
81 St. Mark’s Place
New York, NY 10003
And three other locations

Saint’s Alp Teahouse
39 3rd Ave.
New York, NY 10003

Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

Saints Alp Teahouse on Urbanspoon

Zuzu Ramen: Proof That You Really Can’t Go Wrong With Braised Pork

Perhaps Empanada Boy said it best when he observed: “The main difference between ramen and pho is that ramen costs at least twice as much.” While that’s certainly not a precise assessment, it captures the way I often feel when ordering ramen at a restaurant. I think to myself: “This had better be good because I’m paying $14 for this bowl of soup.” This thought crossed my mind the other day when EB and I met my friend Oyster at Zuzu Ramen, a restaurant on Park Slope’s industrial 4th Ave. Oyster lives nearby, and the pork belly in the signature dish had been tasty enough to beckon him back more than a few times. It turns out that Oyster’s instincts about this being more than the average ramen joint were right on. The chef at Zuzu, Akihiro Moroto, has worked at fine dining establishments such as the now-shuttered Lespinasse and at Jean Georges. But did that make a bowl of his Zuzu ramen worth $14? I was game to find out.

The small wood-panelled restaurant has high counters and tables, equipped with stools. It has large windows looking out into the street and windows at the bar, offering patrons views of the chef at work in the kitchen. As I sipped an interesting Japanese IPA, I watched the chef using a torch to crisp the long thin pieces of fatty pork that would soon grace our soups. Oyster and I ordered the namesake Zuzu ramen, with charshu (the blowtorched pork), bamboo shoots, bok choy, Thai basil, noodles and a slow-cooked egg, served in a slightly spicy, fragrant dashi broth. EB went for what turned out to be a somewhat spicier green curry-miso ramen, redolent with cilantro and featuring charshu and a slow-cooked egg. We sipped our beers and eagerly awaited the arrival of our soups.

In due course, three steaming bowls of soup were delivered to our table. I started with a bite of the charshu, which was floating, silken and buttery, at the top of my bowl. It was certainly tasty. The noodles had a nice chew to them and a springiness that shows they were fresher than average. Breaking the soft-cooked egg allowed some of the yolk to run satisfyingly into the broth. The broth itself was tasty, particularly bites that included Thai basil, but it was not remarkable. I preferred the green curry-miso broth in EB’s bowl. It was punchy and flavorful, but still nuanced, and set off the richness of the meat and the egg more clearly. It was also $11, compared to the $14 Zuzu ramen (the latter admittedly delivered in a slightly larger bowl).

There is no doubt that Zuzu makes the best ramen in Park Slope. It’s far better than the fairly generic bowls I’ve had at the recently-opened Naruto Ramen around the corner from my house. I don’t think it quite holds up to the addictive ramen at Ipuddo, the Japanese chain with a single New York location in the East Village. But then again, I’ve waited for a table at Ippudo for more than an hour and was once simply turned away at the door at 8:30 pm or so because the list of people waiting was so numerous. There would never be such a wait at the relatively serene Zuzu. And while I could always go to Chinatown and fill my soup craving with a $5.75 bowl of pho, there are times when the top-notch ingredients in a good bowl of ramen, and the subtleties of the flavors they create, really hit the spot. When that contemplative mood strikes me—or when I’m simply craving a nice slab of braised pork—Zuzu Ramen will be right there near the top of my list. Is that occasional feeling of pure satisfaction worth $14 a bowl? I suppose it is.

Zuzu Ramen
173 4th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11217

Naruto Ramen
276 5th Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11215

Ippudo NY
65 4th Ave.
New York, NY 10003

Zuzu Ramen on Urbanspoon

Naruto Ramen on Urbanspoon

Ippudo on Urbanspoon

Little Pepper Packs a Big Punch

When I met Dan Dan Noodles at a party last month, I quickly realized I had found a kindred spirit. We both take great joy in feasting with friends at out-of-the-way ethnic holes-in-the-wall. Dan Dan and I got to talking about a group of his friends that regularly gathers to eat at Little Pepper, a Szechuan restaurant once located on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing (now being remodeled), which has recently opened up another location in the nearby Queens neighborhood of College Point. He kindly added me to the email list of the so-called Little Pepper Posse, but Empanada Boy and I ended up having a conflict on the day of their gathering. Dan Dan offered to arrange another dinner, an offer I took him up on when Flava Flav was visiting a couple weeks later. Flav, her friend Rye Bread, EB and I all took the train out to Flushing where Dan Dan picked us up in his car.

There are a couple of things that should be said about College Point, an area I had never heard of until Dan Dan’s first email. First, according to Wikipedia it was named for St. Paul’s College, a seminary that closed in 1850. (It’s now home to the Poppenhusen Institute, a former school that housed the first free kindergarten in America and which now operates as a cultural center.) The other important thing to know about College Point is that it’s not accessible by train, so our trek out there in Dan Dan’s car showed true dedication to the pursuit of excellent Chinese food.

We were the only non-Chinese people in the dining room when we entered. The woman who sat us knew Dan Dan and welcomed him warmly. We took this as a sign that we should simply leave the ordering to him. We were surely right about that much because when the food came, amazing dish after amazing dish was delivered to our table. And the dishes kept coming. We had a tofu dish with silky tofu, peanuts, scallions and a sweet-spicy sauce. There were two kinds of dumplings— one delicate and trembling pouches in a spicy, oil broth and another firmer half circles, dusted with sesame seeds. A plate of thinly sliced smoky pork with leeks, scallions and fiery dried peppers was followed by salty broiled green beans and a salad of tender bamboo shoots. There was cumin-coated lamb, wrapped in tin foil and served with the same dried peppers found in the pork dish. There were cold noodles in a spicy sauce, which I could eat any day of the week. And there were (of course) delicious dan-dan noodles, served warm with scallions and tasty bits of ground pork.

You might think that was enough food for five hungry people. But the dishes did not stop there. There was still tea-smoked duck, served with sweet red, yellow and green peppers, and a sizzling pot of wildly spicy oil in which pieces of tender fish were soaking up the flavors. By the time the latter arrived, I was too focused on eating to take pictures, but it was an impressive dish, to say the least. Throughout the whole meal ran a current of heat that filled our mouths, flecked the backs of our throats, ran down our esophagi and exploded in our bellies. This was the work of the Szechuan peppercorns, the essential spice in this type of cooking, responsible for the glorious, flavor-enhancing burn.

We left the restaurant with bellies aflame and a couple bags of leftovers in our hands. I can safely say this will not be my last trip out to College Point to dine at Little Pepper. I will be back soon because this restaurant is so crazy good that I won’t be able to stay away for very long.

Little Pepper
18-24 College Point Blvd.
Queens, NY 11356

Little Pepper on Urbanspoon

Little Pepper on Urbanspoon

Game, Set, Match for Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle

Empanada Boy and I went to Flushing Meadows to attend the U.S. Open a few weeks ago. We were set to watch Vera Zvonareva play Andrea Petkovic and then see Jurgen Melzer go up against Roger Federer. But before that, we faced the task of getting an early dinner. We knew the match could last until midnight or beyond, and we needed our sustenance. I had read reports about the menus crafted by top chefs that would be available on the grounds of the tournament, but suspected that nothing would come cheap once we were inside the gates. Flushing is home to some of the city’s best food, so why bother with the high prices and long lines? We took the train one extra stop to Flushing Main Street to eat before the match and went to the culinary mecca that is the Golden Mall Food Court.

I have never been to China, but the food court in the basement of this crowded mall is about as close as I can imagine coming to the look and feel of a Chinese city. The stalls are small, the ceiling is low and dirty from years of poor ventilation, everyone is speaking Chinese and the food smells amazing. There are simple, somewhat dingy, tables near each one table for patrons to sit and eat after they’ve ordered at the counter of their choice. EB and I decided to try Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle, which I had heard about from my editor Noodle. We could see the noodle-maker at work stretching pliable dough into thin noodles, moving his hands in and out as though he were playing the accordion. EB and I perused the large menu on the wall. He decided on the eel with noodles and broth, and I opted for the oxtail. We sat down at the faux wood-topped table nearby to wait for our soups.

The eel was tender and lovely, and the still-on-the-bone oxtail was richly flavorful. The broth was well seasoned and comforting, and the bok choy and herbs provided color and brightness to the dish. But the noodles, oh those noodles! They were among the best I have ever had. Their freshness was evident in their slight chewiness, and their flavor was noticeably better than standard dried, packaged fare. We slurped up our plastic bowls full, sampling some of the traditional condiments along the way. (I would recommend adding some spicy chili paste.)

The entire time we were eating, we couldn’t help but wish we each had two stomachs to provide us with enough room to sample the food at some of the other stands. A tofu dish that came from the stand directly in our view looked amazing. But most tempting stand was the one for Xi’an Famous Foods, which specializes in the distinctive food of Western China. Two parents and their grown son who were sitting next to us at the table had ordered a veritable feast, including noodles, the tofu and two cumin lamb burgers from Xi’an. The latter was served in a folded bun that had a similar spongy texture to the outside of a meat-filled bao. Our neighbors ate their way through many of the dishes, but one of those burgers remained untouched. When they saw EB getting ready to go order another dish to try, they offered us their extra one. They couldn’t eat anymore, they said, and they didn’t want it to go to waste. Needless to say, it did not. The cumin-coated lamb tasted juicy and smelled like I imagine the restaurants of the region might smell: redolent with dusty spice and savory meats.

We left the food court feeling full and ready for some edge-of-our-seats tennis. Federer and Zvonareva had other plans: Both won in straight-sets shellackings.

Lan Zhou Handmade Noodles
41-28 Main St.
Golden Mall Food Court, Basement
New York, NY 11355

Xi’an Famous Foods
Same as above
(and other locations)

Lan Zhou Hand-Pulled Noodle on Urbanspoon

Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon